2020 Election
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Donald Trump Called Climate Change a Hoax. Now He’s Awkwardly Boasting About Fighting It

5 minute read

President Donald Trump has falsely called climate change a “hoax” invented by China, incorrectly suggested that wind turbines cause cancer and dismissed a landmark scientific report produced by the federal government’s own scientists. His Administration has sought to roll back key climate regulations at every turn.

That didn’t stop him from holding an event Monday afternoon to argue for his environmental record as he heads into a tough re-election campaign.

Speaking from the White House, Trump made a number of arguments, ranging from standard boasts about the state of the economy to dubious claims that the United States has some of the world’s cleanest air and water.

But one claim stood out as particularly surprising: Trump specifically cited a reduction in climate change-causing carbon dioxide emissions and bragged that the U.S. has exceeded other countries in nixing greenhouse gas emissions. “Every single one of the signatories to the Paris climate accord lags behind America,” he said.

That claim is misleading: emissions rose in the U.S. last year and Trump’s policies are likely to make future reductions less likely. But, more significantly, the claim appears to be an acknowledgement by the President that climate change is an actual problem that the United States should be addressing, something he has previously dismissed.

To be clear, Trump did not make that case explicitly nor did he discuss the threat of climate change in any specific way. But his claims would make no sense if climate change was a hoax or simply a byproduct of changes in the weather, arguments that Trump has made in the past.

The event underscores an awkward reality for Trump. The GOP’s environmental agenda and record is deeply unpopular. And, while in the past voters have ranked the environment low among their concerns, climate change has risen in importance in the eyes of voters as the effects of global warming have become increasingly apparent to average Americans.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 62% of voters disapprove of Trump’s handling of climate change, and more than half of voters say it is a very important issue or one of the most important issues. More broadly, Trump’s repeated dismissal of the reality of climate change increasingly places him at odds with the average American. Nearly seven in 10 Americans understand that climate change is happening, according to an April survey from Yale University and George Mason University.

The need to change that messaging was apparent throughout the event. Speaker after speaker Monday suggested that the public has simply not been informed about the Administration’s good work. “We’re doing a very tough job and not everybody knows it,” said Trump. “That’s one of the reasons we are here today to speak to you.”

But Trump’s new environmental messaging will not win over most observers who have been closely following the Administration’s steady stream of rollbacks — from the nixing of President Barack Obama’s chief measure targeting carbon emissions from power plants to announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

His remarks Monday were also filled with a series of false or misleading statements. He claimed that the Green New Deal would cost the economy $100 trillion, when in fact the Green New Deal is merely a resolution, meaning it lacks specifics that would allow economists to determine what it costs. He said that ensuring clean air is a “top priority” for his administration while the Environmental Protection Agency has changed air pollution rules in a fashion that will lead to more deaths.

The arguments won’t make much difference among Trump’s base. But at the margins of the electorate there are segments of potential Trump voters for whom climate change could be a factor in the voting booth. In Florida, a swing state Trump won by 1.2% in 2016, Trump’s plan to open the coast to offshore drilling has drawn bipartisan outrage. In that state, the state’s new Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis moved in his first days in office to spend $2.5 billion to address toxic algae bloom and to restore the Everglades, both climate-related issues.

In Iowa, another swing state, farmers have been pummeled by droughts and flooding. Voters in Michigan and Wisconsin, two swing states that supported Trump by a narrow margin in 2016, have seen the damaging effects of climate change on the Great Lakes, including a rise in invasive species and increased water temperatures.

Even veteran GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who once counseled Republicans muddy the science of climate change, issued a memo last month calling global warming a “GOP vulnerability.” More than half of Republicans want to see the government take action to stem carbon emissions, according to Luntz’s memo.

Trump is not the only Republican to take that to heart. Earlier this year, GOP Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Cory Gardner, both of whom are up for re-election next year, launched the Roosevelt Conservation Caucus to advocate “market-based approaches” to environmental issues. Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz, a frequent Trump defender, proposed a “Green Real Deal” as an alternative to progressive calls for a Green New Deal. And Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander suggested a new “Manhattan Project for Clean Energy” to fight climate change.

“In Florida, we’ve felt the social and economic consequences of environmental disaster firsthand,” said Rep. Brian Mast, a Florida Republican who’s leading the Conservation Caucus in the House, at the time.

These programs were largely dismissed in environmental circles, but they suggest a recognition among at least some Republicans that voters have moved on from Trump-like denial of the science of climate change. Monday’s event suggests that perhaps Trump has as well, but, environmental advocates say, what lies around the corner is unlikely to be much better: acknowledging climate change is real, or in this case simply not denying it, still won’t do anything to stop it.

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Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com