Is Donald Trump building the most anti-environmental presidency in U.S. history?
It's a somewhat complicated question (though you can make a strong case), but a new story vividly illustrates just how extreme this administration is on the environment in general and climate change in particular.
The subject is auto emissions, and to understand what makes it so extraordinary you have to know that automakers have spent years fighting stronger fuel economy standards, just as they fought pretty much every rule affecting what goes into cars, from seat belts to air bags.
But now, the Trump administration is so eager to have cars emit more pollution that even the car companies are fed up with them. As the Post reported:
"Four automakers from three continents have struck a deal with California to produce more fuel-efficient cars for their U.S. fleets in coming years, undercutting one of the Trump administration's most aggressive climate policy rollbacks.
"The compromise between the California Air Resources Board and Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW of North America came after weeks of secret negotiations and could shape future U.S. vehicle production, even as White House officials aim to relax gas mileage standards for the nation's cars, pickup trucks and SUVs. ...
"The deal comes as the Trump administration is working to finalize a huge regulatory rollback that would freeze mileage requirements for cars and light trucks next fall at about 37 miles per gallon on average, rather than raising them over time to roughly 51 mpg for 2025 models - the level that the industry and government agreed to during the Obama administration.
"The rule would also revoke California's long-standing authority to set its own rules under the Clean Air Act, a practice the federal government has sanctioned for decades."
When the Obama administration enacted those rules in 2010, the industry wasn't happy about it, but they had little choice but to acquiesce, given that the government had just saved them from bankruptcy. And right now they may be making this deal less because of a commitment to fight climate change and more because they want to reduce uncertainty and stay on the path they've been on.
Nevertheless, it's remarkable to see the Trump administration saying to an industry that has been at the center of the climate change problem, "Wouldn't it be great if you guys could pollute more?" and the industry responding, "No thanks."
What makes Trump different from -- and possibly more extreme than -- other Republican presidents on the environment?
On one level, his personal idiocy stands out. He used to believe that climate change is "a total hoax" and said that "The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive." He now claims to no longer believe it's a hoax, but also says things like "Something's changing, and it'll change back again."
Then there's the fact that there are really only two policy areas that matter to him: trade and immigration. Trump is indifferent to most policy matters. He doesn't worry that his policies will alienate a public that retains its soft-headed desire to breathe clean air and drink clean water despite all conservative attempts to cure them of these delusions, because he believes the only thing necessary for his political success is to feed his base a diet of racial resentment.
And since few people with any self-respect or conscience will work for him, that has left the administration to be staffed by a collection of grifters and extremist ideologues.
The Environmental Protection Agency has seen both: Trump's first administrator was Scott Pruitt, whose zeal for increasing pollution was exceeded only by his penny-ante corruption. When Pruitt became too much of an embarrassment he was replaced by Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist. Naming a coal lobbyist to be the country's chief environmental regulator is like making a guy who thinks we should get all our nutrition from food-esque powdered drinks to be secretary of agriculture.
The result is that the Trump administration has placed itself to the right of Republican voters. There's a neat interactive site here tracking partisan beliefs on climate, and the data show that while Democratic voters are essentially unanimous in believing the problem is urgent, on many questions even most Republicans support doing more to fight climate change. There are large partisan differences, but with its aggressive campaign to make climate change worse the administration has essentially placed itself at the right flank of its own party.
The administration is also to the right of even what passes for a consensus among Republican elites. Most elite Republicans would prefer a policy of malign neglect on climate. Ask a typical GOP member of Congress about the topic, and they'll say, "Sure, climate change is real. Not that we should do anything about it, but it's real." The Trump administration wants to do quite a bit, so long as the result is more pollution and worsening climate change.
So it's nice to see the automakers, whom you might expect to be an ally of the administration, pushing back. The fact that it's necessary just shows how awful things have gotten.