“Go back 30 years, we have the cleanest air and water we have ever had.”
The President doesn’t typically talk much about the environment. But there’s a reason for him bringing it up this week. Because also this week, Trump signed an executive order allowing the government to allow corporations to bypass things like the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act when building new mines, highways, pipelines, etc.. Citing an economic “emergency”. Except he’s been doing this kind of stuff all along during his Presidency. For instance, back in April, he eased the way the Environmental Protection Agency measures health effects from the release of toxic mercury. Part of a pattern of using COVID-19, and now civil unrest, as cover to run roughshod over all kinds of anti-pollution and other regulations.
His comments this week kind of got lost (with good reason) in a brief news conference. You know, the same news conference where he proclaimed that it’s a “great day” for George Floyd. And that Trump’s “made every decision correctly”.
But there’s a reason the President says “go back 30 years” when he tells this particular lie. And it’s not only because of his typical compulsion to make everything sound grand and/or boast he’s the greatest President in decades, maybe even centuries. It’s because in order to actually show a downward trend, you have to go way back. Because if you zoom in on just the years of the Trump administration, pollution has actually gotten worse.
We first pointed this out in a story we did about a year ago, when the Environmental Protection Agency came out with a report entitled “Our Nation’s Air 2019”. (We don’t know if there’s going to be a “Our Nation’s Air 2020”. If so, it’d be due in about a month or so.)
We thought it’s worth revisiting today. Remember, it’s the President who first brought it up just now, not us…
So yes, if you go back 30 years like the President is, pollution in the U.S. is down. But if you isolate the last 3 years, it’s not.
Graph of the last 30 years:
Looks like everything’s improving, right?
But look at just since Trump took office:
Levels of most pollutants are going back up. No wonder the President says “go back 30 years”. Because if you go back just 3, it’s no good.
Also, if you look closely at the graph above, you’ll notice the report is measuring success by performing better than “the most recent national standard”. But that’s a bit weaselly too, since national standards have invariably changed over the past 3 decades.
Here’s another example from the same the report: a chart showing the number of “unhealthy air days” going way back:
But look closely again at just the last few years, and you’ll see the trend is actually in reverse:
So it’s kind of easy to look like you’re doing well if you have the ability to manipulate how you’re measuring. Or even the context and format in which it’s presented. It’d kind of be like eliminating speed limits, and then giving yourself credit for the fact that all of a sudden nobody’s speeding.
Look, the environment isn’t a central campaign issue right now, and probably won’t be. That could change a little, maybe if the recent protests inspire young people to vote in greater number. But Trump’s going to keep hammering at this every once in a while. For no other reason, we think, than he likes saying “crystal clear water”; just likes the way it sounds.
And of course pollution numbers this year are going to look great. The U.S. will almost certainly show phenomenal improvement on the environment. Because of COVID-19 mitigation efforts, pretty much no one drove anywhere, and many businesses and factories were closed for nearly three months, at least. A complete aberration, for which Trump will take all the credit. Won’t change the fact though that he’s got a former lawyer for the coal industry as his head of the EPA. And Trump’s appetite for trashing regulations will accelerate even more.
We agree certain industries are over-regulated, but that doesn’t mean all regulation is over-regulation. It also doesn’t mean President Nixon was wrong when he formed the EPA. When left to regulate themselves, industry behaved really, really badly. A very stark example: a river in Ohio caught on fire.
Of course it’s easy to just let this particular Trump lie slide, for now, because a lot of people have a lot of higher priorities at the moment. And that’s precisely what Trump’s counting on. So the President says stuff like this and, yeah, OK. We’ll give him that one. We’re too exhausted to look it up or challenge him on it. But here’s the thing: with Trump, it’s worth keeping in mind that the number of lies by a President are now far more (and bigger) than with any other “we have ever had”.