Politics & Government

Trump campaign seeks a list of ‘climate change victories’ to tout on 2020 trail

Trump: ‘My administration is putting an end to the war on coal.’

President Donald Trump signed a sweeping executive order changing most of President Obama’s climate change policies, March 28, 2017. “My administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” Trump said.
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President Donald Trump signed a sweeping executive order changing most of President Obama’s climate change policies, March 28, 2017. “My administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” Trump said.

The Trump campaign is seeking a list of “climate change victories” that can be attributed to Donald Trump’s presidency, reflecting a shift in strategy ahead of the 2020 election as polls show growing voter concern over global warming, two sources familiar with the campaign told McClatchy this week.

Their quest comes as the Trump administration considers whether to establish a presidential committee on climate security that would include longtime skeptics of the dangers of climate change. The purpose of that panel would be to scrutinize the most recent national climate assessment, a comprehensive document vetted by 13 government agencies forecasting economic and national security perils in store for a warming Earth.

The two-pronged campaign strategy – both to defend the administration’s approach to climate change while simultaneously casting doubt on the extent of the threat – is intended to address a substantial political divide within the Republican Party over the seriousness of the problem, the role of human activities and what can be done about it.

White House officials have liaised with the Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of the campaign seeking a concrete list of accomplishments, according to one source. And campaign officials are encouraging the president to begin racking up visible environmental victories specific to battleground states, such as Michigan and Florida, critical to Trump’s reelection bid and where climate change has increased in importance to voters.

“I can confirm that the campaign is unduly interested in collecting a string of wins on this,” said a second source familiar with the campaign, citing the president’s commitment in Michigan last week to funding the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and, days later, to infrastructure repairs to Lake Okeechobee’s Herbert Hoover Dike in Florida.

“In Trump world, the hope is to find enough basic environmental and climate wins in places where he needs to perform well,” the source said. “There’s been a lot of discussion around how easy it would be to be stack up victories on an issue that really matters in states that really matter.”

Topping a list of recent accomplishments from the EPA, led by Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the coal industry, is their claim that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions decreased in Trump’s first year in office. The Trump campaign will argue that private sector innovation – not regulations – have proven under the Trump presidency to be a more effective method of cutting emissions from major industrial sources.

“We can both reduce emissions and not strangle the economy – that’s the argument,” said one GOP aide involved in the campaign, who cited the EPA’s proposed replacement of former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan with the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, which transfers power from the federal government to the states to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

A spokesman for the Trump campaign told McClatchy they were unaware of White House conversations on messaging with EPA officials but plan to campaign on the president’s record.

“While we are not aware about this specific request, President Trump has an excellent record of achieving actual success on the environment, rather than just burying Americans in regulations and red tape,” the campaign spokesman said. “We plan to tout the president’s record on all issues throughout the campaign.”

Contrasting innovation with regulation is an increasingly popular strategy among Republicans on Capitol Hill, who in March grew more vocal in their calls for action to mitigate climate change through legislation.

Three GOP senators — Mitt Romney of Utah, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is a confidante of the president — advocated for a viable Republican alternative to the Democrats’ Green New Deal on climate last month, proposing a federal program that would incentivize businesses to spawn new emission-cutting technologies and to reduce pollutants already in the atmosphere.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged the role of humans in altering the climate for the first time last week. And Matt Gaetz, a conservative congressman from the Florida panhandle and an ally of the White House, will propose on Wednesday a “Green Real Deal” that characterizes climate change as a threat to national security.

At the same time, the president continues to question the science undergirding the view on the left.

“I think something’s happening,” Trump told CBS’ “60 Minutes” in October. “Something’s changing and it’ll change back again. I don’t think it’s a hoax, I think there’s probably a difference. But I don’t know that it’s man-made.”

A senior administration official told McClatchy that the creation of a presidential committee on climate security – first raised in November after Trump felt blindsided by the national climate assessment – is still under active review. No final decision has been made, but the panel could be formed in short order if the president approves.

“The United States government takes seriously the issue of climate change, and it is important that policies and decision-making be based on transparent and defensible science,” the senior administration official said.

Another U.S. official acknowledged divisions within the administration over whether to establish the panel, but said that internal deliberative processes should be allowed to proceed outside of the public eye. If eventually formed, the group’s structure, meetings and product would be available to the public, governed by the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

A source familiar with the deliberations told McClatchy that several camps in the White House continue to push for an alternative, internal review of the national climate assessment that would wrench control of the process out of the hands of skeptics. Members of the Domestic Policy Council, Council on Environmental Quality and Council of Economic Advisers roundly oppose the creation of a FACA committee, while National Security Advisor John Bolton and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow are said to support it.

The initial idea of a presidential committee was proposed by William Happer, a physicist and prominent critic of conventional climate science, who joined the National Security Council as director of emerging technologies in September.

The national climate report concluded that the effects of climate change are “intensifying” across the country and would result in “substantial damages on the U.S. economy, human health, and the environment.”

Happer’s mission on the National Security Council is “to bring to bear his expertise on defense problems, weaponry and so on,” according to Richard Lindzen, a friend and colleague of Happer’s over 10 years who co-authored papers on climate science with him shortly before he entered the Trump administration.

“But I think he also is disturbed by the claim that climate change should be a major issue for the Department of Defense,” said Lindzen, “and he thinks that needs to be reviewed. And that is the common approach — adversarial review, so you can see if there are any problems with the policy you’re pursuing.”

Trump’s split strategy mirrors polling that shows a generational divide on climate change among Republicans, with a majority of senior GOP voters doubting the role of humans in the crisis and an increasing number of young voters expressing concern with U.S. policy, according to Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster.

“Republican voters are all over the map, just like Republican elected officials,” Ayres said. “A distinct minority believe it’s a hoax. And while a majority believe something is happening, they disagree on the extent of it and the cause, and over what should be done about it – whether the U.S. should take unilateral action or work with other large emitters.”

Climate is sparsely mentioned on Trump’s 2020 campaign website, which references only two related accomplishments: his withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate agreement and his expansion of oil and gas development.

One former Trump adviser said the administration’s approach is mainly a reflection of internal divisions.

“I don’t think it’s the result of a strategy – I think it’s a result of bumbling around,” said Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who led Trump’s transition team for the EPA. “There are a lot of people in the party, and in the administration, that aren’t as comfortable being climate skeptics as the president is.”

Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.
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