What the Trump administration doesn’t understand about clean air

By Dawn Stover | April 21, 2017

In his February 28 address to Congress, US President Donald Trump vowed “to promote clean air and clean water.” One month later, he used those same words in an executive order dismantling the Obama administration’s climate policies. Trump intends to “refocus the EPA on its essential mission of protecting our air and water,” according to the White House website.

The problem is, the president’s policies run counter to his professed love of clean air and water. We can’t have clean air when we’re polluting the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases that are raising the planet’s temperature to ever-more-dangerous levels. And we can’t have clean water when excess carbon dioxide is acidifying the world’s oceans.

Trump and his environmental team talk about global warming as though it has nothing to do with clean air. They don’t seem to understand that polluted air is precisely what is causing global warming. Reducing global warming is a matter of reducing the air pollutants that are causing it.

Or promoting clean air, as Trump would say.

A dearth of science advice. What part of “carbon pollution” doesn’t the Trump administration understand? Let me explain it in the EPA’s own wordsIn 2009, EPA determined that greenhouse gas pollution threatens Americans’ health and welfare by leading to long-lasting changes in our climate that can have a range of negative effects on human health and the environment. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas pollutant, accounting for nearly three-quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions and 84 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions.”

The EPA’s 2009 “endangerment” finding authorized the agency to regulate carbon emissions under the federal Clean Air Act. Which, you know, promotes clean air.

These are things that a science adviser could tell the president, if he had one. Instead, the president has been leaving his top science jobs vacant and dramatically cutting the budget for the EPA’s science office.

When it comes to scientific advice, Trump is poorly served by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who may have violated his own agency’s policies last month when he said“I would not agree that [carbon dioxide is] a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” Pruitt walked back that claim in a recent interview with Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, conceding that carbon dioxide “contributes to greenhouse gas, it has a greenhouse gas effect,” but awkwardly (and wrongly) arguing that “the issue is how much we contribute to it from a human activity perspective”—even after Wallace reminded him that multiple scientific bodies have concluded that human activity is the main cause of the global warming observed since 1950.

The leading candidate to head the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, Kathleen Hartnett White, is even more uninformed than Pruitt. “Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, and carbon is certainly not a poison,” she wrote last June. Leaving aside the fact that carbon dioxide can be lethal to humans in high concentrations, White’s statement suggests that she does not understand the fundamental difference between the danger of inhaling too much carbon dioxide and the danger of getting baked by its heat-trapping properties.

The EPA’s mandate to clean up the air. During the grilling he received from Wallace, Pruitt made a subtle but important admission about carbon dioxide, saying: “We’re going to operate within the framework of the Clean Air Act to deal with these issues and make sure that we advance clean air, clean water, not just with respect to carbon dioxide, but with those key air pollutants under the ambient air quality standard program that we have.”

In other words, Pruitt does understand that carbon dioxide is an air pollutant—and that the law requires his agency to deal with it.

Pruitt is undoubtedly aware that the Supreme Court ruled a decade ago that “greenhouse gases fit well within the Clean Air Act’s capacious definition of air pollutant.” The Clean Air Act mandates that the EPA Administrator set emissions standards to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

Instead, though, the Trump administration is proposing to eliminate climate protection programs and slash the EPA budget by 31 percent. The White House has suggested that individual states can enforce the provisions of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, but that won’t be possible without the federal grants currently provided to states to implement EPA programs.

Air pollution kills. During the Fox News interview, Wallace schooled Pruitt on the health benefits that the Obama EPA’s Clean Power Plan was expected to produce: “By 2030, it said there would be 90,000 fewer asthma attacks a year, 300,000 fewer missed work and school days, and 3,600 fewer premature deaths a year.”

The impacts of air pollution fall most heavily on the most vulnerable Americans: the poor, the sick, children, the elderly. But even Americans who are as wealthy as President Trump and his top advisers are not immune. Affluent people can pay for bottled water and private schools and armed security guards. They can live in gated communities. They can retreat to underground shelters or private islands. Still, they share the atmosphere with the rest of humanity.

One recent study looked at the effects of a coal-fired power plant on a wealthy region of the United States: In four New Jersey counties located up to 30 miles downwind from a coal-burning power plant, researchers from Lehigh University found a significantly increased risk of babies being born with low or very low birth weights, compared with similarly wealthy counties farther from the plant. Low birth weights are usually associated with poorer women who lack access to prenatal care.

Of course, carbon dioxide is not the only air pollutant emitted by coal-fired power plants; they also emit sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and other pollutants. But as Douglas Dockery of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recently explained to CNN, the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan would not only regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants but “would also reduce harmful soot and smog.”

Prioritizing protection. Other world leaders understand that the continued burning of coal and other fossil fuels not only threatens the future of humanity, but is already cutting short hundreds of thousands of lives. Here in the United States, a Gallup poll recently showed that 59 percent of Americans want President Trump to prioritize environmental protection over energy production, and 71 percent want him to prioritize alternative energy over fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, Trump and Pruitt appear to be stuck in a circa-1970 view of air pollution as nothing more than dirty air. They seem to find it difficult to understand how carbon dioxide, a colorless, odorless gas that is essential for plant growth, can harm humans—just as an earlier generation of politicians found it difficult to understand how ozone could be an essential shield against ultraviolet radiation in the stratosphere, but also a key ingredient in ground-level smog. In fact, Trump and Pruitt seem ready to disregard the facts on the bad kind of ozone, too: This week, Pruitt’s EPA indicated it might not defend a 2015 rule limiting the pollutant, which exacerbates asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Science communicators obviously have more work to do. Political polarization has made it difficult to talk about climate change or global warming. Air pollution, on the other hand, is something that most people understand—and care about. What they need to know is that global warming is air pollution. Trump won’t make America great again by making it more polluted.

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