“Who would have thought Trump is the great environmentalist?” Trump told a crowd in Florida last month when announcing, in an about-face, that he would ban oil drilling off of southern Atlantic states and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. “And I am. I am. I believe strongly in it.”
The announcement, which reversed an early Trump administration effort to open nearly all federal waters to oil and gas drilling, is one of the biggest policy turnarounds of his presidency.
But Trump’s effort to green up his record is more than a year in the making, only accelerating in the final stretch of the race against Democratic nominee Joe Biden. The moves are meant to parry attacks from Biden, who is ahead in the polls, on Trump’s environmental record as concern about climate change grows among voters — especially young ones.
“Unlike Joe Biden, who is willing to sacrifice millions of US energy jobs to appease the radical left, President Trump and his administration are promoting both energy independence and environmental health through innovation,” Trump campaign spokesperson Courtney Parella said.
Yet Trump’s critics, many of whom have spent the past four years saying he has one of the worst environmental records of any president in U.S. history, are highly suspicious of the pivot. And any last-minute moves, they say, are too little and too late to sway to his side many voters concerned with these issues.
“This is an administration that spent four years bragging about how much fossil fuels they can get into the global economy,” said Jerry Taylor, a former global warming skeptic who now advocates for federal climate action as head of the Niskanen Center.
“At the 11th hour, these gestures, after four loud years of that, are extremely unlikely to resonate,” he added.
But this hasn’t stopped Trump from trying. In addition to the offshore oil moratorium, Trump signed a law in August investing $900 million a year into expanding everything from huge wildlife preserves to neighborhood baseball diamonds, while his Environmental Protection Agency backed funding for the restoration of the Great Lakes. Both moves are stark reversals of the administration’s previous positions.
And just this week, Trump created a new “subcabinet” to improve water quality and management and approved an executive order in support of a plan backed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to plant a trillion trees and suck carbon dioxide out of the air.
Trump and other Republicans are responding in part to a voting public that increasingly sees climate change as a crisis.
While Democrats and independents are more likely to think humans are warming the planet, a majority of Republicans — 60 percent — said they believe that as well, according to a poll conducted last year by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Yet years of undoing Obama-era efforts to curb greenhouse gas pollution from cars and coal-fired power plants have helped cement the anti-environment reputation of Trump’s party.
The Democratic Party holds a 31 percentage point edge over the GOP when registered voters polled by Pew Research Center were asked which would be better at confronting climate change. That is the largest edge between the parties among a dozen issues included in the survey over the summer.
Despite his recent backpedalling on some environmental issues, however, Trump has been unable to maintain a steady message when it comes to the biggest one of them all — climate change.
During the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, he showed a fleeting willingness to acknowledge that humans are contributing to the problem “to an extent.”
But two weeks earlier, he shrugged off any links between rising temperatures and natural disasters during a briefing with California officials as the state saw its worst wildfire season on record. “It will start getting cooler,” he said, “you just watch.”
The muddled message could make his actions even harder to sell, especially as Biden consistently calls climate change an “existential threat” and is proposing to spend $2 trillion over four years to reduce emissions and prepare for its effects.
“I don’t know why the president says certain things that he says” about climate change, said Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), a graduate of Yale’s forestry school who is behind the GOP’s trillion trees plan.
Westerman suggested Trump’s moves are informed by his background as a businessman. “But I do believe he recognizes a good deal when he sees one. And I think when he sees good policy, like the Trillion Trees Act, and he sees market-based conservation ideas, I think those are things that that he will embrace.”
But this has led to a piecemeal approach. For instance, while Trump’s executive order notes that one of the purposes of planting more trees is to “sequester atmospheric carbon,” it doesn’t directly mention the underlying problem such an action is meant to alleviate.
“It’s wild that the executive order doesn’t use the term ‘climate change,’ ” said Kate Kelly, director of public lands at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.
George David Banks, who served as a climate adviser in the Trump White House during his first year in office, said that Trump does not have deep ideological convictions on climate change and “doesn’t see the political benefit of pushing a climate change agenda with his base.”
“It’s difficult for any Republican to break through politically in the minds of voters who place environment at the top,” Banks said.
When Trump has tried to turn over a green new leaf, it’s usually on local — not global — issues.
When announcing the offshore oil moratorium in Florida, Trump emphasized how the ban would protect “your beautiful Gulf and your beautiful ocean” from potential spills — not how it would forestall emissions from burning oil and gas.
Expanding offshore drilling proved to be unpopular among both Democrats and Republicans, worried about potential spills soiling tourism-dependent beaches. And the drop in oil prices during the coronavirus pandemic made offshore drilling less profitable.
And Trump’s August signing of a major environmental bill, the Great American Outdoors Act, that would fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund for the first time since the 1960s, appeared designed to help Republican senators.
The White House has earlier called for slashing money to that program, but Trump changed his tune at the behest of Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.), whose home states stand to gain from the funding. Both GOP lawmakers are in tough reelection races.
“When we walked into Roosevelt Room and we showed you the pictures of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, and we pointed at that painting of Teddy Roosevelt, we knew it was going to be something very special for this country,” Gardner told Trump during the signing ceremony.
While not officially part of the Trump campaign, EPA chief Andrew Wheeler went on a whirlwind nationwide tour this fall to issue grants and highlight efforts to restore the Great Lakes, with stops in Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
His agency is weeks away from finalizing a new rule updating the way water companies test for lead contamination in drinking water, a policy meant to tackle pollution still plaguing Flint, Mich., and other Midwestern cities with large African-American populations Trump is trying to court.
“EPA has not forgotten what happened in Flint,” Wheeler said in Michigan in September. “What we need to do is ensure that nothing like that ever happens again anywhere in the country. Everyone, regardless of their ZIP code, deserves to have safe drinking water.”
The move will be a major update to the nearly 30-year-old regime for testing for lead. Still, some say it will not be enough to stop another generation from being exposed to the dangerous neurotoxin linked to developmental problems in children.
“The EPA has waved its hands a lot and done very little,” said Ronnie Levin, an instructor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who worked as a scientist at the agency for 37 years.
With a little less than three weeks until the election, it’s tough to say how far Trump’s pitch will move the needle. And historically, it has been tough for Republicans to win on environmental issues.
In 1988, George H.W. Bush flipped the script on Michael Dukakis, blaming the Massachusetts Democrat for pollution in the Boston Harbor. Once in office, Bush signed into law a major update to the Clean Air Act to curb acid rain.
Even with that record, it was hard for Bush to outflank a Democratic ticket in 1992 that included Al Gore, who as a senator from Tennessee was already known as an environmental champion.
“How much environmental support did he gain for those steps?” the Niskanen Center’s Taylor said of Bush. “Very little.”
But Susan McManus, a professor emerita of political science at the University of South Florida, said Trump may have better luck with his environmental pitch in the Sunshine State, which is crucial to his reelection chances.
Republicans are able to win on environmental issues in Florida, she said, because of the “extremely strong linkage” between the state’s ecology and economy.
“Florida’s economy is totally contingent upon the coastal areas,” she said. “Whether it’s tourism, fishing — you name it — it’s a critical part of our economic fortunes.”
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.