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President Donald Trump loves to tout his support of “beautiful, clean coal.” Or at least he used to. He didn’t mention it once during his Monday speech on the administration’s environmental record.
In the televised speech from the White House East Room, Trump finally acknowledged climate change, although not directly. The president talked about emissions — but never mentioned the words “climate change.” The address reportedly came after some of his close advisers worried the president’s record on the environment would hurt his shot at re-election.
Not only have GOP voters become increasingly invested in solutions to climate change, but global warming and climate action have impacted states that Trump hopes to carry in 2020. He made clear, too, that he’ll focus his efforts on one in particular.
“In some ways you could be arguing that Trump’s re-election campaign is really a Florida-first strategy,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican campaign strategist who worked on the McCain-Palin campaign. “It’s the crown jewel of his entire electoral strategy.”
“Essentially when you look at the voters, he needs to recapture to win the White House in 2020 — seniors, working class whites, Cubans, conservative hispanics, and some suburban females,” O’Connell added, “Guess where they all are located?”
During his speech, Trump spoke alongside Bruce Hrobak, the owner of a bait-and-tackle shop in Port St. Lucie, Florida, who claimed that Trump’s policies to curb red tides — toxic algae blooms off the Florida coast — had saved his business. Fertilizer runoff catalyzes the blooms, but warmer waters that come with a warmer climate make them harder to reign in. In March, Trump reversed course and announced his support to fund restoration of the Everglades that would help.
Trump won Florida by a margin of less than 2% in 2016, which helped him land the White House. As climate change becomes more important to voters nationwide — and in Florida specifically — Trump wants to make sure he doesn’t lose the state in 2020. But the president also doesn’t want to alienate “coal country,” where he won big in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Although he didn’t explicitly mention the word “coal,” the president winked at the Midwest with references to the “war on American energy” and protecting “American workers.”
“It appears that his consultants have decided is that the first action that they need to do is to try to shore up Florida, which has been an extremely close state and is going to be close again in 2020,” Josh Freed, who leads the clean energy program at Third Way, a centrist think tank. “Frankly, they don’t have a lot of good news to tell in the Midwest. Florida was a more immediate concern and a place where they thought they could tell a better story.”
Losing the coal miners
Trump has repeatedly vowed to save the coal power, which emits more greenhouse gases than any other form of energy production; his plan hasn’t worked. Coal plants have closed at near-record numbers during his presidency, driven largely by the new dominance of natural gas. On Monday, the United Mine Workers of America, which represents workers reeling from coal plant closures, sent a letter to the 2020 Democratic presidential field asking the candidates to come try to win their votes.
“Coal miners are very concerned about their future, and their families’ futures,” the letter reads. “If Democrats are to win back the votes of so many who have deserted the party in the last several elections, it is exactly these kinds of voters who you need to persuade.”
"Trump’s reelection campaign is really a Florida-first strategy."
At the same time, poll after poll has indicated that voters care about climate change and the environment — and that they see Trump as anti-environment. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, published on Sunday, indicated that even though Trump’s approval rating is at an all-time high of 44%, voters overwhelmingly disapprove of the president’s record on climate. Only 29% of respondents approved of Trump’s position on climate change; 69% disapprove.
“Clearly the president and his team are concerned about losing swing voters in key states over environmental issues, as they should be,” former Rep. Carlos Curbelos, a Republican from Florida who supports addressing climate change told VICE News. “With the environment poised to be a major issue in the 2020 campaign, the president perceives serious political risk, and he’s scrambling for a better narrative.”
There’s also a growing acknowledgement — especially in places like Florida, where streets flood on sunny days — that climate change has arrived. A March Quinnipiac poll found that 72% of Floridians are “very concerned” about climate change. In the Midwest, which experienced biblical floods earlier this year, 62% of respondents to a recent Gallup poll believe climate change is underestimated.
“The environment is an important issue to a lot of the suburban swing voters who will be decisive in 2020,” Republican political consultant Alex Conant and former communications director on Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign told VICE News. “Trump's speech is a recognition that he can't win re-election if he's branded as anti-environment."
Same old Trump
Trump has rolled back more than 80 environmental regulations and pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, aimed at curbing global greenhouse gas emissions. He’s even routinely called climate change a “hoax,” one concocted by the Chinese to limit U.S. competitiveness in manufacturing.
So don’t expect the president to completely reverse his stance on climate change. Even in Monday’s speech, the president didn’t utter the words “climate change” and still exercised his penchant for bending the facts.
Trump, for example, boasted of his administration’s efforts to reduce ocean pollution. But he failed to mention that his administration wants to open up essentially the entire U.S. coastline to offshore drilling.
Trump also bragged that — even outside of the “unfair” Paris climate agreement — the U.S. had reduced its carbon emissions more than any other country since 2000. That’s not true; emissions ticked up last year. But that Trump even deigned to mention carbon emissions is a departure from his off-the-cuff, denialist approach to the issue in the past.
Trump also stayed true to his, at times nonsensical, roots during his environmental address. During one particular rant about what he sees as insufficient forest management in California, he went off about so-called “forest nations," although never gave a definition for them.
“I spoke to certain countries, and they said, ‘Sir, we’re a forest nation,’” Trump said. He didn’t specify which nation he was talking about. “I never thought of a country — well-known countries: ‘We’re a forest nation.’ I never heard of the term ‘forest nation.’ They live in forests, and they don’t have problems.”
Editor’s note: The headline and text of this piece have been updated to reflect Trump’s speech more accurately.
Cover image: Bruce Hrobak, owner of Billy Bones Bait & Tackle in Port St. Lucie, Fla., speaks as President Donald Trump listens during an event about the environment in the East Room of the White House, Monday, July 8, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)