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Team Trump keeps taking the climate conversation backwards

Trump and his EPA chief keep trying to change the subject away from the climate crisis in problematic ways.
President Donald Trump speaks about the US role in the Paris climate change accord in the Rose Garden, Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo...

Now that Andrew Wheeler has made the transition from energy lobbyist to head of Donald Trump's Environmental Protection Agency, he has a few priorities. If his remarks at the National Press Club yesterday were any indication, changing public perceptions is near the top of his to-do list. Here's how Wheeler began his remarks:

"Since this is the National Press Club I would be remiss not to use this opportunity to address my friends in the media."Every year since 2001, Gallup has conducted polling on the same question do you think the quality of the environment and the country as a whole is getting better or getting worse. Every year since 2001, more people have said getting worse than getting better often by large margins. We need to fix this perception and we need the help of the press. The public needs to know how far we've come as a nation protecting the environment and here are a few environmental indicators that need to get more attention."

The former lobbyist added that American news organizations do "a disservice to the American public and sound policymaking by not informing the public of the progress this nation has made."

Wheeler concluded with a top-five list of things "the press consistently gets wrong." First up, according to the conservative EPA chief, is that "the environment is getting worse."

Wheeler's emphasis was on improvements to air quality, and on this, he's correct. Air pollution was a more serious problem in the United States in the recent past, and efforts to address pollution have been largely successful.

For those of us who breathe, that's certainly good news. It's also evidence of the kind of benefits that result from concerted governmental action.

And if Americans' environmental concerns were related solely to air quality, Trump's EPA would have reason to brag. But there's also an intensifying global climate crisis, which carries life-changing risks for billions of people.

It was not, however, the central point of Wheeler's remarks. That's probably because the Trump administration doesn't much care about climate change and routinely downplays its existence.

Indeed, the president met yesterday with Prince Charles, who takes the climate crisis seriously, and who apparently tried to persuade Trump to do the same. Those efforts, according to the president himself, were in vain.

Trump described the conversation during an interview with Piers Morgan, who asked what Prince Charles said. "What he really wants and what he really feels warmly about is the future," Trump responded. "He wants to make sure future generations have climate that is good climate as opposed to a disaster. And I agree."

So far, so good.

But Trump then added, "I did say, well, the United States right now has among the cleanest climates there are, based on all statistics, and it's even getting better. Because I agree with that. I want the best water, the cleanest water. Crystal clean, has to be crystal clean air."

In other words, the president is clumsily trying to do what Andrew Wheeler has tried to do: confronted with a global environmental crisis, Trump and his team would prefer to change the subject to something more pleasant.

The problem, however, is that the president's pitch is effectively incoherent. Asked about climate change, Trump talked about air and water quality. Obviously, air and water quality are important, but they're also beside the point.

When Morgan tried to press Trump on whether he understands the most basic elements of the climate crisis, and whether the American president "accepts" the scientific consensus, the Republican replied, "I believe that there's a change in weather, and I think it changes both ways." Trump added that "climate change" used to be called "global warming" but "that wasn't working."

As a Washington Post analysis noted in response, "This isn't true and doesn't make much sense."

We don't appear to have time for such nonsense.