Week 95: As California Burns, Trump Continues to Make a Bad Situation Worse

Trump’s wildfire lies, Zinke’s acronym defense, and the EPA’s forced altruism involving truck pollution.

November 16, 2018

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

A firefighter battles the Camp Fire as it consumes a home in California.

Noah Berger/AP

Where There’s Smoke

Donald Trump’s ignorant Twitter finger was at it again last weekend. The misunderstander-in-chief posted this about the fires ravaging California and killing dozens of Americans:

It’s hard to know where to start with this one. I guess the first sentence. Trump’s claim that there is “no reason” for the fires “except that forest management is so poor” is nonsensical. To be sure, forest management is a difficult thing, and people can disagree about how best to execute it. But the reasons behind the fires currently burning California are manifold. For example, the rising average temperatures and changing precipitation patterns of climate change are extending the fire season and causing drier conditions in the West.

Another problem is that more and more people are living on the edges of heavily wooded areas, a region known as the wildlife–urban interface. Homebuilding in these areas has increased steadily, and 44 million houses are now perched precariously in such fire-prone zones. As the New York Times explains, the California fires aren’t really forest fires. They’re in transitional areas, which is why they’ve been so costly and deadly.

Put simply, the suggestion that poor forest management is the sole cause of worsening fires is wrong.

Trump is just backing the logging industry’s claim that allowing companies to more aggressively harvest trees would tamp down forest fires. But that argument is also wrong. The big trees, such as ponderosas, that logging companies prize tend to have the kind of trunks that can withstand a wildfire. (Anyone who has tried to get a campfire started knows you can’t throw a gigantic log onto a fire and expect it to blaze.) What intensifies big fires are dry brush, pine needles, and small saplings that have filled in previous grasslands and mature forests after logging or the clearing away of native grasses. Another factor contributing to our increasingly dense and fire-prone wildlands is our country’s century-long policy of actively suppressing all fires, including those that would naturally clear away the highly flammable undergrowth. But Trump’s not big on history, as we know.

Finally, if Trump is in a blaming mood (and when isn’t he?), he might want to turn that tweet finger back on himself. The federal government manages more than half of California’s forests. I wish someone would fire whoever is in charge of that operation.

Raging Bull

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is in big trouble. The Interior Department’s Inspector General is conducting several inquiries into Zinke’s alleged ethical lapses, and one of the scandals has been referred to the Department of Justice for potential prosecution. To top it off, President Trump has waffled publicly about his support for Zinke. Trump treats firing people the way the rest of us treat eating a cookie. Once he starts thinking about it, he’s eventually going to do it.

This week, Zinke responded by doing what all embattled Trump henchmen do—he blamed mainstream reporters for his own failings. Speaking on the conservative radio program Montana Talks, Zinke called coverage of his alleged misdeeds “B.S.”

“B.S.” is Zinke’s stock response to allegations of misconduct. Last year he referred to claims that he misused charter and military flights as “a little B.S.” (Call me old fashioned, but I wish public officials wouldn’t force me to lie to my young daughter about the meaning of acronyms on the news.)

Fire Ryan Zinke

“They’re very angry, and truth doesn’t matter to these people anymore,” Zinke said of the reporters who uncovered his shady Montana business dealings. You know a politician has done something wrong when he stops confronting specific allegations and starts casting general aspersions on his accusers. Also worth noting: At no time in his interview on Montana Talks did Zinke deny the wrongdoing of which he is accused.

A U-Turn on Emissions?

Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, announced plans on Tuesday to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides from heavy-duty trucks. On the surface, this seems like good news. The transportation sector produces more than half of all U.S. nitrogen oxide emissions, which aggravate asthma and other respiratory disorders. And heavy-duty trucks produce one-third of the transportation sector’s NOx emissions, so a significant reduction would put a major dent in the problem.

Just how significant will the reduction be? Wheeler doesn’t say. And when will this reduction happen? Wheeler doesn’t say that, either. And how will the EPA enforce its new limits? Um . . . All that really happened on Tuesday was that Wheeler stood in front of an American flag–emblazoned tractor-trailer and announced a vague intention to curb pollution.

Wheeler also said that the EPA was launching the initiative purely out of the altruistic urge to improve air quality. Altruism? Hardly. Two years ago, nearly a dozen air quality and environmental agencies on the state and local levels, some from traditionally Republican strongholds like Arizona, petitioned the EPA to do something about nitrogen oxide emissions from heavy-duty trucks. In addition, California is currently working on tighter emissions standards. Terrified of the regulatory power of the Golden State, the trucking industry has begged the EPA to issue national rules in an attempt to prevent the adoption of two different standards. Pure beneficence it is not, but whatever the administration’s motives, it has at least announced an intention to improve environmental quality. Let’s hope it follows through.

But You Said We Need More Research . . .

The Air and Energy Subcommittee of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors met this week to discuss a draft plan that would guide air and energy research priorities through 2022. The main change from the Obama administration’s version was the dropping of climate change as a central research objective.

Trump administration officials try to avoid the “climate change denier” label by arguing that we simply need more research before making a definitive judgment. But that argument is, to borrow a phrase from Ryan Zinke, a little B.S. When given an opportunity to pursue climate change research—to fill the knowledge gap that they claim exists—administration officials regularly defund and deprioritize the science.

While the scientific advisory board that met this week could urge the administration to reconsider its position, don’t hold your breath. Trump doesn’t have a great track record of listening to scientists.

Save the EPA

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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