Since taking office, President Trump has seldom placed environmental issues at the top of his agenda. In fact, some of his lowest approval ratings come from his handling of the environment. These dynamics haven’t stopped the president from using environmental issues as a means to attack the state of California, home of an intense bastion of anti-Trump sentiment. With a recent spike in federal actions and threats targeting California, an outside observer would think the highly proactive, Obama-era EPA has made a comeback. But the truth is that the dispute between the Trump administration and California is mostly about politics, not environmental policy.
Trump isn’t the first Republican to use California as a punch line, and he most certainly won’t be the last. The nation’s largest state has morphed into the embodiment of modern liberalism, perhaps most notably when it comes to environmental policy.
California’s top-down, aggressive approach to the environment has drawn the ire of the Trump administration in recent months. In September, the administration announced it would no longer allow the state to set higher auto emissions standards than the rest of the nation. This move was surprising for a Trump EPA that has been—rightfully—less willing to intervene in the affairs of states. If the Trump administration aspires to preserve federalism and the idea of states’ rights, why not allow California to set higher standards if it so pleases?
Stripping California of this authority is even more problematic when considering the EPA recently announced that it may consider withholding California’s highway funds because of poor air quality. It simply doesn’t make much sense to strip California of its ability to impose more stringent auto emissions standards and simultaneously punish the state for air quality issues.
All of this seems to suggest that the ongoing dispute between Trump and California is mostly a political game. Going after the nation’s largest blue state provides Trump with political capital and energizes his base, so it’s not at all surprising to see this back and forth battle.
And while Trump may be going after California in the wrong way, he certainly has a point when it comes to criticizing the state’s environmental track record. The Trump administration would be much better served to attack California’s consistent policy failures as opposed to undermining federalism in ways that will lead to time and taxpayer dollars wasted in federal courts.
California’s homelessness issue has created a public health and environmental crisis of which the state is largely responsible. Widespread homelessness has led to spiking levels of E. coli in California rivers and a host of other water pollution issues.
The state’s liberal, big government policies have made these problems worse and harder to fix. Statewide rent control, with its resulting housing shortages and cost increases, has led more to homelessness. Not to mention that onerous zoning and environmental codes deter builders who could make a dent in the state’s housing shortage.
The Trump administration has taken notice of these policy failures, with the EPA recently citing San Francisco for pollution violations resulting from its homelessness crisis. Following this path of critique is much more effective and the Trump administration should hammer home the fact that California’s heavy-handed policies often produce bad environmental outcomes.
California has also seen failures arise as a result of its mandate-heavy energy policy. The state imposed a residential solar panel mandate last year and has consistently supported the solar industry with generous subsidies. The main effect of these policies has not been an expanding solar industry but rather skyrocketing energy costs. Despite these market interventions, California produces less solar than Texas—a state that has deregulated its energy sector—does wind.
Trump and California are natural political enemies. After all, the state rejected him overwhelmingly in 2016 and will do so again next year. But looking ahead, the president should put the political disagreements aside and reevaluate how his administration should best attack the state on its failure-ridden environmental record.
Ronnie Thompson is a senior staff writer for the American Conservation Coalition, a nonprofit organization that promotes free-market approaches to environmental policy.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.