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The Trump administration plans to remove the state’s authority to set auto mileage standards stricter than those mandated by the federal government. TRNN’s Steve Horn says this could be an opportunity to discuss how to move past inadequate liberal environmental policy.

Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor.

The Trump administration is ratcheting up its fight with California over environmental protections. On Thursday, it accused the state of failing to protect its water supply from pollutants like runoffs from homeless encampments. Just days earlier, the administration threatened some $19 billion in federal highway funding for the state failing to meet its obligations under the Clean Air Act. But California says Trump’s recent attacks are retaliation for the state opposing White House efforts to gut environmental protections.

Here to talk about this and more is Steve Horn, a reporter for The Real News Network’s Climate Crisis Bureau. Thanks for joining us, Steve.

STEVE HORN: Good to be here. Thanks for having me.

JAISAL NOOR: So on one hand, California does face huge environmental problems. But on the other hand, the Trump administration is taking historic steps to roll back these same regulations around the country. And it seems like that might be at the root of some of these issues. And also, Trump is deeply unpopular in California. And he’s playing to his base, similar to what he did in Baltimore, citing a Democratically controlled area, and just trying to it seems like… Calling out everything that’s wrong with it and not, of course, trying to hold himself accountable for the role he played in this problem. What are your thoughts?

STEVE HORN: Well, yeah. It’s a two-step thing. Step one is there’s actually a lot of truth behind what the Trump administration said. For example, according to this year’s most recent American Lung Association data, six of the top ten cities for ozone pollution are in California; including San Diego, where I live. Number one in the country is Los Angeles, which is infamous for its air quality. So of course there’s truth in that. But then of course, there’s also the extreme hypocrisy of pushing forward this kind of maneuver when at the same time, it’s cars on the road in California and on highways and traffic jams that are causing extreme ozone pollution.

And it gets back to something that happened earlier this year, which was one of Trump’s first attacks at least in California in the Newsom era. And that was when the Trump administration decided to pull $1 billion in funding that was federal funding that was guaranteed to go towards California’s push to create a high speed rail line that would go from the Northern part of the state to the Southern part of the state. So all those dynamics are happening at the same time.

JAISAL NOOR: Talk about how environmentalists have reacted to this news. And are they going to use this as an opportunity to put forth issues around public transportation, which you just referenced? The feds aren’t going to fund it; can the state do more to increase investment?

STEVE HORN: Well, the problem is it just takes so much money to actually build out mass transit. So any solution on mass transit–especially in inner urban mass transit as opposed to these statewide initiatives; it was actually both–it’s going to require a lot of federal funding. It gets to your question, are environmentalists or are transit advocates saying, “Hey, maybe there’s actually a diamond in the rough here. This is a pretty crazy situation going on, but is there some kind of positive solution that we can take from these dynamics?”

And I’ve seen within especially the transit orbit on like transit blogs and transit news websites, that some are saying, “Well, hey look. It’s pretty insane that at the federal level our highways are actually funded by gasoline taxes or the money that comes out of buying gasoline.” So actually it’s fossil fuel consumption that builds more of these highways, which perpetuates on itself. So some have said, “Well, maybe we can use this opportunity to,” like what you said, “push for more high speed transit.”

I think it’s too early… It’s a couple of days after the Trump administration announced that it might pull this funding, so it’s too soon to say whether or not that can take place. But it still gets back to the first part, that for the state’s landmark high speed rail project, the Trump administration pulled $1 billion in funding earlier this year. And now that’s the subject of an ongoing lawsuit between the state of California and the Trump administration. Which gets to the root cause of everything that we’re talking about, is that these several dozens–maybe at this point–of lawsuits that the state of California has filed against the Trump administration for its environmental deregulation agenda that underpins everything that we’re talking about.

JAISAL NOOR: What I’ve found pretty interesting is that this is not the first time the Trump administration has actually cited the weakness of climate policy as a means to discredit critiques of its actions. Another example is what former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt did as it relates to pulling out of the Paris Climate Deal. Here’s the clip.

SCOTT PRUITT: What we have to remember when it comes to environmental agreements and international agreements with respect to things like the Paris agreement is, we have nothing to be apologetic about as a country. We have reduced our CO2 footprint to levels of the early 1990s. In fact, from 2000 to 2014, we reduced our carbon footprint over 18%.

JAISAL NOOR: What do you make of the Trump administration citing such examples and pushing its agenda, and what does this mean for climate policy going forward?

STEVE HORN: Well, to me, I think it points to the fact that when–we’ll say the liberal wing as opposed to like the more radical wing of the climate movement–when it pushes forward half-baked solutions, they’re subject to attacks like these. And they’re subject to it being pointed out by right wing people like Scott Pruitt, people like Andrew Wheeler, Donald Trump. They are subject to them saying, “Well, your solutions aren’t actually doing much to solve the issue anyway, and here’s why it’s bad and here’s why we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.”

So I think that it should be alarming that these people have an electoral base. And these things can be pointed to as examples of why these policies are “failures.” I think it should be a wake-up call that they’re using the rhetoric in this way to point out the failures of the policy. And it should be a springboard to say, “We need to do more.” Why California’s air  is the dirtiest in the country has to do with the fact that there’s so many cars on the road, that there’s been a failure over the past decades to build out more transit in its cities and from one urban area to another.

And it’s a failure of housing policy in that there is not affordable housing close to where people work. So they go and live pretty far from where the workplace is and cloud up the highways in that way, given the lack of transit. So there’s a whole number of factors. But I think the fact that they can attack from almost like somewhat of a left perspective on these things I think is a damning statement about the failure of the policy agenda that exists right now on climate change in this country.

JAISAL NOOR: All right, Steve Horn. Thank you for shedding light on this continuing fight between California and the Trump administration. And actually the residents of California have to deal with the consequences of all of these actions and all this policy. Thanks so much for joining us.

STEVE HORN: Thanks for having me.

JAISAL NOOR: And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network

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Steve Horn is a San Diego-based climate reporter and producer. He was also a reporter on a part-time basis for The Coast News—covering Escondido, San Marcos, and the San Diego North County region—from mid-2018 until early 2020.

Also a freelance investigative reporter, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Vice News, Wisconsin Watch, and other publications. He worked from 2011-2018 for the climate news website, a publication which investigates climate change disinformation and the fossil fuel industry influence campaigns.

His stories and research have received citation in a U.S. Senate report and mention in outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Mexico’s La Jornada, and The Colbert Report.

In his free time, Steve is a competitive distance runner, with a personal best time in the marathon of 2:43:04 and a 4:43 mile. He also has served on the film screening committee for the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis and serves on the screening committee for the San Diego International Film Festival.