Joshua Busby, Associate Professor
LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin
Like last year’s budget, the Trump administration’s 2019 budget proposes large cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency. And it eliminates explicit climate change programs in other parts of the government and cuts spending for climate change-related monitoring, alternative energy, energy efficiency and flood prevention.
These drastic cuts may not really happen once Congress steps into the budget process. Still, the 2019 budget blueprint is a statement of the administration’s priorities and preferences.
For those who are concerned about climate change, the best-case scenario is that Congress ignores many of the proposed cuts — this is what happened last year. On some level, the presidential budget blueprint appears to have little bearing on congressional appropriations and thus may constitute elaborate trolling by OMB Director Mick Mulvaney.
However, the Republican-led Congress has already dramatically cut Obama-era international climate assistance. And morale among many U.S. agencies is low. The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, for instance, recently announced its intent to roll back a ruling on methane leakage, a move that could demoralize career staff who are committed to climate protection.
Although Congress may disregard many of the proposed cuts to environmental programming, climate programs remain vulnerable. Here are four areas where potential budget cuts would mean a significant loss in U.S. capacity to understand, prepare for and respond to climate change.
1) Overall EPA funding:
Overall attrition at the EPA — and other departments — is on the rise as employees unhappy with the current direction of the agency and its high-flying administrator leave the government. About 700 of 15,000 EPA employees, including 200 scientists, have left since the beginning of the Trump administration.
The Trump budget blueprint proposes a $2.8 billion reduction, a 34 percent cut to the EPA budget. Some media reports, though, put the percentage as somewhat lower. Last year, President Trump proposed a 31 percent cut to the EPA’s budget and a reduction in 3,200 positions, more than 20 percent of the EPA’s workforce.
But the 2018 House Republican proposal cut only 6 percent, suggesting that the Mulvaney OMB budget is not the template for appropriations. Since Congress just enacted a two-year omnibus budget and has yet to complete a fiscal 2018 appropriations bill, it is unclear whether Trump’s 2019 budget will have any bearing on congressional deliberations.
2) State Department international climate funding:
Republicans in Congress may respond favorably to Trump’s proposed elimination of the Global Climate Change Initiative (GCCI). As part of the GCCI, the Obama administration had pledged $3 billion to support the South Korea-based Green Climate Fund to fulfill a commitment made in Paris, yet was able to deliver only about $1 billion before President Barack Obama left office. Congress and the Trump administration largely left that effort moribund by dramatically downsizing appropriations to a mere $160 million in 2017, down from Obama’s proposed $1.3 billion for that year.
GCCI in the past was the umbrella platform for international climate efforts — including support for the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group, the Clean Energy Ministerial and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition. The GCCI in recent years supported the U.S. contribution to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (the secretariat that oversees the 1992 treaty) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In September, despite the Trump administration’s objections, the Senate included $10 million for this U.N. secretariat as well as money for the IPCC. This funding could be a live fight again.
The White House justification for these cuts is based on the perception that the Paris agreement “unfairly places the U.S. at a financial disadvantage.” Moreover, the argument goes: “Instead of using such funds to help other countries address climate change, even while many of them plan to increase their emissions, the U.S. should invest in our own economic growth.”
This led Lisa Friedman of the New York Times to ask on Twitter, “So … taking this at face value, what is it the administration is saying here? Not just China but India, Brazil, South Africa … should act on an equal par with the United States?”
For his part, Neil Bhatiya of the Center for a New American Security wrote, “That criticism doesn’t deal with the fact that Paris NDCs [Nationally Determined Contributions] are structured to reduce the Kyoto distinctions between developed and developing states. Even that was a diplomatic haul to accomplish.” That critique echoes the argument I made here in the Monkey Cage when Trump announced his intent to withdraw from the Paris agreement.
3) Scientific programs to help monitor climate change:
Nature reports that the budget blueprint cancels $133 million for five NASA Earth science missions that the White House failed to cut last year, including the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) Earth-observing mission, among others. These missions give the United States situational awareness of climate processes.
4) Energy programs to boost renewables and efficiency:
Nature also reports cuts to the Energy Department, with a 65 percent drop (about $696 million) in the budget of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which apparently includes $120 million that Congress added back in the latest budget deal.
Trump would again like to eliminate more than $300 million for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which is intended to promote riskier technology bets in energy such as battery storage. Congress instead topped up ARPA-E last year with more money, so this proposal may again be a dead letter.
And there’s a bigger picture at stake
There’s less money for flood-hazard mapping — which drops from $178 million to $100 million — on the premise that money needs to be directed to the Department of Homeland Security’s “core missions.”
Moreover, the president this week also unveiled his long-awaited infrastructure plan to make good on a campaign pledge to provide more than $1 trillion for rebuilding America’s bridges and roads, as well as other infrastructure projects. The administration’s $200 billion infrastructure proposal was intended to crowd in private-sector and state and local government resources. Whether that is viable remains to be seen, as the plan is funded largely by cutting other popular programs. The proposal also departs from past practice, wherein the federal government and state and local governments typically split the costs 50-50. Trump’s proposal sees the federal government proportion fall to 20 percent.
From a climate change perspective, any infrastructure proposal that fails to take into account climate risks could be an expensive mistake. As the American Society of Civil Engineers noted, much of U.S. infrastructure is vulnerable to sea-level rise, hurricanes and other climate forces, and the country cannot afford to build its infrastructure twice.
With Congress and the administration prepared to embrace deficit spending through a combination of tax cuts and more spending, it will be interesting to see whether the Trump blueprint informs congressional deliberations or merely baits the environmental community and clean-energy advocates to express their displeasure.