Congress Must Do More to Counter Trump Administration’s Assault on Climate Science

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Since taking office, President Donald Trump and his administration have threatened to dismantle the federal climate apparatus. Earlier this year, the White House released a budget proposal for fiscal year 2020 that repeats many of the cuts to federal climate science proposed in Trump’s previous fiscal year budgets. At some agencies, proposed cuts to climate science far outstrip proposed reductions to the agency overall; according to Center for American Progress analysis of the FY 2020 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Budget in Brief and the FY 2020 EPA budget justification, for instance, the Trump administration proposed an 11 percent cut to the U.S. Department of Energy’s overall budget but a 47 percent reduction in its climate science-related activities.

In the previous fiscal years of Trump’s term, Congress used the appropriations process to reverse many of the White House’s proposed budget cuts to the federal climate apparatus. Despite the clear intent of Congress that the federal government continue its climate science activities, the Trump administration has stepped up its efforts to interfere with both the scientists and the science itself. For instance:

  • President Trump recently signed an executive order directing agencies to eliminate one-third of their federal advisory committees, a wholesale elimination which gives no latitude to agencies with vital, nonredundant committees providing invaluable scientific input. This comes as yet another blow to federal science advisory committees from the Trump administration.
  • The Trump-appointed head of the U.S. Geological Survey recently announced an internal directive to only use climate projections up to the year 2040 in its assessments, instead of the traditional end-of-century reporting. This measure will reduce the usefulness of the agency’s climate science reporting and obscure the extent of the threat, since projected warming rates remain more or less the same until 2050, after which rates of change show dramatic increases and differ significantly depending on the mitigation scenario.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency plans to alter how it estimates the impacts of air pollution on human health, which would affect the cost-benefit calculation of important climate change-related regulations and could possibly be used to defend further rollbacks. This would include the administration’s proposed replacement rule for the Clean Power Plan; under the rule, the plan would calculate a significantly reduced number of premature deaths resulting from climate change.
  • The White House National Security Council reportedly blocked long-established scientific data from a State Department scientist’s congressional testimony from entry into the congressional record—after the council failed to prevent his attendance at the hearing before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence—calling it “climate alarm propaganda” and attempting unprecedented redaction of a written testimony.

It is clear that Congress needs to do more to protect the data, research programs, and personnel that make up the U.S. federal climate science apparatus. This column details the Trump administration’s attack on climate and energy data in the FY 2020 budget proposal, as well as its nonbudgetary attacks to presently funded or legally mandated climate activities, and presents potential avenues for additional congressional oversight.

Climate and energy in the FY 2020 budget request

Thirteen federal agencies are officially part of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which was mandated by Congress in 1990 to coordinate federal climate science efforts. All of these agencies would be affected by severe resource cuts if the Trump administration’s FY 2020 budget is enacted. Unusually, detailed budget justification documents for several of these agencies—including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the portion of the Department of Energy that includes the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy—were not publicly released ahead of agency officials’ appearances before congressional committees to testify about the budget proposals. This section summarizes the Trump administration’s draconian vision for some of the government’s most essential climate science programs and functions.

Department of Energy

The Department of Energy (DOE) has made valuable programmatic and research strides in clean energy innovation—technology that typically necessitates federal funding support at the pre-commercialization stage in order to penetrate the market. The DOE also provides vital grant funding for climate science research and modeling, in addition to developing and running its own high-resolution Earth system models, which are available for external researchers to use. According to CAP analysis, the White House has proposed a staggering 47 percent funding decrease to the department’s climate science programs and activities compared with the FY 2019 levels enacted by Congress. The administration has proposed a departmentwide cut of only 11 percent.

The climate programs and research lines on the chopping block include programs within the Office of Science—”the nation’s largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences”—the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), and the Office of Policy. The budget proposal also includes a 61 percent cut to Earth and Environmental System Modeling, the climate models that “provide DOE with the best possible information about the evolving earth system so that energy assets and infrastructures remain robust throughout their lifetimes.” In addition to the value of these models to clean energy infrastructure, they allow the DOE and external researchers to study complex climate phenomena.

Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA is facing one of the biggest proposed overall budget cuts of the energy and environment-related departments, at 31 percent. The EPA’s 2020 Budget in Brief has explicit intentions to dramatically scale back regulatory enforcement and eliminate so-called redundancies in the agency, which would enable “the EPA to be a catalyst for economic growth while … protecting human health and the environment.” The budget asks for $28 million “to advance deregulation, permitting work, and technical assistance for [the EPA’s] co-regulatory partners.”

The FY 2020 budget request eliminates a total of $650 million in EPA programs and activities compared with 2019 annualized continuing resolution levels. The most concerning of these cuts include an 85 percent proposed cut to the Atmospheric Protection Program, which informs the EPA’s annual greenhouse gas inventory—a U.S. treaty obligation—with emissions reporting from large industrial sources. The EPA’s inventory of the United States’ largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions is central to the nation’s ability to understand its emissions, design mitigation solutions, and track progress. The EPA budget also zeros out the Regional Science and Technology funding under the Environmental Programs and Management office, which provides scientific data and assistance to programs implementing multiple laws aimed at protecting public health and safety, including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is central to collecting reliable, robust data to support and inform decision-makers and stakeholders of the United States’ oceans, major waterways, and atmosphere. CAP has identified a proposed cut in the FY 2020 Bluebook of 17 percent across NOAA’s climate science programs and activities. Among these budget lines, the White House has proposed cutting funding for Regional Climate Data and Information in the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research by a staggering 64 percent, which, among other things, includes eliminating NOAA’s contributions to the National Climate Assessment and terminating operational Arctic sea ice modeling. The proposal also zeros out funding for Climate Competitive Research awards, which fund high-priority projects to better understand climate change and incorporate findings into risk management and adaptation planning efforts.

Attacks on scientific programs, processes, and personnel

Beyond proposing budget cuts, the Trump administration has taken steps to interfere with the programs, processes, and personnel that make up the federal climate science apparatus.

For instance, the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) is congressionally mandated to produce the annual “Our Changing Planet” report for each fiscal year. Despite this requirement, the Trump administration has not released the report once since entering office. While the USGCRP’s most famous report, the National Climate Assessment (NCA), was released in full and on time last year, it was published the day after Thanksgiving in a blatant effort to temper press coverage and public awareness. Now, the Trump administration has pledged to remove or re-evaluate worst-case scenario projections from future reports and has considered the establishment of a National Security Council climate panel to reassess federal climate change findings. Putting such a panel inside the Executive Office of the President is a clear effort to avoid oversight, as administrations can typically claim executive privilege to prevent the release of internal documents in response to congressional requests.

Elsewhere, the Trump administration has taken steps to remove climate change considerations from government decision-making. It has scrubbed climate language from EPA natural disaster guidance and issued general agency guidance that restricts the types of data eligible for use, weakening the EPA’s ability to rely on the best climate science in its rulemakings.

Some agencies are also continuing to take punitive action against federal scientists. An unusually high number of researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are leaving the federal government ahead of plans to relocate two important science agencies outside Washington, D.C.—a move that the administration may not have the legal authority to undertake. And earlier this year, the National Park Service chose not to renew the contract of a scientist who was pressured to censor her research on climate change and sea level rise in coastal national parks.

Recommendations for Congress

While it is important that Congress once again reject the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts to federal climate science programs, it is clear that appropriations alone are not sufficient to ensure that U.S. climate science can continue to produce high-quality results free from political influence. To start, Congress should take the following steps:

  • Include language in upcoming appropriations bills explicitly directing the Trump administration to release the USGCRP’s “Our Changing Planet” reports for fiscal years 2017, 2018, and 2019.
  • Investigate the causes behind the delay CAP has identified in the public release of some congressional budget justification documents in order to determine whether there was a deliberate attempt to withhold information from the public ahead of scheduled budget hearings.
  • Pass legislation or include report language in upcoming appropriations bills clarifying that agencies should include climate projections through 2100 in all federally supported research.
  • Demand the administration provide records documenting how it arrived at the one-third threshold for eliminating federal advisory committees.

Conclusion

Data-driven decision-making on climate change hinges on continued scientific advancement and data collection. As climate change impacts continue to grow more threatening to U.S. society, it has never been more important for the public and private sectors alike to have access to timely, accurate, and relevant data about climate change. The Trump administration has shown time and again that it cannot be trusted to steward the federal climate science apparatus. It is now up to Congress to take the lead in holding the administration accountable and restoring the integrity of federal climate science.

Bianca Majumder is a research associate for Energy and Environment Policy at the Center for American Progress. Kristina Costa is a senior fellow at the Center.

The authors would like to thank Meghan Miller for her contributions to this column.

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