President Donald Trump may be 6,000 miles away from Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, but that didn’t stop him from launching an all-out assault on climate science and related energy research. The weapon of choice? His fiscal year 2018 budget proposal.
The cuts are staggering in scope, and the consequences are already starting as federal employees and contractors — spooked by the figures out this week — begin job searching in earnest.
Every single agency that touches climate change research, from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to the Department of Energy, NASA, and especially the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), would see sharp reductions and eliminations of climate research programs.
While the proposal is just the start of negotiations with Congress over a final, enacted budget, it represents the clearest statement yet of Trump’s priorities for governing the country.
And those priorities do not put climate change — ranked by other major industrialized and developing countries as one of the top threats facing the world today — high on the list.
According to Mick Mulvaney, the head of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the administration targeted climate funding for sharp reductions, but he rejected the charge that it’s anti-science.
“I think the National Science Foundation last year used your taxpayer money to fund a climate change musical. Do you think that’s a waste of your money?” he said, citing a well-worn example from 2014 of wasteful research spending often pointed to by Republican lawmakers who deny the link between human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
“What I think you saw happen during the previous administration is the pendulum went too far to one side, where we were spending too much of your money on climate change, and not very efficiently,” Mulvaney said at a budget briefing on Tuesday morning.
“We don’t get rid of it here. Do we target it? Sure,” he said. “Do a lot of the EPA reductions aimed at reducing the focus on climate science? Yes.”
“Does it meant that we are anti-science? Absolutely not.”
Losing our eyes and ears
The budget cuts Trump is proposing would leave climate scientists without critical data and would shrivel up the job market for researchers at a time when climate change expertise is more needed than ever.
One budget cut at NASA would hit an instrument meant to improve scientists’ ability to monitor the amount of solar radiation entering and exiting the atmosphere, which is a foundational measurement needed for keeping tabs on and projecting climate change.
Another would eliminate a mission known as CALIPSO, which is a satellite instrument aimed at increasing our understanding of how clouds and particles known as aerosols affect the climate.
This would address one of the biggest uncertainties in climate science, but hey, Trump and his cabinet members do like citing uncertainty as a reason not to act on global warming, so… ¯_(ツ)_/¯
NASA’s overall Earth Science Mission, which helps provide research and observations of our planet, would be cut by nearly 9 percent, including the elimination of five Earth observation missions and an education program aimed at supporting the next generation of space science researchers.
At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the office responsible for helping restore and protect our coasts in a time of sea level rise would be completely eliminated. The agency’s climate research programs, considered to be among the best in the world, would also take a funding cut on the order of 30 percent.
The NOAA budget also contains some bizarre cuts that the meteorology community will likely strongly object to, including getting rid of the array of Pacific Ocean buoys that enable forecasters to detect El Niño events, as well as a network of specially-designed ocean instruments to detect destructive tsunamis in the Pacific Ocean before they hit land.
In addition, the NOAA budget would slow the National Weather Service’s implementation of more accurate computer models, increasing the gap between U.S. capabilities and those in Europe and elsewhere, which have surpassed this country.
In addition, the U.S. Geological Survey, would be cut by more than 10 percent. Even before these cuts, the agency has been having trouble maintaining its network of river gauges that the National Weather Service relies on for triggering flood warnings. So just as heavy rains are becoming more common in a warming climate, the number of functioning gauges is declining.
The Energy Department’s Office of Science, which funds research in physical sciences and cutting edge computer modeling, would also see a funding decrease of 17 percent.
None of these decreases are small, and all would reverberate across labs scattered across the country and throughout universities that depend on government grants for research funding.
Picking the losers as winners
The cuts could also fundamentally change the energy landscape, eliminating the government program that helped launch innovative renewable energy companies such as Tesla.
Under former president Barack Obama, the Energy Department turned into a massive venture capital firm dedicated to funding potentially transformational energy technologies. Now Trump is proposing to eliminate that program, known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency: Energy, or ARPA-E. If the current administration has its way, the office would see its budget plunge from $290 million in Fiscal Year 2017 to just $20 million as it is put to rest completely, along with hopes that the next Tesla will crop up in the U.S., and not, say, in China or another economic competitor.
But the shift in priorities doesn’t end there.
The Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would be cut by 70 percent compared to Fiscal Year 2017 levels, a staggering decrease that sets the government up against market trends as solar, wind and battery technologies comprise more and more newly-built electric facilities.
Don’t worry though, fossil fuels like coal and oil would fare just fine under the budget request. And nuclear power, which has stagnated due to regulatory hurdles and lower natural gas, wind, and solar prices, would get a boost in funds.
Here comes the brain drain
Major science groups that are normally inclined to avoid partisan combat have already come out and slammed the budget as misguided at best.
Rush Holt, a physicist and former congressman who is the director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), said the budget would have a near-term impact on public health and overall science and technology capabilities in America.
“What we see is not just a reduction in government programs, what we see is a failure to invest in America,” Holt said on a conference call with reporters. “We’re not just talking about the long-term future either. The harm to public health and to other areas would start to be felt really very soon.”
According to one AAAS analyst, the only science and technology-related government agency to see a funding increase under Trump’s budget is the secretive Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA.
The funding cuts, if they get through Congress as proposed, which is doubtful, would also discourage those seeking to go into science and engineering careers from doing so, as it would eliminate thousands of post-doctoral and career positions.
One contractor who works with the federal government on environmental issues, but asked not to be identified since he is not authorized to speak to the press, told Mashable that he and “many others” he knows have already begun “changing their career plans” as they brace for job cuts.
“The ramifications of these cuts – which are below the FY17 omnibus levels – will have significant impacts on the health and welfare of the nation,” Chris McEntee, the executive director and CEO of the American Geophysical Union, which is the world’s largest organization of Earth scientists, said in a statement.
Joanne Carney, director of government relations at AAAS, said the budget cuts will hurt the U.S. by impeding our ability to anticipate the ramifications of climate change.
“…This is about dealing with reality at all levels of government,” she said.
“So defunding the very programs that seek to allow us to better understand the Earth and our changing environment isn’t helping the U.S. to address climate-related changes. It’s not allowing us to make informed decisions on how to adapt or to mitigate, and it has long-term consequences.”
Maria Gallucci contributed reporting for this story.