President Trump’s budget request for fiscal year 2018 threatens to increase the U.S. government’s carbon footprint, primarily because it shifts federal funds from non-defense to defense spending.
If implemented as written, the Budget Blueprint would result in about 1.8 million metric tons of additional carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions in 2018, according to a study my colleagues and I just submitted for academic publication. That’s 1.8 million trips between Seattle and New York City at 24 miles per gallon — a 1 percent emissions increase for discretionary spending and a 0.03 percent rise for the United States as a whole.
These percentages seem small only because the U.S. has an enormous carbon footprint. Really, 1.8 million trips is the entire population of Seattle plus 200,000 suburbanites hopping in their cars and driving to New York City and back.
Many scientists and non-scientists have predicted that the climate — and the beings that rely on it — will suffer at the hands of Trump. He aims to resuscitate the perishing coal industry, snake new pipelines across the American landscape, pull out of the Paris Agreement, and discard the Clean Power Plan along with the rest of President Obama’s painstaking progress toward reducing carbon pollution.
Some commentators have downplayed Trump’s capacity to affect climate outcomes, pointing out that he doesn’t run the whole economy. He can’t revive the dying coal industry now that electricity from fracked gas is cheaper, any more than he can send coal miners back down the shaft now that automated excavation in vast strip mines is cheaper.
But Trump does run the federal government, a multi-trillion-dollar operation. My classmates Alison Adams, Kelly Hamshaw, Svenja Telle, and I wanted to quantify the climate impact of what Uncle Sam is doing and buying under the new president.
We made a model that could estimate how carbon emissions would change throughout the U.S. economy in response to the Trump Administration’s proposed changes in federal spending. We measured only the direct and indirect effects of budget decisions, not the impacts of policy decisions like leaving the Paris Agreement or scrapping the Clean Power Plan. These moves could generate much greater emissions increases, but their effects are a lot more difficult to project.
The budget lays out plans to shift $54 billion from non-defense to defense spending in 2018. The proposal would cut 31 percent of the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget, completely defund programs such as the Global Climate Change Initiative, and eliminate entire federal agencies like the U.S. Institute for Peace and the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.
This reallocation of funds from non-defense programs to the Pentagon would increase emissions in two ways.
First, defense operations emit more carbon than other government activities. The aircraft, ships, bases, and data centers of the U.S. Armed Forces burn a lot more fuel than a regional EPA office or the National Endowment for the Arts.
Second, defense expenditures generate more economic activity than non-defense spending. Ordering several thousand new semi-automatic rifles and a dozen fighter jets induces demand for raw materials extraction, processing, transport, and manufacturing, plus energy to power these processes. These industries release carbon throughout the supply chain.
By contrast, paying public servants to provide social services to Americans tends to have a pretty small carbon footprint.
Extra emissions are obviously not the only or most serious consequence of increasing defense expenditures and cutting non-defense expenditures; the military kills humans and social and environmental programs exist to keep them alive and well, generally speaking. But carbon emissions kill people too: mortality rates will likely rise as the globe warms, according to a lot of research.
To clarify, our study calculates only the increase in 2018 emissions associated with changes to government operations and purchasing. It is a vast underestimate of the new budget’s long-term climate effects: we do not analyze the effects of cutting funding for research into low-carbon energy technologies, or of eliminating grants for home energy-efficiency upgrades.
Nor do we account for the fact that any given government activity will likely become more emissions-intensive under Trump. Our model examines only the changing composition of government spending, not how the fine-grained particulars of operations and procurement will evolve as agencies adapt to the priorities of the Trump Administration.
Any emissions increase is a momentous stride in a dangerous direction for a global climate system already teetering on the brink of thresholds beyond which likely lies a much less hospitable planet. The U.S. government has a responsibility to lead the way toward sharp emissions decreases, both by example and through using its power to influence the rest of the economy. The Trump Administration clearly rejects this responsibility.
Luckily, president’s budgets are just glorified wish lists. Trump’s budget calls for non-defense cuts that both slow the fight against climate change, like gutting to the Energy Department’s renewable office, and increase people’s vulnerability, by plundering programs like Medicaid and food stamps.
The U.S. congress really holds the purse strings.
Teaser photo image: By Tony Webster from Minneapolis, Minnesota – Bakken / Dakota Access Oil Pipeline, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54799766