Appropriations Showdown on Climate Change

Wet weather blows into Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, November 27, 2013.

Earlier this year, in promoting its fiscal year 2016 budget resolution, the Republican majority on the House Budget Committee pronounced, “It is fundamentally unfair to our kids and grandkids for today’s policymakers to be so undisciplined and to ignore difficult decisions. Inaction is only making the hill we will eventually have to climb that much higher.” Was this an impassioned call for action on climate change, echoing the pope’s recent encyclical urging nations to act “so that future generations will not have to suffer the effects of our ill-advised delays?”

Sadly, it was not. Instead, the House Budget Committee majority is arguing that we cannot afford to fully fund the government services that the American people count on to meet basic needs and hold powerful industries in check. To do so, it cynically argues, would put an unfair economic burden on future generations. As a result, the budgets it has proposed would slash government spending on a range of critical social and environmental programs, including investments to understand, prepare for, and mitigate climate change.

The ongoing dispute over climate change will come to a head in the coming weeks, when Congress will again face a government funding crisis. Federal government funding expires on September 30 and Congress has yet to send a single spending bill to the president’s desk. As summer ends, brinksmanship is back—and this time, the administration’s efforts to fight climate change hang in the balance.

Consider Congress’ handling of the Environmental Protection Agency’s, or EPA’s, spending bill. While the House of Representatives brought this bill to the chamber’s floor for consideration in June, it was pulled from the floor as unfinished business in early July. The legislation proposes to slash the EPA’s operating budget by $474 million, or 13 percent, compared with the FY 2016 budget request. According to the administration, this level of cut would “significantly undermine implementation of the Clean Power Plan,” the president’s landmark rule to limit carbon pollution from new and existing power plants.

But the House does not seem to want to leave anything to chance. The bill also includes anti-environmental policy riders that would guarantee inaction on climate change. The bill includes a provision to stop the Clean Power Plan outright by prohibiting the use of funds to implement or enforce carbon pollution standards for fossil fuel-fired electric generating units, the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States. Another rider, if enacted, would prevent any federal agency from fully accounting for the adverse effects of carbon pollution when analyzing the costs and benefits of new rules. This amounts to putting a thumb on the scale so that the federal government has no choice but to pretend that carbon pollution is not so bad after all. The bill also contains a provision to prevent the EPA from prohibiting uses of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs—climate super pollutants used for refrigeration and other purposes that the world is quickly uniting against.

Taken together, the House EPA spending bill slashes funding for the agency, prevents it from properly assessing the threat posed by carbon pollution, stops the most significant domestic action on carbon pollution, and undermines a promising area of international cooperation to cut pollution.

The Senate’s approach—which has not even made it to the Senate floor—is not much better. It proposes reducing the EPA’s operating budget by $372 million, or 10 percent, compared with the president’s budget. It includes an anti-environmental rider to block the Clean Power Plan as well.

The attack on addressing climate change does not stop with the EPA spending bills. Unfortunately, it extends throughout the congressional spending proposals.

In the Energy and Water Development spending bills, both chambers of Congress are going after the nation’s clean energy investments. The House is proposing to cut the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, or EERE, by more than $1 billion relative to the FY 2016 budget request. The administration has warned that “the bill reduces funding for renewable energy by 49 percent, sustainable transportation by 35 percent, and energy efficiency by 40 percent” relative to the president’s budget. The bill cuts solar energy investments by 55 percent. The Senate Energy and Water Development spending bill proposes to reduce investments in the EERE by nearly $790 million, or 29 percent, compared with the president’s budget. The bill proposes to cut the Energy Department’s Wind Energy program by 68 percent from the president’s budget and to cut funding for other activities—such as grid integration and atmospheric modeling—necessary to advance both onshore and offshore wind development. These cuts, if enacted, would severely slow the pace of the nation’s progress in developing and deploying clean energy technology, harming this sector’s global competitiveness.

In the State and Foreign Operations appropriation bill, the House proposes not to fund multilateral and clean energy efforts. These multilateral efforts are a critical element in achieving an effective global response to climate change. The White House offers this dire warning: “Failing to lead in building a strong global response to climate change will have far-reaching national security implications as climate change will exacerbate poverty and contribute to environmental degradation, particularly in developing economies, potentially resulting in resources shortages, political instability, and conflict.” For its part, the Senate proposes to underfund our multilateral commitments such as the Climate Investment Funds to such a degree that the White House believes it would “disadvantage U.S. companies and jeopardize national security.”

Both the House and the Senate have included an anti-environmental rider in their respective State and Foreign Operations appropriation bills to prohibit the use of funds to carry out administration policies that limit funding of high-carbon power projects abroad unless pollution controls are installed. These policies should not be blocked because as the United States works to reduce its emissions through domestic efforts such as the Clean Power Plan, it makes no sense for taxpayer dollars to be used abroad for projects that exacerbate climate change.

These proposed spending bills are unambiguous in their assault on climate action. And the assault is couched as a moral argument. For the sake of our children, they implicitly argue, we cannot afford to act on climate. But this is a fringe view—out of step with leading moral leaders and with scientific evidence and public opinion. The serious and irreversible effects of climate change force the opposite conclusion: We simply cannot afford not to act on climate change. The world’s leading scientists have concluded with “high confidence” that continued, unmitigated warming “will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts globally,” including heat waves, species extinction, sea level rise, and global food insecurity. The pope will have the opportunity to remind Congress of his view that there is a strong moral duty to act on climate change when he addresses Congress on September 24. Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and other faith leaders and communities from many religious traditions have called consistently for action on climate change as a moral duty. Polling has shown time and time again that the public strongly supports action to cut carbon pollution from power plants. Eight out of 10 Americans say that “if nothing is done to reduce global warming in the future,” climate change will be a serious problem.

The president has summarized the situation clearly:

If we were to abandon our course of action, if we stop trying to build a clean-energy economy and reduce carbon pollution, if we do nothing to keep the glaciers from melting faster, and oceans from rising faster, and forests from burning faster, and storms from growing stronger, we will condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair: Submerged countries. Abandoned cities. Fields no longer growing. Indigenous peoples who can’t carry out traditions that stretch back millennia. Entire industries of people who can’t practice their livelihoods. Desperate refugees seeking the sanctuary of nations not their own. Political disruptions that could trigger multiple conflicts around the globe.

In the coming weeks, Congress may pass a short-term funding bill to kick the can down the road until December. If so, this debate will continue to hang unresolved over the Capitol. Ultimately, however, the question has been asked, and we will learn whether Congress can successfully ignore science, public opinion, and moral duty in a misguided effort to thwart action to address climate change. For the sake of our kids and grandkids, let’s hope this approach is soundly rejected.

Greg Dotson is the Vice President for Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress.