The Environmental Impacts of Donald J. Trump’s Reign: Impacts on Environmental Education, Research & Funding

This article will be focusing on the changes and decisions made by the Trump administration throughout his 4-year reign, focusing on the subjects of education, research & funding. This includes partnerships, programs, budgets, agencies, and boards in the United States.

Figure 1 – “Make America Great Again”

In the 4 short years that the Trump administration held power, the role of science in federal policymaking has been severely diminished. Political appointees shut down government studies, reduced the influence of scientists over regulatory decisions, and in some instances, even pressured researchers not to speak out publicly. This administration has challenged scientific findings related to the environment and public health that oppose industry activities such as oil and gas development, or coal mining. As well, they have impede research associated with human-caused climate change, which President Trump dismissed, despite global scientific consensus.

This article is going to explore the many ways in which the Trump administration has impacted environmental education, research, and funding since Donald Trump first took office in early 2017.

Climate Change Censorship

Figure 1 – Climate Change Censorship

The administration’s efforts to cut specific research projects reflects an abiding conservative position that some scientific work can be performed cost-effectively by the private sector, and that taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to pay the for it. “Eliminating wasteful spending, some of which has nothing to do with studying the science at all, is smart management, not an attack on science,” stated the Conservative Heritage Foundation in 2017.

However, many scientists feel differently. According to Michael Gerrard, the Director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, the Trump administration has rolled back numerous environmental regulations since taking office, with wide-ranging policy shifts targeting water, land, air and public health protections, and have threatened the science behind these protocols. “The disregard for expertise in the federal government is worse than it’s ever been,” he commented. “It’s pervasive.”

Figure 2 – Silencing Science Tracker

Along with the Climate Science Legal Defence Fund, the Sabin Center has been tracking the erosion of climate science under the Trump administration, using their Silencing Science Tracker. Gerrard says that tracker concept was developed soon after Trump’s inauguration as a way to hold the government accountable for it’s actions. For example, in December 2019, the National Library of Medicine’s Toxmap website – an easily accessible federal database dedicated to mapping sources of pollution across Canada and the U.S., was taken down. “The data are still available in obscure places that you have to hunt for,” Gerrard says. “But the general public no longer has easy access to this information about the sources of pollution in the communities where they live or might want to move.” With 475 entries as of December 14, 2020, it is evident that the Trump administration isn’t interested in any expertise that could result in conclusions undesirable to them.

“This is beyond [George] Orwell.” – Michael Gerrard

Overall, the government has diminished many important scientific committees and replaced them with industry representatives, which has ultimately caused significant stress for the scientific community. Individuals who have dedicated their lives to research and education have and continue to face difficult moral dilemmas, leaving many – especially youth – to pursue opportunities outside of government. Increasingly, scientists are being told to withhold certain articles, or to refrain from appearing at certain events. For example, in 2019, the U.S. National Park Service’s principal climate change scientist received a cease-and-desist letter after testifying about the adverse impacts of human-cased climate change in national parks.

Scientific Advisors & Committees

In 2017, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt fired more than half of an advisory board tasked with making sure the science conducted and evaluated at the agency met the relevant standards. 12 of the dismissed advisors were nearing the end of a 3-year term, and were told that their positions wouldn’t be renewed for a second term – which came as a big surprise. “Today I was Trumped,” tweeted Robert Richardson, environmental economist at Michigan State University, after learning of his dismissal (see Figure 3).

Figure 3- Robert Richardson Tweet

At the time, Richardson said he and the other board members were expecting to serve another term, as their predecessors had. “I’ve never heard of any circumstances where someone didn’t serve 2 consecutive terms. It just came out of nowhere.” The Board of Scientific Counsellors, is an 18-member board whose mission is to evaluate science and engineering research, programs and plans, labs, and research-management practices of the EPA’s research & development office – and recommends actions for quality improvement.

When asked by reporters to explain the dismissal, an EPA spokesperson said the EPA wanted to “make a clean break with the last administration’s approach” and “expand the pool of applicants.” By expanding the applicant pool, the administration has been able to open up the advisory board to more members of industry, when it has been historically filled with people from academia (see Figure 4).

In January 2018, more than 3/4 of the members of a federally chartered board advising the National Park Service (NPS) quit out of frustration that the Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary, Ryan Zinke, refused to meet with them even once over the span of 2017. The resignation of 10 out of 12 NPS Advisory Board members leaves the federal government without a functioning body to designate national historic or natural landmarks. In November 2020, the NPS published a Request for Nominations for the National Park System Advisory Board that will be available until December 7, 2020.

Then, in June 2019, the Trump administration announced a new order to cut the number of government advisory committees by 1/3 – drawing condemnation from former government officials, scientists and environmental advocacy groups who say the committees provide a check against politically-inspired regulation reversals. This order requires each agency to abolish at least 1/3 of its current advisory committees by the end of September 2019. The panels are in place to offer agencies expert or scientific advice on a number of subjects. The order targets committees whose work the administration considers obsolete, or those whose costs are considered excessive in relation to the benefits for the federal government – but it doesn’t limit the cuts to those criteria.

At the time of the order, about 1,000 advisory committees were in existence; including about 200 science advisory committees advising the administration on issues relating to nuclear waste storage, o-zone depletion, schools, highways, housing, and the opioid crisis. With this order, the aim is to reduce the number of committees to 350 by blocking the formation of new committees until this lower number is met.

Clean Energy Research

Figure 5 – Clean Energy Research

In February 2018, the Trump administration proposed deep budget cuts to the Department of Energy’s (DOE) renewable energy and energy efficiency programs; slashing them by 72% overall in the 2019 fiscal year. The draft budget document underscored the administration’s continued focus on the exploitation of fossil fuel resources, or, as Trump put it in his State of Union address, “beautiful, clean coal” – over newer available technologies that many believe to be the central solution to the issue of climate change.

The DOE asked the White House for more modest spending reductions to the renewable and efficiency programs, but people more familiar with the process, said the Office of Management and Budget had insisted on these deeper cuts. The cuts were also even deeper than those that the Trump administration had originally sought for the 2018 fiscal year, but was unable to implement due to an impasse in Congress. Spending for the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE) was set at $2.04B for the 2018 fiscal year, when the previous year, the administration asked for $636.1M – a decline of more than 2/3; however, Congress didn’t grant the request. For 2019, the administration’s draft proposal would lower that request even further, to $575.5M. The document also suggests substantial staff cuts, from 680 in the approved 2017 budget, to 450 in 2019.

In March 2019, the Trump administration’s budget for the 2020 fiscal year proposed the elimination of programs funding renewable energy, including the Advanced Research Projects Agency Energy & the DOE’s loan programs. The EERE would receive $696M under the request, a significant reduction of the approximately $2.4B that was approved in the 2019 budget. In 2019, the administration highlighted energy and national security in addition to investments in research and development, especially for new nuclear and fossil fuel technologies, and also in next-generation clean tech. The administrations total request for the DOE is $31.7B – 11% lower than the 2019 budget Congress settled on. That request includes $2.3B for early-stage R&D, including a $158M effort titled the Advanced Energy Storage Initiative led by EERE and the Office of Electricity. As well, the administration emphasized the need for energy security – proposing that $156M go to the Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security & Emergency Response – an office established in 2018. Even though the budget document did not mention any climate-related threats to the grid.

Thankfully, Congress passed a bill to fund the government through to September 2020, including a significant increase in funding for clean energy innovation programs with the DOE, rejecting the administration’s proposed cuts. The Bill, which the president signed, raised funding levels for highly beneficial energy efficiency, renewable energy, and clean transportation programs. It also provided better direction and guidance for how DOE staff could effectively disseminate the funds in the 9-month period.

“Congress should toss this Trump budget into the dustbin of history like they’ve done with the other ones. This president is putting our families and communities at risk by taking direct aim at the environment, public health and energy innovation.”

Gina McCarthy, CEO & President of the NRDC

Unfortunately, in February 2020, Donald Trump once again advocated for deep cuts in federal funding for clean energy in a budget proposal for the 2021 fiscal year. ‘A Budget for America’s Future’ is a “largely symbolic” document that was published ahead of the 2020 Presidential Election in November, given that Congress will not be approving its contents. The document requested $2.8B for energy R&D – 1/2 of the previous year’s allocation, and $720M for EERE – down from $2.79B. At the time, President & CEO of NRDC, Gina McCarthy commented on the matter (see above quote), and explained that the only explicit mention of renewable energy generation in the 132-page budget proposal document relates to the U.S. capitalizing on its “abundant and diverse existing resources” which also include gas, oil, coal, nuclear and hydro, to assert America’s energy dominance.

Environmental Education (EE)

Figure 6 – Environmental Education (EE)

In 2013, the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) and a number of other organizations established a guide titled, A Brief Guide for U.S. Grant-makers. This document includes a range of information on environmental education in the United States, including the difficulties in tracking EE funding, and how the federal government invests in EE.

According to the NAAEE, tracking funding in EE is challenging because many agencies and organizations that classify how, when and where funds are granted have difficulty categorizing EE due to the different audiences and providers. As well, EE is often included as part of a larger ‘issue-based initiative’, so the percentage of funds dedicated solely to EE within these broader strategies is often not reported on. Specifically, the areas of climate, health, waste, and water often include environmental education components, which also are not always tracked. As a result, it’s hard to pinpoint exact figures relating to EE giving, but based on reliable data gathered over the past decade, it seems some trends are emerging.

When it comes to federal funding for EE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the most recognized grant-maker in the governmental sector. From 1992 to 2011, the EPA provided over $54M in EE grants; however, while this may be the most significant source of funding for EE, it is inconsequential in comparison to its funding for other sectors. For example, in 2011, the EPA granted $2.1M through its EE grants program, which represents only a fraction of the agency’s total grants in 2011 of $1.8B. As well, the future funding of the EE program has been unclear for years, with the National Environmental Education Act, which funds EPA’s EE grants program, has never been fully funded, and funding for the Act was not included in the federal government’s 2013 budget, making it unclear whether components of the Act, including support for grants, will be funded.

On February 10, 2020 the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released the Trump administration’s proposed budget for the U.S. Government in Fiscal Year 2021. Under this proposal, total funding for the EPA would decline by $2.4B (or 26.4%) compared to 2020 levels. The budget analysis published by EPA indicates that the reductions will be achieved, in part, by eliminating several research programs including the EE program.

Conclusion

The decisions made by the Trump administration regarding environmental research, education, and funding since Donald Trump first took office are plentiful and the vast majority of them have been negative. In this article only a handful of changes and controversial proposals made by the the administration were discussed, as there have been too many over the past 4 years to report on without writing what would feel like a never-ending list of reductions in funding, program closures, and censorship of academics and the science community.

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