Trump’s budget steps on GOP’s new climate message

As Republican lawmakers take tentative steps forward on climate change, Trump's budget would drag them back.

Climate change protesters blocked morning traffic near the U.S. Capitol in September.  (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call)
Climate change protesters blocked morning traffic near the U.S. Capitol in September. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 13, 2020 at 4:13pm

Most GOP voters support climate action, recent polls show, and Republican lawmakers want to shed the party’s reputation for rejecting the scientific consensus on global warming.

But the White House budget proposal released this week would eliminate or cut funding for climate, clean energy and efficiency research, even as Republican lawmakers on Wednesday offered the first pieces of what they say will be an effective legislative response to global warming.

[Young Republicans push party to act on climate change]

While Congress will almost certainly disregard the cuts pushed by the White House, the proposal nevertheless reflects President Donald Trump’s priorities as leader of the Republican Party. That’s likely to mute and confuse the message House Republicans are trying to send, said Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman who now leads an organization, RepublicEN, advocating for free-market climate solutions.

“It’s very damaging to a Grumpy Old Party trying to remake itself into the Grand Opportunity Party,” said Inglis, executive director of the group. “It’s very damaging to that effort because it means they constantly have to be explaining why the head of the party isn’t joining the competition of ideas about climate solutions and is rather trying to cut everything out that would be relevant to climate action.”

In Trump’s budget, funding for the EPA, the agency at the forefront of clean air protection and climate change action, would be cut by nearly 27 percent to $6.7 billion in fiscal 2021, down from the $9.1 billion enacted for fiscal 2020. About 11 percent or 1,562 full-time employees at the agency would be eliminated, bringing its staffing levels to the lowest in nearly a decade.

[Greenhouse slash: Trump would gut climate, clean-power research]

The White House also proposed eliminating 50 programs at the EPA, including all 14 voluntary climate change initiatives. Funding for the Energy Star program, which encourages energy efficiency, would be eliminated. Instead, the White House recommended that the program be funded by user fees paid by participating businesses. Funding for state grants to prevent pollution, university research grants and global climate research would also be cut.

Big cuts

At the Department of Energy, funding for research and development would be nearly halved to $2.8 billion from the $5.3 billion that Congress approved for 2020. 

The president’s budget would cut funding for several DOE research programs that are politically popular and reflect the GOP push for research, innovation and energy efficiency as ways to control ozone-depleting greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile, House Republicans have been trying to rebrand themselves as a party ready to take on climate. House Republicans unveiled a raft of climate plans Wednesday, including legislation to boost research on technology to capture and store carbon emissions and a bill to support planting millions of trees to suck carbon dioxide out of the air. More plans will follow in coming days, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said. 

“If you look at what the president says and does, it’s clear that he and his administration do not believe in the need for climate action, investment in clean energy, or protecting clean water and clean air,” said Josh Freed, senior vice president for the climate and energy program at Third Way, a center-left think tank. “That makes it very hard for a Republican Congress that so often follows the president to act differently.”

Denial

Trump’s statements on climate change have consistently reflected his denial that carbon emissions from human activity, primarily burning fossil fuels, is leading to a hotter planet already experiencing the effects of climate change. 

The EPA under Trump has been working to remove regulations aimed at controlling carbon emissions, slowing climate change and ensuring clean air. Trump also is withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, which committed the U.S. to significantly reducing its carbon footprint.

Republicans, Freed said, will need to show independence from Trump by continuing to fund the programs he wants to cut.

“They’re going to rise and fall on the performance of the president, not on specific actions they take,” Freed said. “On climate, that should be very troubling.”

GOP lawmakers, however, downplayed the impact the White House’s budget could have on their message.

“I just don’t get too worked up about any president’s budget to Congress because it’s, it’s largely a ceremonial endeavor,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., a staunch conservative and Trump ally, who has been vocal about the need for GOP climate action, told CQ Roll Call.

Still, Gaetz said climate denial is a bad policy for the party.

“I believe that history will judge very harshly the climate deniers of this era in our politics,” Gaetz said. “I think that there are people with different viewpoints on that question within the administration, and I’m encouraged by the remarks the president has given about the importance of the environment, generally, and we will work to reflect in federal spending the gravity of the challenge that climate change presents.”

Congress’ call

Illinois Republican John Shimkus, ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce’s Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee, said he's not bothered by the president’s suggested budget cuts, an aide said, because it’s ultimately up to Congress to set funding levels.

“It’s the same every year: The president proposes, but Congress disposes,” said Jordan Haverly, Shimkus’ spokesman.

Over the past three years, appropriators have disregarded the cuts sought by Trump and continued to fund the EPA and other agencies well above the White House’s budget request.

Rather than defend Trump’s budget proposals, McCarthy on Wednesday cited the president’s recent decision to join the global tree-growing initiative as a sign that he wants to reduce carbon emissions. “Listen to what he said in the State of the Union on a trillion trees,” McCarthy told reporters on Wednesday. 

The legislative package offered by Republicans on Wednesday includes the tree-planting effort as well as measures to encourage carbon-capture projects, direct the Department of Energy to conduct more carbon-capture research and set up tax benefits for carbon-capture investment.

Recent polling, even by GOP think tanks and consultants, show a majority in the party and especially young voters favor climate action.

A poll released Monday by the conservative American Conservation Coalition found that 7 in 10 young people surveyed said they were more likely to vote for a Republican candidate in 2020 who accepts that climate change is real.

“President Trump needs simply to gin up his base at rallies with the old talking points in order to win just one more election and may have enough people who are still in that denialist camp to pull that off or for whom it won’t be off-putting,” said Inglis, the RepublicEN executive director.

“But if you plan on leading the Grumpy Old Party into the Grand Opportunity Party, and you have a longer time horizon, you realize that you really need the new updated talking points about climate change,” Inglis said. “The Grumpy Old Party effect isn’t going to be attractive to millennials.”