As the environmental world copes with the budget outline unveiled by President Trump on Thursday, two former EPA administrators and a longtime environmental justice official have more sobering news: It's actually worse than you think.
The budget blueprint handed down from the White House sent the unmistakable message that it plans to take a hacksaw to climate action. And no agency fell more directly in its path than the Environmental Protection Agency.
"Literally and figuratively this budget is a scorched earth budget," said Gina McCarthy, EPA administrator under President Obama. "It represents really an all-out assault on clean air and clean water and our ability to have safe homes, schools and places to work."
The budget outline proposes a 31 percent cut to the total EPA budget, including a 45 percent reduction in state funds and the elimination of 3,200 positions under new administrator Scott Pruitt, a longtime antagonist of the agency. Those cuts, McCarthy pointed out, represent one in five agency employees. Forty two percent of the scientists in the Office in Research and Development—the agency's scientific research arm—will lose their jobs, she said.
"This budget is even more challenging than it looks at first glance," McCarthy said, because the total proposed budget includes $2.3 billion in State Revolving Funds, which are given directly to states to dole out to communities for infrastructure improvements.
"When you take that out of the picture, the rest of the budget is going to be cut from $6 billion to $3.4 billion. That's actually a 43 percent cut in the ability to implement all of the clean water and clear air and clean land programs," she said. "Not to mention our ability to address the greatest environmental challenge of our time which is climate change."
McCarthy was joined on a conference call Friday by Carol Browner, a fellow former EPA administrator, Mustafa Ali, who recently resigned as EPA advisor for environmental justice, and Nicole Hernandez Hammer, a climate advocate for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Browner, who led the EPA for the entirety of the Clinton administration from 1993-2001, is no stranger to attacks on the agency. Two years after President Clinton was elected, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) became Speaker of the House as part of a wave of Republican momentum in the midterm elections, based on promises to cut government waste and limit regulations.
In his first major speech on the environment in February 1995, Gingrich called the EPA "the biggest job-killing agency in inner-city America."
"We were shut down more than once because of failure to fund the EPA," said Browner. But the government shutdowns resulted in a blowback in popular opinion. "What the Republican Congress discovered then is that the American people like their clean air. They like their clean water. They want the environmental cops on the beat," she said.
Now, with a budget proposal that she said "puts polluters first," Browner said she could only hope that Congress will remember that lesson.
One clue into how Trump's budget will be received by Congressional Republicans has come from the Great Lakes region, where politicians from both parties have assailed the proposal to slash funding to a program to restore the lakes.
"I have long championed this program," said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) in a statement, "and I'm committed to continuing to do everything I can to protect and preserve Lake Erie, including preserving this critical program and its funding."
And another clue came from Congress earlier this week, when 17 House Republicans introduced a resolution calling for solutions to climate change that keep in mind the health of the economy. Though the resolution fell short in some ways (notably leaving out any mention that carbon emissions drive climate change) its mere introduction gave hope to some seeking climate action.
Both former administrators stressed that though this budget would result in thousands of people losing their jobs, the bigger impacts would be felt by the general public. One of the roles that the EPA plays is to provide technical and scientific support that states cannot afford.
Ali, who resigned last week after 24 years as the head of the EPA's environmental justice program, talked about what that would mean to the communities he worked with.
"This sends a direct signal that it's taking away the science that our most vulnerable communities have been asking for, to be able to validate the impacts of what has been happening inside of their communities," he said. "It takes away those enforcement actions that help us make sure that those checks and balances between communities and those businesses and industries that may not necessarily be good players."