Obama, antagonizing lawmakers, makes an economic case for climate action

By Evan Lehmann | 02/03/2015 07:58 AM EST

President Obama warned of economic dangers from climate change in a $4 trillion budget proposal released yesterday that seeks to reduce the nation’s exposure to climbing disaster losses by ramping up spending on infrastructure, carbon reductions and clean energy.

President Obama warned of economic dangers from climate change in a $4 trillion budget proposal released yesterday that seeks to reduce the nation’s exposure to climbing disaster losses by ramping up spending on infrastructure, carbon reductions and clean energy.

The blueprint drew immediate rebukes from Republicans for promoting efforts like a $4 billion program to accelerate cuts of greenhouse gases under the administration’s Clean Power Plan. The program would fund projects for adaptation, renewable energy and efficiency in cooperative states, introducing incentives into a suite of otherwise muscular regulations that force states to act.

For Obama, the budget underscores a list of climate priorities that are reliant, this time, on a Republican-controlled legislature that is promising to attack his forthcoming carbon rules on power plants and other executive actions with funding decreases.


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) described the president’s budget as a "tax and spend manifesto."

The budget would also give $500 million to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund and undertake a massive infrastructure overhaul with corporate tax revenue — something that experts say is imperative to deflect climate-related damage to the nation’s networks of aging roads, water plants and energy infrastructure.

The National Climate Assessment warned for the first time last year that impacts like sea-level rise, heavier rainfalls and rising temperatures could cause cascading failures as interlinked systems of infrastructure go down in succession. A contributing researcher from the Department of Energy called it a "national crisis."

Financing with a ‘transition toll’

While transportation projects typically receive bipartisan backing, the president’s plan to fund the $478 billion infrastructure effort with a one-time 14 percent "transition toll" tax on $2 trillion in revenue accumulated by U.S. companies overseas is being criticized by Republicans and even some environmentalists.

"He should have proposed an increase in the gas tax," said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, in a statement that otherwise applauded Obama for taking steps to address climate change.

Roughly half of the infrastructure funds — $238 billion — would come from that toll tax, while $240 billion would come from a federal tax on gasoline and other sources. The proposal comes as the Federal Highway Trust Fund is running out of cash. Officials say that will happen in August if lawmakers don’t intercede. Also, the federal law authorizing surface transportation spending expires on May 31.

"To hell with the politics," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last week. "At this point, we must concern ourselves with the cumulative chilling effects of these short-term measures and this policy uncertainty."

But a lack of money is only part of the problem, according to some experts. A cash infusion won’t modernize the design standards of roads, bridges and other infrastructure that currently neglect to consider rising seas and other threats, saod Paul Chinowsky, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

"Are we going to design for the way it’s been for the last 20 years, or are we going to design for the way it’s going to be for the next 20 years?" he said, adding that updating the standards is a "national imperative."

Chinowsky said that investing billions of dollars before improving things like the heat resistance of asphalt and the strength of bridge supports "could actually make the problem worse."

"You’re putting a temporary fix in," he said. "And you’re going to make everyone think that you solved the problem. The problem’s still going to exist 10 years from now; you’ve just made [the project] look really nice for the next 10 years until the problem gets worse."

Energy chief: getting aggressive on renewables

On clean energy, Obama proposed spending $7.4 billion between the Energy and Defense departments, a $900 million increase, and he seeks to permanently extend tax credits for wind and solar energy producers.

"[The low-carbon economy] is obviously key in the President’s Climate Action Plan, essentially addressing the mitigation focus," Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said yesterday in a briefing.

Altogether, the budget asks for $29.9 billion for DOE next year, a $2.5 billion increase over current levels. Not all of its action on climate is dependent on Congress.

The department still has $40 billion of authority in its loan guarantee program to support advanced energy projects like wind farms and biofuel plants. "Over the next two years, we intend to pursue this aggressively," Moniz said.

Obama justified his spending priorities on the climate by arguing that the nation faces rising economic liabilities. Budget documents say the nation has suffered more than $300 billion in climate-related disasters in the last decade.

To prepare for future cataclysms, the budget provides $616 million for climate resilience initiatives at the Department of Homeland Security. Unlike disaster funding, these programs are meant to avoid damage. The funding includes $200 million in pre-disaster grants for local and state mitigation planning and $400 million for flood mapping.

Even though the nation is facing rising risks from flood, it’s "not all bad" if Congress refuses to approve the mapping requests, said Edward Thomas, president of the Natural Hazard Mitigation Association.

That’s because Obama is moving forward with executive action, like the order he announced Friday requiring agencies to build federal infrastructure at least 2 feet higher. Also, Congress passed a provision in 2012 that sets the National Flood Insurance Program on a path toward better mapping — such as choosing the right places that might be flooded.

Much of the mapping now focuses on areas that are already developed, rather than in regions with fast growth — where risk maps can actually help shape the way communities are built, Thomas said.

"You want to get ahead of that [construction]," he added. "If you want to know where it’s going to be tomorrow, and five and 10 years from now, you get the maps done before the development takes place." The budget also focuses on areas that inevitably burn.

Holdren: Votes box Congress into climate programs

The Agriculture and Interior departments both renewed a push to reform wildfire spending, which, despite bipartisan support, was not included in the last spending bill (E&E Daily, Dec. 11, 2014).

The president’s budget includes a $1.1 billion cap adjustment in case of an especially severe wildfire season, with $200 million for Interior and $900 million for USDA, which oversees the Forest Service.

Forest Service scientists say that climate change, expanding development on forested land and decades of fire suppression have led to longer and more costly fire seasons. As a result, the Forest Service and Interior increasingly have been forced to "borrow" funds from other programs to pay for fire suppression, including programs that support post-fire remediation and the removal of excess fuels from forested lands (ClimateWire, June 10, 2014).

"If we don’t have this wildfire cap adjustment … treating those top 1 percent of wildfires as the crisis they really are, we end up dipping into those funds," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said during yesterday’s press call.

Also at USDA, the budget proposes funding programs that enhance resilience to climate-related events and improve communication about climate change to communities. The Watershed and Flood Preventions Operations Program would receive about $200 million to reduce the impact of coastal flooding and to help communities adapt to changing availability of natural resources.

The nation’s space program wasn’t as lucky.

Overall, NASA’s budget request for science, which includes earth science as well as planetary science and other fields, was $5.29 billion, a minuscule 0.83 percent increase over the current level.

Still, the request should sail through Congress, since most senators have already admitted that the climate is changing in votes held last month on Capitol Hill, said John Holdren, assistant to the president for science and technology (E&E Daily, Jan. 22).

"From that standpoint, if you only believe that climate is changing, without reference to what is causing it, you should be in favor of increased Earth observations," Holdren said.

NASA gains some NOAA responsibilities

A new focus for NASA in 2016 would be the OCO-3, an instrument on the International Space Station that would monitor carbon dioxide levels on Earth and would be a follow-on to the OCO-2 satellite, which launched last year (ClimateWire, Dec. 19, 2014).

The mission would operate under NASA’s Earth Science Pathfinder program, for which the administration requested $267.7 million. This would be the second year the administration has prioritized the project.

The budget also transfers responsibilities to NASA from the beleaguered National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, so that the latter would focus solely on weather satellites in the future, said David Radzanowski, chief financial officer at NASA, in a press briefing.

Beginning in 2016, NASA would be responsible for NOAA’s space missions unrelated to weather, including TSIS-1, which would measure solar irradiance from the International Space Station, as well as satellites that track sea-level rise, Earth radiation balance, ozone and other such Earth observations.

It is unclear whether the shift in responsibility to NASA would be accompanied by a proportional increase in funding for the programs, Radzanowski said.

Reporters Lisa Friedman, Umair Irfan, Elizabeth Harball, Niina Heikkinen, Benjamin Hulac, Gayathri Vaidyanathan and Scott Detrow contributed.