USAID might stop climate aid, boost fossil fuels under Trump

By Scott Waldman, Sara Schonhardt | 03/27/2024 06:33 AM EDT

The international development agency would be remade under a plan by Trump allies and former officials.

USAID Administrator Samantha Power while delivering aid to Pakistan's Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari in 2022.

USAID Administrator Samantha Power while delivering aid to Pakistan's Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari in 2022 after Pakistan was devastated by months of deadly record floods. Pakistan Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP

A federal agency that distributes international aid and helps poorer countries respond to climate impacts would be transformed to boost coal, oil and gas in a second Trump term under a plan crafted by his close allies.

The U.S. Agency for International Development and dozens of agencies would be reinvented if former President Donald Trump is elected under a sweeping plan developed by conservatives including former Trump administration officials.

Conservative organizations working on the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 would propose ending USAID’s work supporting public health and gender equity as well as the aid it distributes to help communities deal with climate change, disease and poverty.


Under Trump, USAID would boost faith-based organizations that frequently discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community, ban abortion funding and eliminate any agency policy that restricts or inhibits fossil fuel usage.

“The next conservative Administration should rescind all climate policies from its foreign aid programs,” the 920-page policy proposal says.

“USAID should cease its war on fossil fuels in the developing world and support the responsible management of oil and gas reserves as the quickest way to end wrenching poverty and the need for open-ended foreign aid,” it adds.

The plan to remake USAID highlights the expansive nature of conservative organizations’ plan to transform every aspect of the federal government. Including USAID shows Trump allies intend a reinvention of government that goes far beyond the usual targets of EPA and the departments of Energy and Interior.

“There’s nothing that’s done more damage to our efforts to alleviate poverty and hunger than the green agenda because of its de-emphasis on fossil fuels for a lot of countries,” said Max Primorac, who wrote the Project 2025 chapter on USAID. Primorac, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, served as a senior USAID official in the Trump administration.

“It’s the most immediate means by which they can earn important revenues, to finance their critical social services to generate employment, generate wealth,” he added.

Primorac said increasing renewable energy would make more countries vulnerable to China, a major supplier of materials, and its human rights and environmental abuses. Increasing fossil fuel production would allow them to tap into the technologies used by Western countries.

Under the conservative proposal, USAID would work to secure labor and pension reforms in Latin America while promoting policies in those countries to lower taxes and strip away regulations and public health protections. In Africa, the agency would focus on developing “clean fossil fuels” to lift people out of poverty.

USAID funding is distributed mostly in the form of grants and early stage financing or technical and policy support to improve conditions in the world’s most impoverished regions.

The agency has trained workers to install solar panels in the Philippines and even during the Trump administration helped officials design and implement renewable energy auctions to help lower the cost of renewable energy projects.

USAID also emphasizes combating deforestation and food insecurity, responding to climate disasters such as extreme flooding in Pakistan and protecting against future catastrophes through measures such as early warning systems.

Making radical changes to USAID won’t be as simple as the proposal claims, particularly since funding for USAID and its programs requires approval by Congress. But it would be yet another attempt to unwind President Joe Biden’s cross-government climate agenda and could have more of an impact if coupled with other efforts laid out in Project 2025 to eradicate climate policies and funding at other agencies.

When Biden took office he appointed noted diplomat Samantha Power to lead USAID and instructed it to become a climate agency by emphasizing programs that would simultaneously improve development and address climate change.

The agency released a climate strategy in 2022 aimed at cutting 6 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, roughly what the U.S. produces in a year, and aligning its development work with climate commitments in at least 80 countries.

And while the Trump campaign — which didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story — has stated that all policy ideas would come from the former president himself, rather than outside groups, Project 2025 was crafted with input from more than 100 conservative organizations including a number of Trump administration veterans likely to return if he wins a second term.

Targeting federal climate policy as well as climate research and eliminating it from influencing government operations is a central plank of Project 2025.

‘Detailed playbook’

Project 2025 is generating concern among Biden backers because it indicates that a group of people close to the former president are thinking hard about how to dramatically alter the government’s priorities starting on day one.

“These are not merely policy proposals, but a detailed playbook to meticulously reverse decades of progress at home and abroad,” Biden campaign spokesperson James Singer said. “What they have proposed is dangerous, extreme, and out of touch with the American people. When America recedes from the world, it allows our adversaries to fill in the gap.”

The proposal doesn’t account for the fact that fossil fuels often create the problems that development aid is trying to address such as rising sea levels, drought and heat waves. It does not consider that profits from oil and gas pay for additional production, shareholder earnings or are subject to state capture rather than put toward social programs funded by development aid.

USAID does help countries expand access to electricity and that’s one area where decisions on whether to support clean energy over fossil fuels matter, but the agency alone doesn’t make major investments in energy infrastructure.

Project 2025 is “not the most precise of documents,” said Clemence Landers, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, a Washington.-based think tank.

“But,” she added, “the overarching message is there are going to be these massive cuts to foreign spending writ large.”

Landers posited that a shift at the federal government’s International Development Finance Corp., or DFC, would have more impact on the clean energy transition internationally.

DFC committed more than $3.7 billion in climate finance in fiscal year 2023, according to the agency. That includes a $425 million loan for a solar plant and manufacturing facility in India and a debt-for-nature swap in the Galapagos.

Project 2025 targets that agency, too. DFC should be restored to deploying commercial risk-reducing financial services “instead of its current misuse as another global vehicle to promote economy-killing climate programs, meet irrelevant diversity objectives, and overfocus on low-impact or misguided gender-based activities,” the plan states.

It recommends integrating DFC with USAID by having DFC’s chief development officer serve in both agencies simultaneously.

Two former USAID officials also say that despite administration policy swings on climate finance, the funding still depends on Congress. As of last year, only 5 percent of the State Department and USAID’s combined budget was directly allocated to climate issues.

“If Congress pushes through drastic cuts to an agency of the federal government, it can work to shut things down,” said Noam Unger, USAID’s acting chief strategy officer from 2017 to mid-2018 and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Usually, what’s going to protect any given program across government is the popularity and effectiveness of that program and how that message is received by members of Congress who hold the purse strings.”

Many of USAID’s programs are vital to international partners. During a discussion at the Brookings Institution on Tuesday, Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son referred to a project with USAID to develop new seeds that can withstand increased salinity due to sea-level rise, calling it “very important for us.”

Unger says proposals to stop all USAID climate efforts aren’t realistic.

“The reality is that we need developing country partners around the world, especially in an era of geostrategic competition,” he said.

In an interview with a small group of reporters in July, USAID Chief Climate Officer Gillian Caldwell said adaptation programs were hard hit by Trump-era budget cuts but that sustainable landscapes and renewable energy were less affected.

Part of ensuring continuity in USAID’s work is educating Congress about its programs and not painting them with too broad a brush “because the language can be manipulated,” Caldwell said. “And there’s concern about affiliation with something that appears to be climate related, when in fact, we’re talking about work that we’ve been doing for six decades now.”