Trump's international climate budget: 'We're not spending money on that anymore'

Workers train to install solar panels at health clinics in Rwanda. Photo by: Walt Ratterman / USAID / CC BY-NC

President Donald Trump’s draft budget, released Thursday morning, took direct aim at U.S. support for international climate change action, including withdrawing support for the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund, ending U.S. climate-related foreign aid programs, and curtailing investments in research and development.

The president’s Budget Director Mick Mulvaney did not mince words in explaining Trump’s rationale.

“As to climate change, I think the president was fairly straightforward — we're not spending money on that anymore; we consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that,” he said in a briefing Thursday.

Trump proposed a 28 percent cut to the United States Agency for International Development and the State Department, which fund most of the U.S. government’s climate and resilience-related activities in developing countries. Trump’s budget calls for dismantling entirely the Global Climate Change Initiative, which coordinates much of this work.

“Overall, what this budget represents is climate denialism in action,” said Heather Coleman, climate change policy manager at Oxfam America.

Digging deep: How Trump's budget affects everything from local jobs to foreign stability

Senators, development experts, lobbyists and advocates are working overtime to figure out how best to tackle unprecedented cuts.

While the president’s budget request merely serves as an outline of priorities — with actual budget appropriations falling to Congress — it will be hard to avoid some degree of cutbacks, which will be detrimental to domestic and international climate change efforts, experts warn.

“Cuts are coming, but they won’t be as drastic as the [Environmental Protection Agency] getting cut by a third. But for political reasons, I think the international commitments will get hit the hardest,” said Gustavo A. Silva-Chávez, program manager at Forest Trends.

Trump’s budget would threaten the U.S. Power Africa initiative, which former President Barack Obama launched with bipartisan support, said David Waskow, director of the World Resources Institute’s International Climate Initiative. The initiative aims to double access to energy in sub-Saharan Africa, and it includes efforts to spur renewable energy investments, which this budget would imperil.

The proposed elimination of the U.S. African Development Foundation, for example, would cut off a funding source for African energy entrepreneurs working to find off-grid solutions to the continent’s prevalent energy poverty.

President Trump has yet to confirm whether he will withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 Paris climate deal — something he promised on the campaign trail but later appeared to backtrack on.  

However, the budget outline makes clear the White House will look to discontinue all climate finance commitments if given the opportunity. The U.S. will “cease payments to the United Nations’ (UN) climate change programs by eliminating U.S. funding related to the Green Climate Fund and its two precursor Climate Investment Funds,” Trump’s budget outline reads.

To date, the U.S. has paid $1 billion of the $3 billion it committed to the Green Climate Fund. The fund was established by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2005 to channel money to climate resilient projects in developing countries. U.S. commitments make up nearly one-third of the fund’s budget.

Some experts were surprised to see the Climate Investment Funds included on Trump’s list of targets, not least of all because they are set to gradually expire anyway as the Green Climate Fund ramps up its operations.

“These funds were created with bipartisan support under the George W. Bush administration. All of these funds have a great deal of U.S. oversight, transparency … are held to the highest fiduciary standards, are known and seen to deliver real impacts on the ground. On that front, I am shocked and I think that it’s reckless,” Coleman said.

Another expert took issue with the budget’s mischaracterization of these climate trust funds as a “United Nations climate change program.”

“It sits at the World Bank, but has had nothing to do with the U.N.,” Waskow said.

The EPA, the main U.S. agency working on monitoring and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, is also earmarked for 31 percent cuts. In particular, the budget proposes halting funding of the Clean Power Plan, designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions for U.S. power plants. Other cuts will slash funding for development and research in renewables and energy efficiency and international climate change programs run by the EPA.

The draft budget also proposes halving the EPA’s Office of Research and Development budget, and scrapping the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy — ARPA-E — which funds innovative technologies including biofuels and clean cars. The budget request argues that “the private sector is better positioned to finance disruptive energy research and development and to commercialize innovative technologies.”

A climate of uncertainty

At a press briefing held Thursday, State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner was unable to say whether the U.S. would continue its financial contributions to the UNFCCC, since these were previously drawn from the Global Climate Change Initiative budget line, which Trump’s budget zeroes out.

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"We’re still going through all this and figuring it out … I don’t have additional details for how or what we may fund going forward,” he said.

Experts working on international climate change policy and finance said that Congress is unlikely to approve the Trump administration’s budget in its current form, but they say it is still bad news for the sector.

International climate funding is often threatened by Republican administrations but generally survives, according to Brandon Wu, director of policy and campaigns at ActionAid USA.  However, if the administration’s cuts do go through, “it would send a significant signal to the rest of the world,” he said.

Multilateral funds such as the Green Climate Fund, which stands to lose 30 percent of its funding if the U.S. pulls out, will also survive but will have “substantially less money for actual programs on the ground to combat climate change,” he warned.

“In short, zeroing out U.S. support for international climate activities is a shirking of our moral responsibility to keep our world livable and to help those who are most vulnerable … Hopefully Congress — under pressure from citizens who know better — will show more wisdom,” Wu said.

While international climate activities would no doubt feel the loss of U.S. funding, other countries, including Norway, Germany and Japan, are growing their overseas commitments. Meanwhile, climate-vulnerable middle-income countries such as Brazil, India and China are devoting more resources to climate change mitigation and adaptation, he said.

The private sector will also continue to play a crucial role, Silva-Chávez said, irrespective of the final U.S. budget numbers.

“We still need a lot of money, and the elimination of U.S. funding is not good, but we’ve seen other countries stepping up over the last 10 years, which is a good signal, and the private sector, which is really where the bulk of the money is, is seeing a lot of activity and that will continue regardless of what the U.S. does,” he said.

With virtually all U.S. climate change programs taking a hit in Trump’s budget, supporters of U.S. engagement in climate action should ask themselves a question, said Coleman from Oxfam: Given the social and economic realities of climate change, is there a set of issues supporters can convince the Trump administration to support?

“I think it’s hard to be against energy efficiency. It’s hard to be against programs like Mission Innovation that are supporting research and development in new energy technologies. I think it’s hard to be against renewable energy investments that benefit U.S. energy security and benefit U.S. business,” Coleman said.

“This administration is eventually going to have to be for something. The question is, what are they going to be for?” she said.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of what the Trump administration means for global development. Read more coverage here and subscribe to The Development Newswire.

About the authors

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.
  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.