Over the last several decades, top government officials and even military brass have come to view climate change as a national security issue. Under President Barack Obama, the notion was codified through recognition of the link by the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department, the State Department, and the National Intelligence Council. Now, President Donald Trump, with nearly all the government’s climate change work in his crosshairs, is poised to dramatically scale back environmental security programs — perhaps eliminating many entirely — through dramatic budget cuts.
Many of these programs help cities cope with water emergencies. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, one microbiologist interviewed by ABC News sampled floodwaters in New Orleans and found bacteria linked to sewage at 45,000 times the level considered safe for swimming. Seven years later, Hurricane Sandy inundated East Coast water treatment plants to the point of overflow, releasing a total of 10.9 billion gallons of sewage into waterways and streets along the mid-Atlantic coast. In places like Camden, New Jersey, an economically depressed, mostly black and Latino community with an outdated sewer system, the risk of contaminated water is more routine: Sewage flows into the streets amid hard rains.
At the federal level, the task of helping cities like New Orleans and Camden deal with these water crises falls in part to Homeland Security. It’s not one of the department’s flashiest mandates, but the work, in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency, helps to secure public health by stopping toilet water from entering streets, homes, and waterways during extreme weather events.
“If you’re going to have catastrophic flooding that threatens public health, then that’s something we need to look at,” said Alice Hill, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and an architect of the Department of Homeland Security’s early efforts at addressing climate change under Obama. “To the extent you see chronic seepage of wastewater endangering routinely the health of American citizens, that’s something Homeland Security will worry about.”
The Trump administration, however, has focused on security in purely military and law enforcement terms, whether through $54 billion in new Defense Department spending or increased funding for immigration enforcement and border protection. Those efforts are likely to come at the expense of environmental security. Despite his defense chief James Mattis’s public statements endorsing the links, Trump already issued an order canceling Obama’s push to consider climate change in national security planning. And Trump’s budget outline portends even more drastic moves away from protecting the nation against climate-related threats.
Among the most draconian proposed cuts, the EPA stands to have about a third of its budget eliminated. EPA programs targeted for wholesale cuts include those designed to protect critical water infrastructure from terror attacks, accidents, pandemics, and extreme weather caused by climate change. A March 21 itemized 2018 EPA budget proposal, first released by the Washington Post, suggested eliminating EPA’s $7.7 million “critical infrastructure protection” program. Although the budget is expected to change dramatically as Congress weighs in, the draft version provides an insight into Trump’s conception of security.
The EPA’s homeland security efforts provide tools to help water utilities determine risks and plan for catastrophe — whether it be an accident that introduces a contaminant into drinking water, a terrorist attempt to access some of the massive volumes of chemicals utilities use to clean the water, or flooding extensive enough to bring down drinking and wastewater facilities.
Camden, where the threat from rain seems ever more immediate than a terrorist attack, hosted a pilot program for one of the EPA’s critical infrastructure projects. According to Andy Kricun, head of the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, officials sped up flood prevention efforts after an EPA projection suggested a rapid rise in the Delaware River, according to data local water managers received from the EPA. The EPA helped the city draw up plans to deal with the issue through updating treatment plants, building a sea wall, and installing rain gardens that absorb millions of gallons of stormwater. Kricun said flooding has been reduced as a result.
Alan Roberson, who runs the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, does not see the project as a climate-specific program. “The EPA branded it with climate under Obama because that fit the administration,” he said, adding that water managers are interested in protecting the water, period. “From my point of view, it doesn’t matter if your pump station is hit by a tornado or loses power from an ice storm or someone puts a bomb on it … the end result is the same.”
Yet the climate change-related branding that helped advance the project under Obama has made it a target under the Trump administration. As White House budget director Mick Mulvaney put it, “Regarding the question 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.” In early April, the EPA closed its climate adaptation program, reassigning four staffers. And the March budget memo would slash 224 jobs focused on climate protection.
Trump has proposed boosting funding for the Department of Homeland Security overall, but none of that money would make up for the proposed EPA cuts. In fact, the proposed DHS budget would reportedly pay for increased border enforcement in part by reducing the budget of another federal agency that helps deal with climate change fallout, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, by 11 percent.
Funding for the EPA’s office of civil enforcement would be slashed by 37 percent, according to the March memo. Consent decrees originating in the office have been key to forcing communities to update their sewer systems, protecting residents from floods of sewage that will worsen with climate change. Roberson, of the drinking water association, pointed to a proposed 30 percent cut to public water system supervision grants, which help local agencies pay for public inspectors. Roberson said the cut “would be devastating.”
Asked to comment, and EPA spokesperson replied, “EPA is evaluating different approaches to implementing the president’s budget that would allow us to effectively serve the taxpayers and protect the environment. While many in Washington insist on greater spending, EPA is focused on greater value and results. The EPA will partner with the states to ensure a thoughtful approach is used to maximize every dollar to protect our air, land, and water.”
When it comes to the climate, the Camden Utilities Authority’s Kricun argued that focusing on the idea of climate change misses the point. “Our current infrastructure is inadequate to the way the climate is now,” he said.
It’s a perspective that surely resonates in Camden, where environmental-related human security is already a major worry today. But with the Delaware River rising thanks to climate change, and without effective climate adaptation efforts, the city’s problems will only worsen. Instead of helping cities beef up their efforts, the Trump administration is withdrawing a lifeline.