Trump team asks State Dept. what it spends on international environmental efforts

Source: By Juliet Eilperin and Carol Morello, Washington Post • Posted: Thursday, December 22, 2016

Secretary of State John F. Kerry walks on a frozen section of the Ross Sea near the McMurdo Station in Antarctica on Nov. 12. (Mark Ralson/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s presidential transition team has asked State Department officials to disclose how much money it provides each year to international environmental groups. It’s the latest example of how the incoming administration is reassessing the U.S. government’s approach to tackling climate change and other environmental priorities.

As part of a list of questions posed last week to the department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, according to multiple people familiar with the matter, the Trump landing team asked, “How much does the Department of State contribute annually to international environmental organizations in which the department participates?”

The individuals familiar with the request spoke on the condition of anonymity because transition communications are confidential.

It is unclear which specific groups the transition team was referring to in its question; a spokesman for the president-elect did not respond to a request for comment Monday night.

The State Department has worked aggressively under President Obama to support international initiatives to cut greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change, but Trump has vowed to pull back from such efforts.

On Nov. 1, Trump said he would “cancel billions of dollars in global warming payments to the United Nations” and devote that money instead to green infrastructure projects and environmental protection.

Donald Trump will enter the White House with an environmental policy agenda opposed to that of the Obama administration and many other nations that have pledged support to the Paris climate agreement. The Washington Post’s Chris Mooney breaks down what a Donald Trump presidency will mean when it comes to climate change. (Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

His campaign released a policy statement that day suggesting that he would “cancel all wasteful climate change spending,” which would include the elimination of all of the federal government’s international and domestic climate programs as well as a rollback in regulations aimed at cutting carbon emissions. The campaign estimated that these moves would save $100 billion over eight years, though it did not release a detailed accounting of how those savings would be generated.

As part of the Paris climate agreement reached a year ago, the United States pledged to donate $3 billion over four years to the Green Climate Fund, a multinational fund aimed at helping poor nations adapt to the most severe climate impacts and develop renewable sources of energy. So far, the administration has provided $500 million to the fund.

The State Department does spend money on global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, though it is unclear how much is annually budgeted for such work. According to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report, federal spending on climate change initiatives between fiscal year 2008 and 2013 totaled roughly $77 billion. Two-thirds of those funds went to developing carbon-free technology and deploying those advances, and most of that work was undertaken by the Energy Department rather than State.

“While the transition team has a right to know how the State Department spends its money, what they are going to find out is that environmental spending is a tiny fraction of the foreign affairs budget, which itself is a small part of the federal budget,” said Nigel Purvis, who served in the State Department under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and now heads the D.C. consulting firm Climate Advisers. “Most international environmental programs run by the State Department enjoy broad bipartisan support and many of these programs were started by Republicans.”

The State Department has not responded to the Trump transition team’s question about its support for international environmental organizations, according to a person familiar with the request.

Earlier this month, members of the Trump transition team asked Energy Department officials to identify which employees had attended international climate conferences and worked on domestic efforts to cut carbon. Trump’s staff said last week that the questionnaire “was not authorized or part of our standard protocol,” and that the aide who wrote it “has been properly counseled.”

Last week, Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to the State Department urging Secretary of State John F. Kerry to beware of “witch hunts.”

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday that no similar request for names had been made by the transition team embedded in a wing of the State Department, whether on environmental or other issues.

“I know of no such request for lists of that sort,” Kirby told reporters. “For our part, we continue to work with the transition team that’s here at the State Department to help them prepare for seamlessly assuming the reins,” he added.

Kerry has ordered the State Department to cooperate and be helpful to the transition team to ensure a smooth handover.

Although some State Department officials found the question about funding for environmental groups troubling, one senior official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because transition communications are confidential, said the requests from the transition team have been appropriate.

“They are legitimately looking at the organization of things here at Foggy Bottom, and asking responsible questions about how the State Department is organized, how it’s resourced, how it’s managed, and trying to get a handle on the organization they will inherit in a few weeks,” the official said. “It’s legitimate. It’s normal. It’s responsible. If they weren’t doing it, you’d be asking questions.

“We are helping, providing information on request. If they ask, they get it. We want them to succeed. A big part of that is getting a firm grip on things.”

Kerry, who has worked on the issue of climate change for his entire political career, has told scientists in the wake of the election that they need to increase the public’s sense of urgency on the issue.

“We need to get more of a movement going,” he said last month when addressing several hundred scientists and staff members at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, a large base that is the hub for U.S. operations. “We need to get more people to engage.”