With his legislative climate agenda hanging in the balance, President Biden turned to executive action this week in his attempt to “assert American leadership” at COP26 in Glasgow. On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced sweeping new rules to curb methane emissions. Those standards, which the agency estimates would eliminate a greater volume of emissions between 2023 and 2035 than those emitted from all U.S. passenger cars and commercial planes in 2019, were rightly applauded. For now, however, these are just estimates. Ensuring that they turn into real-life emissions reductions that meet or exceed expectations will require that agencies have the capacity to promptly write strong new rules and, then, enforce them.
This is true of practically every one of the climate policies, whether executive or legislative, that are under consideration right now. Unfortunately, as we lay out in a new report, “Climate Capacity Crisis,” agencies’ staffing levels have been severely depleted in recent years, leaving them struggling under the weight of already-existing responsibilities. If this administration wants to avoid having its bold visions turned into half measures or outright failed programs, it must do more to quickly increase its agencies’ capacities to effectively carry out policies old and new.
The trend toward staff attrition at federal agencies is nothing new. Even as the country’s need for scientifically informed federal policy has grown—in line with a growing population, the proliferation of pressing scientific challenges, and the increasing sophistication of corporate-funded “scientific” influence campaigns—the federal government’s capacity to deliver has fallen. This divergence accelerated under Obama, and Trump’s record of downplaying climate change and sabotaging climate efforts made an already severe problem even worse. From 2010 to 2020, the EPA lost 17.9 percent of its staff members.
The EPA wasn’t the only key climate agency that Trump decimated. Over the four years Trump was in office, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) lost 2.5 percent of its STEM employees. Two of its climate research subagencies, the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, lost 75 percent of their employees—amounting to “hundreds, if not thousands of staff years of expertise”—after the agencies’ offices were suddenly and needlessly moved from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City, Missouri. Staff attrition from the relocation was not an unintended consequence. Trump’s White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney referred to the move as “a wonderful way” to shrink the federal government.
In addition to the relocation, Trump also used censorship to drive STEM workers out of climate agencies. Plant physiologist Lewis Ziska, who had worked for USDA’s Agricultural Research Service for over 20 years, left in protest after the Trump administration tried to bury his groundbreaking study about how rice is losing nutrients due to rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. At the Department of Interior (DOI), which lost nearly 500 STEM employees, Secretary Ryan Zinke required scientific funding above $50,000 to undergo an additional review to ensure expenditures aligned with the administration’s priorities. Combating climate change was not one of them. Zinke also reportedly blocked advice from science advisory committees, while removing, reassigning, and intimidating scientists at the DOI. The United States Geological Survey, a subagency within the DOI and one of the country’s premier climate science research institutions, lost over 300 STEM employees between 2016 and 2020 following attacks by anti-science appointees. Former USGS Director James Reilly, for example, reportedly instructed scientists to avoid engaging in long-term modeling of climate change impacts.
The climate responsibilities that now fall on these depleted workforces are only growing as Biden introduces new initiatives and projects. At the EPA, for example, Biden has called for new rules that would ensure passenger vehicles averaged about 51 miles per gallon by 2026, as well as other rules that set new standards for climate-warming pollution from power plants, vehicle tailpipes, and oil and gas wells. Unless accompanied by increased staffing efforts, these new initiatives will likely increase the burden on the agency’s remaining STEM employees.
In fact, the EPA’s reduced workforce is already struggling to catch up on existing responsibilities, which include researching, writing, and making public reports on toxic chemicals that present substantial risks to health or the environment. Companies are required to submit evidence to the EPA if they possess chemicals that present these risks, and the EPA is responsible for publishing them. Since January 2019, the EPA received over 1,200 reports documenting the risk of serious health and environmental harm posed by various chemicals. However, due to “overarching (staff and contractor) resource limitations” the EPA only published one such report in 2019. Not fulfilling its responsibilities could have dire consequences for humans and wildlife.
Thus far, funding and staff rebuilding efforts look promising. Biden has proposed much-needed budget increases at many of these agencies, sufficient to grow agency staff by nearly 20 percent in some cases. As the administration waits for Congress to pass its annual budget, it has also begun some new hiring. Between September 2020 and June 2021, USDA has added just over 400 STEM employees. But that still leaves a long way to go to get capacity back to pre-2016 levels, a goal that should be considered the absolute minimum.
Put this in the context of the world’s exceedingly short window in which to take the steps necessary to stop catastrophic climate change and it should be clear that this progress is not moving nearly fast enough. What’s more, that already alarming timeline arguably understates the urgency here in the United States, where Biden has three years to make the case to the American people that a Democrat should remain in the White House, not to mention one year to do all he can to help his party keep hold of Congress. With all these clocks ticking, how can Congress and the administration speed the process of enabling these agencies to do their work?
Filling the staffing gaps created by Trump and the years of austerity that preceded him will require Congress to increase agencies’ budgets by as much or more than the White House has proposed. In the meantime, the Biden administration can be doing more to address acute needs and lay the groundwork for swift future action by improving federal hiring, which is famously inefficient. Through the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), it can take a more active role in authorizing, encouraging, and coordinating new hiring strategies. In our report, we recommend OPM take straightforward actions, like authorizing new hiring authorities, to clear certain time-consuming hurdles in federal hiring; make internal structural changes to better support agency HR departments; and play a larger role in identifying best practices and pushing agencies to adopt them. Making these changes would contribute to an immediate acceleration in hiring at the agencies most responsible for climate policy. Perhaps even more importantly, it would ensure that agencies are able to quickly take advantage of new appropriations from Congress as soon as they become available.
You don’t have to look far to find examples of environmental policies falling victim to the lack of capacity to effectively implement them. The EPA’s failure to issue warnings about toxic chemicals, revealed by The Intercept this week, is just one of many. If the Biden administration hopes to avoid simply adding to that list, it must do more to ensure agencies have the capacity they need to succeed.