Congress has to pass a stopgap spending bill by the end of this month to prevent a government shutdown. Most of the political gossip about it will probably center on whether progressives can separate the bill from a giveaway to fossil fuel interests that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) wants to tack on. The Prospect’s David Dayen predicted on Tuesday that the left would succeed, which would be quite the case of history rhyming, after Manchin separated the roads-and-highways bipartisan infrastructure law from the much more ambitious Build Back Better Act last year. But with a number of establishment Democrats likely to support Manchin’s dirty side deal, the fight will be intense.
But climate policy can’t just be about blocking bad bills. A more important component to mitigating global warming is the government’s funding level itself. After passing a continuing resolution, which will fund the federal civil service at its current, insufficient level for the next several months, Congress will need to draft and pass an omnibus spending bill, which lumps together appropriations funding for all federal agencies. The omnibus is all-important, as that’s where spending increases can get locked in.
The civil service is desperately understaffed. We still haven’t recovered from the Trump-era brain drain across government agencies, which has been a major impediment to Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency, among other agencies.
But more broadly, we need to start thinking of investment in the civil service as investment in America’s future. The kind of civil service we build is indicative of what our climate strategy will be.
One of the consistent themes in climate policy is that the longer we wait to act on a problem, the more painful it will be when we’re forced to address it. The same goes for civil service expansion. If skeptics of “big government” think that implementing the Inflation Reduction Act’s green tax credits will be a logistical challenge, try evacuating flooded cities, relocating climate refugees, allocating scarce food in a world with more famines, calming financial panics as natural disasters destroy trillions of dollars worth of assets, and maintaining human rights and dignities as society falters.
The changing climate is already causing more frequent and extreme social and economic catastrophes, and these require government resources to address. That means more people dedicated to the task. The worse the climate crisis gets, the larger the government is going to need to become. That’s inevitable.
The question is how we’ll be expanding the government: hiring conservationists, high-speed rail conductors, and green-energy workers, or, as the Rhodium Group recommended, “deploying more police officers on abnormally hot days,” who we know are “more likely to use deadly force in a training simulation when confronted with threatening individuals in a hotter environment”? I strongly prefer the first option.
It’s not as if one spending bill will determine the fate of human society forever. But the sooner we can start expanding government capacity, and acclimate our leaders to the idea that the era of big government is very much back on (that is, big government outside of the Pentagon), the better. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of good, productive projects for our civil servants to start on as soon as they’re onboarded.
On Tuesday, the Revolving Door Project released a sweeping report on executive branch actions to protect the environment, punish big polluters, and make a tangible difference in the lives of ordinary Americans. This includes actions at the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Interior, but also less obvious places like the Department of Agriculture, Department of Justice, the financial regulatory agencies, and more.
Even what we covered is a partial list; agencies like the Department of Commerce and Department of Labor also have crucial roles to play on climate, and they’ll need additional people to do it. There’s no shortage of productive work to do just to meet the government’s current commitments under existing laws like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, as the Jackson, Mississippi, water crisis is demonstrating. This work will make a real difference in communities nationwide, and will require a federal workforce from a broad range of professional backgrounds.
Hire more EPA inspectors to enforce Clean Air Act provisions, and you can extend millions of people’s life spans by reducing toxic particulates in the air they breathe. Hire a Federal Firefighting Service at the Department of the Interior, and you can save people’s homes from wildfires that are more frequent and more dangerous than ever. Hire more lawyers at the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division (and enroll them in improved public-service loan forgiveness programs), and you can bring wildly unpopular big polluters to justice, and set key new legal precedents.
All of these are immediate options the federal government can undertake under long-standing law. Congress needs to pass bigger, more sweeping climate legislation. But in order to execute these future bills, the executive branch will need experience training lots of new workers and a greater budget to hire new staff. There’s no time like the present to get started. And the longer we wait, the harder it will be.
Anti-public conservatives will no doubt claim that hiring more civil servants would bankrupt the nation. They’ll find useful idiots to parrot this argument in Washington’s cottage industry of budget hawks. These objectors are either woefully misinformed, liars, or both: Between 1970 and 1990, the Clean Air Act alone saved Americans an estimated $22 trillion in health care. Healthier communities demand less resources and will pay more in taxes over longer life spans.
Moreover, as my colleagues Hannah Story Brown and Eleanor Eagan have argued, enforcement against corporate criminals is the country’s greatest unused revenue stream. In 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission—which is already preparing for its indispensable role in greening the financial system—brought in about $3 in enforcement fees for every $1 it received from Congress. The EPA brought in about $2 for every $1 in enforcement appropriations, and that was during a historic lull in enforcement. If someone is worried about the deficit (which they shouldn’t be, but I digress), then they should be screaming from the rooftops to hire more civil servants.
But the most important point is that if the contours of our federal government indicate what tools we’ll have available to address the coming climate catastrophes, then we’re currently hurtling toward a cruel, repressive, violent strategy. We can see it in the record $839 billion Pentagon budget, $37 billion more than President Biden’s already record-high request, while other agencies continue to languish under decades-old budget cuts.
If, as the climate crisis worsens, the only people our government has trained are soldiers, and the only equipment we have bought is bombs (or nonfunctioning airplanes), then the tools we’ll have as the climate gets worse will be extremely limited. As Brown argues in our climate report, the Pentagon as currently constructed simply cannot exist in a country that’s serious about preventing climate change, yet it is by far the best-funded and best-staffed federal agency.
Moreover, our wealthiest federal agency is also our most casually wasteful and (obviously) destructive. The U.S. military consumes more oil than any other institution on Earth, and accounts for 80 percent of the government’s energy consumption, yet it’s exempt from almost all of the emissions reporting and reduction requirements of the other agencies and consumer products. It doesn’t use that oil efficiently either; the military’s oil supply chain produces more than five times as much emissions as its actual combat operations, and two-thirds of the oil consumed in the invasion of Iraq was used to transport more oil to the front lines.
The Defense Department spent less than 1 percent of its budget on climate change this year, a minuscule $617 million, which went toward “exercises, wargames, analyses and studies” to see how the changing planet will affect military operations. War games like these are themselves major sources of pollution.
Of course, one could recognize the cost savings of big new enforcement actions, and even support a smaller military budget, but still get unnerved at the thought of lots of new government intervention in the economy. To these people, I’d ask two simple questions. Which is going to cost the government more: hiring some lawyers and bureaucrats, or resettling all of Miami? And which is a better use of government resources: reducing the carcinogens in our air and drinking water, or beating climate refugees desperate for food?
That is the choice in front of us. The sooner Congress and the White House start building out the civil servant workforce needed for the coming years, the better. They’ll have an opportunity to start at the end of the month.