President Donald Trump's critics argue that pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord will lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
If Trump has his way, the world may never know.
The president's budget request to Congress would eliminate or gut core programs across the federal government that track the heat-trapping gases. If those cuts go ahead, the government may not be able to tell if emissions are rising or falling.
"The first step in any decent regulatory program is a requirement for monitoring," David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview.
"If you don't know what's there, it's harder for the public or the regulators to do anything about it."
Stephen Cole, a spokesman for NASA, which is slated under the president's proposed budget to lose money for a satellite-based carbon-measuring system, said the cut reflects budget constraints. "NASA remains committed to studying our home planet and the universe, but we are reshaping our focus within the resources available to us," he said in an email.
Whether the cuts happen will depend on Congress, and the degree to which Republicans share Trump's priorities.
Critics of government climate efforts, meanwhile, support the administration's cuts, calling emissions-monitoring programs a waste of taxpayers' money. "This doesn't necessarily need to be housed within the federal government," said Nick Loris, a research fellow for the Heritage Foundation.
"If the private sector wants to continue to pursue greenhouse gas monitoring, that's fine."
The government has two basic tools for tracking emissions. The Trump administration is proposing to cut or wind down both of them.
The first approach is to measure gases at their source. Every factory or other installation that emits the equivalent of 25,000 tons or more of carbon dioxide, the primary contributor to global warming, must track and report those emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency makes those emissions public through its annual Greenhouse Gas Inventory.
That inventory makes it possible for the federal government to measure total emissions, and also to see changes in emissions by industry and by region. It also fulfills the U.S. commitment under a 1992 United Nations climate treaty, signed by President George H. W. Bush and ratified by the Senate, to publish "national inventories of anthropogenic emissions by sources."
Trump's budget request would reduce funding for the EPA's greenhouse-gas reporting program by 86 percent, to $14 million in 2018 from $95 million this year. It's not clear how the EPA would be able to continue the inventory with that cut, according to Janet McCabe, who was responsible for it as head of the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation under President Barack Obama.
“Sometimes we find out that certain activities emit LESS than we thought, sometimes more,” McCabe said in an email. “As they say, you can't manage what you don't measure.”
And rolling back the program would give tacit permission to other countries to make similar changes, according to Bob Perciasepe, deputy EPA administrator from 2009 to 2014.
“Weakening U.S. capacity to report accurately will undermine our ability to push the rest of the world to be transparent,” Perciasepe said in an email. "One of the core strengths of the Paris agreement is extending similar requirements to China and other developing countries so they're more accountable to the international community."
The EPA said it can do more with less. "While many in Washington insist on greater spending, EPA is focused on greater value and results," the agency said in an emailed statement.
The second way to measure greenhouse gas emissions is in the atmosphere.
In 2010, NASA created the Global Carbon Monitoring program, which uses satellites to detect the concentration of those gases. Trump's budget request would eliminate that program entirely.
The NASA program provides "long-term, reliable, continuous data series" that can't be matched by other countries, said Gretchen Goldman, research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Without such vital monitoring efforts, we can't understand and prepare for climate change as well."
Stephen Cole, a NASA spokesman, said the cut reflects budget constraints. "NASA remains committed to studying our home planet and the universe, but we are reshaping our focus within the resources available to us," he said in an email.
Democrats say they will try to maintain funding for the programs.
"We know that the Earth is warming, sea ice is disappearing, the glaciers are receding, the oceans are acidifying, and sea levels are rising," Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said in an email. "We know all of this from climate research and monitoring."
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