Climate Change and the Government Shutdown: What’s the Link?
By admin January 22, 2019

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The US Government’s shutdown, which began in December of 2018, will be entering its 32nd day come midnight on Tuesday. Its effects are being felt by the estimated 380,000 federal employees that were furloughed or are working without pay, as well as by federal courts, and even small businesses. Now, in addition to its social costs, environmental consequences are beginning to surface.

The US Global Change Research Program’s fourth National Climate Assessment has recently highlighted that: “climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth,” and this is what we are beginning to see with regards to the environmental impacts of the shutdown here in the US. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does have a contingency plan in place, a local nonprofit of former EPA staff and voluntary board members, known as the Environmental Protection Network, has identified the main problems that the US will face if the shutdown continues. These include, but are not limited to, inspection and enforcement issues, as further exemplified below.

Both NASA and the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) have been affected by the shutdown, creating a ripple effect globally due to the fact that they are now unable to produce their annual temperature analysis for 2018. The UK Met Office, for example, incorporates NOAA data into its own weather and climate monitoring estimates, but this data is currently unavailable to them. The New York Times reports on the critical nature of such data crossovers, as when analytical methods differ, but show the same result, “it helps give researchers confidence that their work is sound.” In addition to this, when time-sensitive scientific research is interrupted, it leads to the loss of thousands of dollars worth of work, as well as knowledge gaps that may be unresolvable in the future.

As previously mentioned, the inspections of industrial sites, such as power plants and chemical factories, for pollution violations have also been halted. The EPA employs around 600 pollution inspectors to ensure environmental laws are being observed by companies and plants in the US, which they verify through on-site visits and the reviewing of plant emission reports. According to the agency’s records, an average of 225 inspections were performed per week in 2017, meaning that hundreds may have already been missed. Since 10-20% of their pollution evaluations reveal “significant violations,”, the potential environmental impacts of a reduction in EPA inspections is an extremely important factor to consider.

Other consequences of the shutdown include the cancellation of US science conferences, a lack of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) safety inspections, and struggles in national parks across the country. In larger parks, such as Yosemite, the loss of funds and understaffed nature of the parks has created cleanliness and maintenance issues, causing damage that will take years to repair. National Geographic reported on the health risks posed to humans and animals alike from exposure to sewage, and the contributions of continuing garbage buildup to the pollution of the environment, which can have devastating effects in the long term. David Lamfrom, director of the California desert and wildlife programs at the National Parks Conservation Association even mentioned how “well-intentioned people…are leaving long term effects in national parks because they don’t have the ability to consult with rangers,”, adding that “the longer this goes on, the larger the impact becomes.” For example, the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia will now have its first significant data gap in its 40-year long record of acid rain pollution, despite the critical nature of the research for local ecosystems.

The long-lasting impacts the shutdown could have on climate change are even further emphasized by Dr. Chris Horvat, a polar oceanographer based at Brown University, and a member of the NOAA Climate and Global Change Postdoctoral Program. He detailed to the New York Times the effect that the shutdown is having on current climate research, calling attention to the potential knock-on effect with regards to future research in the field. According to Dr. Hovat, the fellowship program is not able to pay for travel and research without government support, and this can create setbacks in the early careers of new scientists. He laments: “we’re supposed to be the future of climate science, and we can’t do our jobs.”


For more information:

Here’s How the Shutdown Is Delaying Climate Data and Undercutting Scientists

Shutdown Means E.P.A. Pollution Inspectors Aren’t on the Job

EPA Company Data 2017

EPN: Effects of a Government Shutdown

Fourth National Climate Assessment

#ShutdownStories: The impact of the government shutdown

5 Key Environmental Impacts of the Government Shutdown

National Parks Face Years of Damage from Government Shutdown

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