Study explores climate impacts of boosting military spending while cutting social programs

A new white paper estimates the climate impacts of the budget request President Trump is expected to make on Tuesday, May 23.

A team of University of Vermont graduate students looked at the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that result from federal spending – a modest but important part of the United States’ overall carbon footprint.

Analyzing the Trump Administration’s Budget Blueprint, released in March, the researchers found that the changes in federal spending would produce 1.8 million metric tons of additional GHG emissions in 2018 alone.

That’s 1.8 million trips between New York City and Los Angeles in the average car, or a 1 percent increase in the carbon footprint of discretionary spending. Or a 0.03 percent increase in total United States’ GHG emissions.

“These emissions increases can seem small only because the U.S. has an enormous carbon footprint – but they are significant,” says Sam Bliss, a PhD student at UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment and Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. “1.8 million trips across the country is 1 out of every 200 Americans getting in their vehicle right now and motoring coast to coast. It’s not trivial.”

The paper grew out of a class assignment on the direct and indirect effects of spending decisions. It did not investigate the effects of President Trump’s proposed policies, such as leaving the Paris Agreement, or scrapping the Clean Power Plan, which would result in even greater emissions increases.

“Policy changes are often discussed in terms of GHG emissions, but the climate impacts of government spending are rarely considered,” says Alison Adams, who co-authored the paper with fellow graduate students Bliss, Kelly Hamshaw and Svenja Telle. “That’s what we wanted to explore.”

The rise in emissions would come mainly from the shift in spending from non-defense programs to the Pentagon. Defense operations release more emissions than other government activities, burning fuel to power aircraft, ships, and bases in remote locations. Expenditures on new weapons and fighter jets also result in industrial emissions from raw materials extraction, manufacturing, and energy to power these processes.

“Together, the Trump Administration’s proposed changes to the federal budget and to environmental policies present a big threat to global climate,” Bliss says. For example, the proposed dismantling of the Clean Power Plan, which seeks to reduce electricity sector emissions by roughly 30 percent, would have significant climate impacts. Power plants currently account for approximately 40 percent of the United States’ emissions. 

To limit global warming to 2°C, the Paris Agreement states that global emissions must decrease by as much as 39 percent from 2010 levels by 2030. 

The students are in the Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A) program, a graduate research and training partnership between the University of Vermont, McGill University, and York University. 


The study authors are PhD and Master's students in the Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A) program, a graduate research and training partnership between the University of Vermont, McGill University, and York University.