The Environmental Spending Gap

The Amount We Spend to Keep Our Air and Water Clean Says a Lot About Our Priorities

How much are you willing to pay for access to clean air and drinking water?

© Boogie Green

What's a fair price to keep toxic chemicals out of the food supply, to ensure the future of ocean and freshwater fish stocks, to keep public parks open, and to stem the melting of the polar ice caps so our coastal cities remain above sea level and polar bears won't go extinct?

Questions of this sort prompted me to investigate how much the federal government and my home state of California (and ultimately we taxpayers) actually spend on environmental protection. Turns out neither comes close to one thin dime on the dollar.

Federal outlay for environmental protection is 1%

Federal environmental spending, like defense spending, comes under discretionary spending which in 2009 amounted to $1.2 trillion or about one-third of the total $3.5 trillion federal outlay. Mandatory spending makes up the remaining two-thirds of the federal budget (nearly $2.3 trillion) and goes to hefty programs like Medicare, Social Security and interest on the national debt.

Discretionary spending is divided into two broad categories, national defense and non-national defense, with defense spending eating up 53% of all discretionary dollars in 2009. The government keeps tabs on federal environmental spending in a category called natural resources and environment (NRE) which totaled $35 billion or just 2.8% of discretionary spending and a meager 1% of total federal spending.

What this means in dollars and cents spent on behalf of each person in the country is easy to compute using the U.S. Census Bureau estimate that the country's population in 2009 slightly exceeded 307 million: Per capita federal spending for NRE was just $114.49, dwarfed by the $2,139.24 spent for every man, woman and child on national defense.

That's just 31 cents per day spent on my (or your) behalf to preserve the environment versus $5.86 spent daily in one's name for national defense.

Historically, the picture has looked much the same (see graph), although there were modest relative upticks in NRE spending during Bill Clinton's and especially Jimmy Carter's presidency where, in 1980, funding for NRE reached an all-time high of almost 6% of discretionary dollars.

Remember, Carter is the president who also installed solar panels on the White House, only to see them removed when Ronald Reagan took office. President Obama, by the way, has just pledged to reinstall them by spring of 2011.

That relatively more was spent three decades ago than now on NRE seems backwards given the Herculean threats to the environment—like ocean acidification and fish depletion, deforestation, global warming, environmental contamination from endocrine-disrupting chemicals in everyday consumer products, and a Texas-sized cesspool of plastic trash in the Pacific Ocean—threats that were on the radar of far fewer scientists back then and had not yet entered the general public's consciousness.

For example, the name "Cousteau" in 1980 evoked only captivating images of the ocean's mystery and abundance, courtesy of the pioneering oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Today, his grandchildren Philippe, Jr. and Alexandra use the celebrity of the family name to bring attention to the serious degradations to vast bodies of both salt and freshwater wrought by human activities since their grandfather's time.

The folly of the huge imbalance between discretionary spending on national defense and NRE is brought into focus by the concept of environmental security which has gained political traction in recent years, especially as relates to U.S. dependence on foreign oil. This concept cautions that political instability and turmoil can emerge wherever there is competition for natural resources (e.g. water, land, fossil fuels) or when masses of people are displaced as a result of drought or famine triggered by environmental degradation, as in desertification, deforestation, soil erosion or declining marine fisheries.

Environmental security acknowledges that each nation's environmental foundations—its soil, minerals, vegetation, water and climate—ultimately underpin all socioeconomic activities and consequently political stability. The U.S. is no exception, yet we fund environmental preservation as though it is the concern of some minor special interest group.

Colin Powell warned as early as 1999, "Sustainable development is a compelling moral and humanitarian issue, but it is also a security imperative. Poverty, environmental degradation and despair are destroyers of people, of society, of nations. This unholy trinity can destabilize countries, even entire regions." One need only reflect on the modern history of the African continent to drive home the point.

California budgets six cents on the dollar for the environment

California is our most populous state and is generally regarded a progressive leader on environmental issues. Perhaps the dearth in federal environmental spending is compensated for at the state level?

California's expenditures for natural resources and environmental protection accounted for six cents of every dollar in the state's 2009-10 budget ($7.3 billion out of $119 billion), according to the California Department of Finance. Per capita, this amounted to $190.

Adding it all up, the federal government and the state of California together spent $305 in the last year to keep the environment safe for me. Given what a good pair of walking shoes or membership at a health club can set you back, this doesn't seem like much.

And with unemployment and the economy driving most political discourse these days, the likelihood seems near zero that the pieces of the federal and state budget pies carved out for the environment will grow any time soon. Case in point: the allocation for the environment in the California budget just enacted for 2010-11 was cut to 5.5%, reflecting a spending drop of $415 million compared to the previous year.

I, however, am all for diverting a good chunk of the spending in my name on military defense and foreign wars to funding efforts to stave off very real looming threats to both national security and my own personal well-being from our fossil fuel-based economy, environmental contaminants, water shortages, global climate change and the like.

If only there were a box I could check on federal and state income tax forms deciding how my tax dollars will be spent.

SARAH (STEVE) MOSKO writes the blog Boogie Green ( ) where this post first appeared.