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The EPA is struggling to hit critical climate deadlines. Thanks, Trump.

A new report shows how understaffing could hurt Biden's ability to fulfill his ambitious climate goals.
President Joe Biden in the Rose Garden of the White House May 9, 2022 in Washington, DC.
President Joe Biden in the Rose Garden of the White House May 9, 2022 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer / Getty Images, file

President Joe Biden’s sweeping climate agenda could be in jeopardy due to something seemingly mundane: deadlines. As The New York Times reports, the Environmental Protection Agency is struggling to stick to a rapid timeline for enacting critical regulations before they become vulnerable to Republican opposition in the coming years. 

A big reason for the predicament is the guy who occupied the Oval Office before Biden. Donald Trump’s hostility to scientific research, and to the environment, led to the agency hemorrhaging huge numbers of staffers, and now Biden is paying the price for it. It’s a reminder of how one of the more overlooked legacies of the Trump era — the hollowing out of vital federal government bureaucracy — could deal a blow to the government’s ability to fulfill its duties and carry out lifesaving policies for generations.

According to the Times report, more than 1,200 scientists and policy experts left the EPA during the Trump administration as Trump undercut the EPA’ regulatory mechanisms, shunned the work of its scientists and shrank the EPA’s budget. Staff were demoralized and overworked, and it’s taking a while to recover. The Times reports that over the last two years, Biden’s hiring has brought EPA staff numbers back up to … “slightly more than when Ronald Reagan was president.” Not promising!

What this means is that the agency’s staff are being worked to the bone to deliver Biden’s ambitious plans. But without enough personnel, they're at risk of missing deadlines for the complex regulatory regimes meant to restrict emissions of pollutants and chemicals. Regulations take a long time to craft, and EPA officials are saying they’re behind where they should be. If the regulations take too long to lock into place, they could be more easily overturned by Republicans in the White House or Congress in 2024.

The fact that understaffing could potentially fuel the Biden administration not fulfilling its climate goals is a depressing thing to contemplate. This isn’t a matter of congressional gridlock getting in the way of badly needed policy; miraculously, Congress actually managed to pass a flawed, but still impressive, climate bill last year. And now the EPA has more money than it’s had in a long time. The problem is the federal government’s apparatus for actually bringing those plans to fruition has been hobbled by a political figure and movement that actively seeks chaos and dysfunction in the management of government. It’s another way the right undermines democracy — by dismantling the kind of organization that the government needs to fulfill its policy mandates from citizens.

Imagine if Biden’s predecessor had instead been a politician who valued the EPA’s mission, and sought to fund it properly and champion its cause. It’s possible the agency might still be scrambling as they take on new challenges, but it would have the wind at its back, and it would be better positioned to help protect the world against its greatest threats.