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U.S. Climate Innovators: Live in Fear or Flee to France? Filling the U.S. Federal Funding Void

Emmanuel Macron | Image credit: The Hill

French president Emmanuel Macron’s offer of refuge to U.S. climate scientists and innovators in the wake of Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement was not only a defiant policy rebuke, but a clear signal that France – like many other countries – now wants to seize momentum and take advantage in the absence of American leadership on climate.

Last month, Macron called on U.S. climate scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to pack their bags and come and work in France to “make our planet great again.” Whether any will take the French president up on his offer remains to be seen, but certainly there is growing fear among the scientific community that the U.S. now appears to be an anti-evidence and somewhat regressive place.

According to reports, the Trump administration plans to cut the US Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by almost a third, from $8.2 billion in 2016 to $5.7 billion in 2018. It will be the biggest cut of any federal agency in the White House’s proposed 2018 budget, and will result in significant job losses. Trump’s team are also considering wiping out some $100 million in spending on research and international programs on combating climate change.

There is also bad news for clean energy innovation – Trump’s team reportedly plan to slash funding for renewable energy R&D by around 70 percent. Other federal government funding areas due to be downsized include carbon sequestration, soil and water conversation, NASA earth science missions, and international climate response work. Not surprisingly, environmental and science advocacy groups have reacted with shock and anger to these proposals.

Rohit Shukla, CEO of the Larta Institute – a U.S. green technology accelerator – is one of many appalled by Trump’s tactics.

“When you stop scientists inside these agencies from pursuing enquiry-based research at a basic level, but then applied research at a more advanced level, that’s a pretty chilling thing. And that’s starting to happen,” he told Sustainable Brands in a recent interview.

He warned that such actions could result in a push towards a specific kind of politics that muzzles science: “This is consistent with a general skepticism around science from people who are not scientists. It’s fine to be skeptical, it’s important to be skeptical, but it is not okay to be skeptical without evidence of any kind.”

Since its establishment in 1993, the Larta Institute has helped more than 10,000 companies (many of which are startups) transform their ideas into commercialized, socially beneficial innovations in science and technology, particularly in agriculture and the life sciences. It conducts commercialization-assistance programs throughout the U.S. and in more than 20 countries.

Shukla points out that the U.S. government has been the largest funder of emerging innovation in the world, with the total amount granted dwarfing healthcare budgets in many countries. And while he says that the effect of what Trump is doing at the federal level won’t be immediate, his organization is already accelerating efforts to find new channels of support for the work and innovation it aims to foster.

“The future is uncertain in terms of the support for innovation at that level of federal engagement,” he says. “It’s very hard for startups who are reliant on this kind of support for the early stages of their development to be facing this. I think companies are going to have to be on-guard.”

That said, Shukla remains optimistic for two key reasons: the first being, as he put it, that the “genie is out of the bottle” – there is now broad consensus among the world’s leading corporations that mitigating the impacts of climate change is business-critical, and that innovation is a crucial lever in finding solutions to achieve that. Shukla also pointed to his home state of California, which is now seeking its own ‘Paris’ climate deal with China, potentially through the merging of carbon-trading markets.

“It’s fairly clear that U.S. industry is much farther ahead than the government,” he said. “U.S. innovation and leadership in these specific areas are quite high, quite far ahead. And so those companies are going to continue to engage at the international and national level.”

The second reason is the bureaucratic nature of government institutions – as Shukla put it, “it takes a long time to move direction.” He believes there will be a push on Congress to stall on any tactics the Trump administration might have started in the area of climate science and energy: “This might conspire nicely to prevent there from being too much damage.”

Ultimately, Shukla feels that while the U.S. might see a slow-down in government support for certain kinds of climate science research in the next few years, this could be balanced out by growing philanthropic and corporate support for innovation, as charitable foundations and organizations focused on a sustainable future step up.

He concluded that it’s important to maintain a sense of perspective: “We have to recognize that the Paris Agreement is an accord – it is not a legal framework, it’s suggested goals. We need to keep this in mind. It would have much worse if [Trump] had pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, for example.”


Maxine is an environmental journalist working in the field of corporate sustainability, circular economy and resource risk

[Read more about Maxine Perella]


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