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A fiery Fourth of July threatens Southwest economies

This story was originally published by High Country News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Around the country, Americans are cooking up hamburgers and bratwursts on their barbecues, embarking on backcountry camping trips, and preparing fireworks displays to celebrate the Fourth of July.

In the Southwest, those celebrations will be markedly different. Fire restrictions — and in some cases closures — are in place for many national forests in the four corners region of Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. Officials hope to avoid adding to the wildfires already burning there and across the West, including in Alaska, Northern California, and Oregon. Over a dozen fireworks celebrations have been canceled in Colorado mountain towns, which often depend on the holiday to bring in tourism revenue.

The cancellations aren’t new, but they are more prevalent this year as the Southwest grapples with a severe drought. While precipitation levels vary from year to year, all signs point to further aridification in the region over the long term. This year may illustrate the likely changes to come as communities across the West are forced to confront challenges to their economies — and their quality of life.

Take the town of Silverton, Colorado, for example. This year’s weather hit the town of 630 people doubly hard. First, a bad snow season delayed the town’s ski resort opening date until mid-January; then drought brought forest closures and fast-moving wildfire, including the 416 Fire, which closed off one of the main gateways to town. The blaze also halted service of the narrow gauge train, a major tourist attraction, between Silverton and Durango. Those factors, and the ensuing media coverage, led to a “tsunami of lodging cancellations for all the summer season,” said DeAnne Gallegos, executive director of the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce. The town usually makes most of its money during the summer months. This year, however, Gallegos estimates the summer economy is down by 60 to 80 percent, with businesses along the train route faring even worse. Fourth of July is typically the area’s biggest summer draw, but this year the town had to cancel its fireworks.

Nearby towns, including Durango, Ouray, and Pagosa Springs, also decided to skip the pyrotechnics this year. Where officials have the financial resources, however, they are embracing new forms of celebration. Glenwood Springs and Steamboat Springs have scheduled laser shows, and Aspen is advertising a patriotic drone light display in lieu of explosives. Closer to the Front Range, Breckenridge town council members acknowledged that doing away with fireworks might be a permanent reality. “If we see our summers continuing to get hotter and drier that’s definitely going to be probably more of the future,” Breckenridge spokeswoman Haley Littleton said at a city council meeting last week.

In addition to fireworks cancellations, most of the national forests in the region are under at least Stage 2 fire restrictions. That means anything that can produce a spark is forbidden, including campfires, barbecues, smoking in open areas, target shooting on public land, and using tools like chainsaws without a device to stop sparks. The situation is dire enough to close many national forests in the Southwest. In New Mexico, for example, the 1.5 million-acre Carson National Forest shut down last week — a month after the Santa Fe National Forest closed. The Cibola National Forest has also been closed since mid-June. In Arizona, where several wildfires have cropped up, popular areas in the Prescott National Forest, the Tonto National Forest, and the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests have also been shuttered until conditions improve.

As the climate changes, these types of forest closures and fire restrictions will continue to strain town coffers around the West. That means places like Silverton will be tasked with examining their identities as weather-dependent tourism economies. For Gallegos, that realization is hitting home now as the residents of her community take financial hits in order to keep their businesses open and their neighbors employed. “When you live in a high alpine town that is completely connected to Mother Nature and the weather and tourism … it impacts you that much more dramatically and exponentially,” she said.

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A fiery Fourth of July threatens Southwest economies

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The U.S. forced Bikini Islanders to deal with nuclear tests and climate change. Now, it’s walking away.

Anderson Jibas, the mayor of Bikini Atoll, has for years wanted to assert his nation’s financial independence from the United States. And late last year, he found an unlikely ally in his battle: the Trump administration.

At the end of last year, the Department of the Interior released $59 million to the Bikini government to spend on whatever it wants, whenever it wants. The decision ended almost three decades of what Jibas has branded a colonialist system.

Bikini Atoll is part of the Marshall Islands, a widespread chain of more than 1,000 islands. In 1946, the U.S. evacuated its 167 residents and spent the next 12 years testing nuclear bombs in the area. To this day, Bikini is uninhabitable, and its natives’ descendants remain in exile — mainly on the previously uninhabited Kili and Ejit islands, roughly 500 miles to the southeast.

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Today, Kili and Ejit, as well as the entire Marshall Islands, face a grave threat from sea-level rise spurred by climate change. In fact, a new report funded by the U.S. military, which appeared in the journal Science Advances, argues that previous estimates of many tropical atolls being uninhabitable by the 22nd century were too conservative. The recent research suggests that rather than the sea swallowing these islands, titanic waves crashing over them will ruin freshwater supplies for residents closer to 2050.

The U.S. set up a trust fund to help the Bikinians settle on these unfamiliar islands, doling out a yearly allowance to local officials. The Bikini Resettlement Trust Fund, as it is known, has become the subject of an acrimonious battle and ideological debate over the future of Bikini. For the Kili-Bikini-Ejit (KBE) government, Interior’s decision to hand over control of the fund represents a move towards self-determination. It sees control over the funds as crucial to being able to fortify Kili and Ejit from climate change-related hazards. But others — including Lisa Murkowski, the Republican Senator from Alaska, which also faces threats due to a warming world — wonder if the U.S. has essentially washed its hands of the islanders, leaving atoll officials to face the future without any support.

In December 2017, Murkowski introduced legislation to re-establish U.S. oversight of the Bikini trust fund. In February, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to discuss the bill.

“We need the opportunity to move ahead and not just sit back and get slapped in the face with old colonialist and paternalistic systems that demean our honor and our integrity and treat us like children who do not know what they are doing,” Mayor Jibas said during his testimony.

According to his government, its limited annual budgets are almost depleted by funding food, fuel, housing, and education on Kili Island, leaving little for climate mitigation. With the newly released money, the council is making plans to place riprap along most of the seashore, plant vegetation that will prevent sea water from pouring inland, replace the current housing stock with buildings three to four feet above ground, and install solar-powered pumps to redirect rising water.

If all this fails, the spectre of another relocation looms, and Bikinians will likely require a bail out from the world’s richer nations.

Jack Niedenthal is skeptical of the council’s sudden windfall. An American citizen who lives on the islands and managed the Resettlement Trust Fund for 30 years, he — like Murkowski — believes the U.S. is simply abdicating its responsibility to the islanders.

“Think about it: Here’s this embarrassing event that’s been a thorn in your side for decades; and now, in a congressional hearing, you have a Bikinian saying ‘We’re never coming back to the U.S. again for anything,’” Niedenthal says. “If I’m the U.S., I’m doing cartwheels.”

Gordon Benjamin, the Marshallese lawyer representing the Bikini government in its negotiations with Interior, says he’s pleased at the faith Department officials are placing in the council. “I don’t like Trump, I’ll say that right now,” he explains, before noting that the move is “very Republican: Basically, they love to see communities taking charge of themselves.”

The decision to hand the KBE government control over the nearly $60 million fund is a substantial change to an arrangement where Interior would essentially set a yearly allowance for the council, which would then decide how to spend these funds. Interior officials would occasionally inquire about proposed expenditures, but they largely approved whatever the islanders wanted.

But on August 2017, the KBE government passed a motion rejecting U.S. oversight of the fund. The trust was not supposed to last forever, it argued, and the current annual allowance was too meager to allow the islanders to make long-term investments. To the Bikini council’s surprise, the U.S. didn’t push back. In a letter sent this past November, Doug Domenech, assistant secretary for insular areas at Interior, told Jibas that the department would no longer ration the fund.

Lisa Murkowski, the U.S. senator from Alaska who has a history of standing against the Trump administration, argues the decision runs counter to a U.S vow made in 1946, which stated that, “No matter where the Bikinian people found themselves, even if they were adrift on a raft at sea or on a sandbar, they would be taken care of as if they were American’s children.” She has suggested that Interior is abandoning its responsibility to the people of Bikini.

The move represents an awkward deviation from her usual ideology, as she herself acknowledged during February’s hearing. “I need you all to know that I am very sensitive to the notion that Washington, D.C., should not dictate local government decisions,” she said. “Alaskans have dealt with that mentality since we were a territory.”

But Murkowski has always had a reputation as an independent-minded politician — she won her 2010 Senate election as a write-in candidate — and has a history of engaging closely with issues relating to the Marshall Islands. She visited the country in person in April, meeting with ministers and chiefs. As an Alaskan, she also sees common ground with the Marshallese. Amchitka Island, part of the Aleutian Island chain in western Alaska, was the site of three underground nuclear detonations between 1965 and 1971. She found that, there too, residents weren’t given the continuous support they needed to recover in the aftermath of the bombing.

But this debate could all be moot if Murkowski’s bill dies before it reaches the Senate, as Jack Niedenthal thinks it might. Recalling the hearing in February, he says that there was only one senator left in the room by the time the Bikinians had finished testifying.

As the legislation languishes in Congress, the KBE government is making big plans for its newfound millions. In addition to its climate-adaptation plans, it intends to lease an airplane, revive its diving industry, and develop an informational tour around the atoll, which UNESCO listed as a World Heritage site in 2010.

“These are things we wanted to explore,” Benjamin says. “And we couldn’t do that with $2.5 million a year.”

Niedenthal, however, is unconvinced of the council’s claims it will put significant amounts of the added money toward climate change. He fears the islanders could be left destitute, without money to run their power plant, make housing repairs, pay for health insurance, fund scholarships, or even hold council meetings. And, once the Trump administration is out of office, it could be a challenge to hold the U.S. accountable, even as the descendants of the people it once bombed sink into poverty.

“If they had put together a proposal, for example, and said, ‘Look, we need extra money out of the trust fund to spend on these walls,’ I think [Interior] would have said yes, if it was specifically going to be spent on climate change activities,” he explains. “I think what’s happening now is you use whatever excuses, and it’s just spending money.

“They can talk about investments,” Niedenthal adds. “But I don’t see any investing yet.”

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Republican Lisa Murkowski says it’s time for her party to take climate change seriously.

Here’s how humanity could all but ensure its own demise: Dig up all the coal we have left and burn it, warming the planet 4 to 6 degrees C.

But that worst-case scenario doesn’t match up with what’s really happening in the world, Justin Ritchie, lead author of a new study published in Environmental Research Letters, told Grist.

That’s because money spent on climate change measures goes further than it did 30 years ago. Plus, baseline trends show greenhouse gas emissions are on the decline. Most studies underestimate the effect these factors have on global decarbonization.

The study indicates that the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement are more achievable than previously projected — but that’s not to say humanity isn’t in deep trouble.

It’s not “4 to 6 degrees bad,” Ritchie says. “It’s 3 degrees bad. You can’t say we don’t have to worry about implementing policies, we do. But it’s not going to reach the truly catastrophic scenarios.”

Another recent study published in the same journal shows that if all the coal plants currently planned actually get built, humanity could blow past the Paris goal of limiting warming to 2 degree C above pre-industrial levels.

Ritchie said his research doesn’t counteract that finding. “There’s a whole range of scenarios that can occur,” he says. “What our paper is trying to do is look at that whole range and how can we design policies that are more robust.”

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Get used to saying ‘bomb cyclone.’ This is our climate now.

Now that one of the strongest nor’easters on record has swirled off to Canada, it’s time to talk about what everyone was thinking during the storm: Is this just what happens now?

Short answer: yes. Get used to it. Wild storms like this week’s massive coastal cyclone will be part of winters in the Anthropocene.

This storm’s frightening name — the “bomb cyclone” — was derived from an obscure meteorological term and caught on after President Donald Trump’s terrifying tweet about nuclear weapons. The storm wasn’t as scary as all that, obviously, but it still spread havoc.

The storm ravaged a swath of the country from Florida to Maine. In South Carolina, rare snow blanketed downtown Charleston. In South Florida, stunned iguanas fell from the trees.

Boston also witnessed its largest coastal flood in history. Amid the usual scenes of buried cars and cute dogs playing in the snow, we also saw waves crashing through a seawall into homes and fire trucks plowing through flooded streets on their way to high-water rescues. At one point, the National Weather Service in Boston warned people not to ride the icebergs that were floating in on the high tide. That’s … unusual.

Storms like this one have always threatened to flood coasts. Seven of New York City’s 10 worst coastal floods on record have been from nor’easters. With rising seas and warming wintertime oceans juicing the power of cyclones, there’s good reason to expect that huge winter storms will pose an increasingly severe risk to coastal communities in the Northeast. In fact, it’s exactly what we expect will happen with climate change.

It’s normal for winter storms to gather strength in a hurry — dozens of them do so every year around the world. But the “bomb cyclone” intensified at a rate far exceeding any storm to come close to the East Coast since the advent of weather satellites in the 1970s. After a day of searching, the National Weather Service found a similar storm from 1989 about 600 miles off the coast that didn’t affect land.

Meteorologists and weather geeks spent the storm marveling at the view from space, but as with every big storm of our new era, this one felt like a harbinger.

Atlantic Ocean temperatures right offshore were as much as 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal for early January, causing hurricane-force winds and snow squalls so intense they fired off lightning bolts over parts of New York and Rhode Island. Forecasters dispatched a Hurricane Hunter airplane to investigate the storm.

All this atmospheric drama overshadowed two other storms underway at the same time. A sprawling cyclone even stronger than the “bomb cyclone” plowed past Alaska, where the ocean should be covered in ice this time of year. In Europe, a powerful ocean storm made landfall in the British Isles. It arrived with a cold front whose strong winds fanned midwinter wildfires on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica and closed down ski slopes in the Alps for fear of avalanches.

For some, all this evidence of an overheating world is too much to accept.

In comments on the Senate floor this week, Senator James Inhofe of snowball fame, riffed on another recent presidential tweet in the context of the current cold snap. “Where is global warming when we need it?” he said. “We sure needed it this last week.”

Increasingly, it seems like the only time you hear a climate denier talk about climate change is when a snowstorm hits. Hey, look! It’s really cold outside. This snowball sure isn’t warm; therefore the world isn’t warming.

Winter may be the last refuge of climate deniers, so it makes sense that they’ll work harder to seize on cold-weather storms. It’s a window into their view of the world. Appearance is enough evidence. It’s all that really matters. Given what’s at stake in the oceans and on land, such views should be seen for what they are: a threat to our safety, just as real as any bomb.

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Get used to saying ‘bomb cyclone.’ This is our climate now.

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2017’s Greenest Cities in the U.S.

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Anchorage, Alaska, has more green space than any city in the country, while Lubbock, Texas, has the worst air quality. Residents of Honolulu, Hawaii, have access to the most farmers markets per capita, while walking is hardly an option in Chesapeake, Virginia. How do all of these factors — and many more — play into the United States’ greenest cities?

WalletHub looked at the country’s 100 largest cities across 22 indicators of environmental friendliness in four dimensions: environment, transportation, energy sources, and lifestyle and policy. After crunching the numbers on everything from water quality to miles of bicycle lanes to community garden plots, here are the cities that came out on top:

  1. San Francisco, CA
  2. San Diego, CA
  3. Fremont, CA
  4. Honolulu, HI
  5. San Jose, CA
  6. Washington, D.C.
  7. Sacramento, CA
  8. Irvine, CA
  9. Portland, OR
  10. Oakland, CA

Source:

WalletHub

On the other end of the spectrum, some cities didn’t so so well on the green rankings. Here are the country’s worst performers:

100. Corpus Christi, TX
99. Baton Rouge, LA
98. Jacksonville, FL
97. Louisville, KY
96. St. Petersburg, FL
95. Tulsa, OK
94. Toledo, OH
93. Lexington-Fayette, KY
92. Cleveland, OH
91. Oklahoma City, OK

One key component that’s missing from the rankings? Recycling services. According to WalletHub:

Although recycling is vital to the sustainability efforts of each city, the types and sizes of recycling facilities vary widely by city. We therefore were unable to include — due to the lack of comparable city-level data — metrics that either measure the availability of recycling programs or the amount of waste recycled in each city.

What do you think? Does anything on the greenest cities list surprise you? Can Corpus Christi change its ways? Does California deserve seven of the top 10 spots? Check out the full results, along with opinions from experts, here.

Feature image courtesy of Adobe

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2017’s Greenest Cities in the U.S.

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California scientists are calling for the largest U.S. investment in climate research in years.

That’s all kinds of scary. If there’s one place on Earth that would be the worst possible spot for a giant volcanic chain, it’s beneath West Antarctica. Turns out, it’s not a great situation to have a bunch of volcanoes underneath a huge ice sheet.

In a discovery announced earlier this week, a team of researchers discovered dozens of them across a 2,200-mile swath of the frozen continent. Antarctica, if you’re listening, please stop scaring us.

The study that led to the discovery was conceived of by an undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, Max Van Wyk de Vries. With a team of researchers, he used radar to look under the ice for evidence of cone-shaped mountains that had disturbed the ice around them. They found 91 previously unknown volcanoes. “We were amazed,” Robert Bingham, one of the study’s authors, told the Guardian.

The worry is that, as in Iceland and Alaska, two regions of active volcanism that were ice-covered until relatively recently, a warming climate could help these Antarctic volcanoes spring to life soon. In a worst-case scenario, the melting ice could release pressure on the volcanoes and trigger eruptions, further destabilizing the ice sheet.

“The big question is: how active are these volcanoes? That is something we need to determine as quickly as possible,” Bingham said.

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California scientists are calling for the largest U.S. investment in climate research in years.

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Court says pipelines — not Exxon — are to blame for a major oil spill.

That’s all kinds of scary. If there’s one place on Earth that would be the worst possible spot for a giant volcanic chain, it’s beneath West Antarctica. Turns out, it’s not a great situation to have a bunch of volcanoes underneath a huge ice sheet.

In a discovery announced earlier this week, a team of researchers discovered dozens of them across a 2,200-mile swath of the frozen continent. Antarctica, if you’re listening, please stop scaring us.

The study that led to the discovery was conceived of by an undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, Max Van Wyk de Vries. With a team of researchers, he used radar to look under the ice for evidence of cone-shaped mountains that had disturbed the ice around them. They found 91 previously unknown volcanoes. “We were amazed,” Robert Bingham, one of the study’s authors, told the Guardian.

The worry is that, as in Iceland and Alaska, two regions of active volcanism that were ice-covered until relatively recently, a warming climate could help these Antarctic volcanoes spring to life soon. In a worst-case scenario, the melting ice could release pressure on the volcanoes and trigger eruptions, further destabilizing the ice sheet.

“The big question is: how active are these volcanoes? That is something we need to determine as quickly as possible,” Bingham said.

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Court says pipelines — not Exxon — are to blame for a major oil spill.

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Meet July, the hottest month yet

Our planet has never been warmer than it was last month, according to data released by NASA on Tuesday.

Yes, you’ve heard some version of that story before, and you’re sure to hear it again and again in the coming years, but this time, it’s a bit freaky.

The news that July was the hottest month on record comes as a relative surprise, because there hasn’t even been an El Niño this year — the natural climate shift that usually boosts global temperatures. In fact, 2017 started with La Niña conditions, which tend to temporarily cool the planet, yet we still wound up with a record anyway. That’s shocking, as well as compelling evidence that anthropogenic climate change is picking up speed.

Using measurements collected from about 6,300 land- and ocean-based weather stations around the world, NASA scientists calculated that the planet’s average temperature during July was about 2.25 degrees C (4.05 degrees F) warmer than the long-term annual average.

NASA/GISS/GISTEMP

Technically, July 2017 now shares the record in a statistical tie with July 2016 and August 2016 in NASA’s 137-year temperature record — all three are within the margin of error. July and August of 2016 had a bit of extra help from an El Niño, and last month achieved the mark all on its own. According to Gavin Schmidt, the NASA climate scientist who helps oversee the dataset, these three months are now “way ahead of the rest.” In a Twitter post, Schmidt predicted that 2017 will easily rank as one of the three warmest overall years on record, but probably won’t top 2016 as the warmest single year in history.

Such a warm month during the peak of the Northern Hemisphere’s summer created a cascade of extreme weather conditions. In western Canada, the worst forest fires in nearly 60 years have already torched upwards of a million acres, more than four times what normally burns in an entire wildfire season. In California, Death Valley recorded the hottest month ever measured anywhere on Earth, with an average temperature of 107.24 degrees F. Several days topped 120 degrees.

In Alaska, some cities recorded their warmest month in history, in part because of the early retreat of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean.

“There’s basically now no sea ice left within 200 miles of Alaska,” the National Weather Service’s Rick Thoman told Climate Central. At the start of the month, the volume of sea ice across the Arctic was the lowest ever measured.

In Europe, a persistent heatwave earned the name “Lucifer.” Spain recorded its hottest July day ever, with temperatures reaching 109 degrees F, and a drought in Italy prompted widespread water rationing. On its hottest day in history, Shanghai, China, saw a spike in fights and traffic accidents that the state-run media blamed on the heat. Temperatures exceeding 120 degrees F in Saudi Arabia prompted one engineer to invent an air-conditioned umbrella.

This is climate change in action. Rising temperatures are the best-predicted consequence of more greenhouse gas emissions. A recent study showed that 82 percent of locally record-hot days worldwide can be linked to climate change, but on the bigger, planetary scale, the evidence is even clearer: The most recent global assessment of climate science said that human-caused warming is now “unequivocal.”

All of this is evidence that our relationship with the planet is entering a new and dangerous phase. The good news is that, because we’re causing the shift, there are still things we can do to turn it around. But on our current pace — the fastest warming in at least 1,000 years — we’re quickly leaving the cozy climate that gave rise to human civilization.

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Meet July, the hottest month yet

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Chicago drinking fountains have been running nonstop for months.

Trump’s ire fell on Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, who on Tuesday voted “no” to moving a health care repeal bill to the Senate floor for debate. After the vote, Trump tweeted (of course) that Murkowski had let the country and her party down. Then, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reportedly called Murkowski and the state’s other Republican senator, Dan Sullivan, to inform them Murkowski’s move would not be forgotten.

According to the Alaska Dispatch News, Sullivan said the call sent a “troubling message.” Murkowski didn’t comment, but Sullivan appeared unnerved by the conversation. “I fear that the strong economic growth, pro-energy, pro-mining, pro-jobs and personnel from Alaska who are part of those policies are going to stop,” Sullivan said.

At a rally on Tuesday night, Trump implied there would be repercussions: “Any senator who votes against repeal and replace is telling America that they are fine with the Obamacare nightmare, and I predict they’ll have a lot of problems.”

The Interior Department has input over several issues important to Sullivan and Murkowski, like energy exploration and drilling in parts of Alaska. Murkowski, as chair of two committees related to the Interior, has say in several issues important to the department, like its budget.

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Chicago drinking fountains have been running nonstop for months.

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Europe is going all in for batteries.

Though the official release is planned for Tuesday, leaked versions of the 2018 budget proposal show dramatic funding cuts for environmental programs — even those supported by the president’s own party.

The budget, which still needs congressional approval, would cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 35 percent. It also slashes funding for cleanup programs like Superfund, but adds cash for water infrastructure.

After submitting an original budget blueprint, the Trump administration faced backlash from Democrats and environmental groups about the drastic cuts. But Republicans are wary of what President Trump might propose, too.

Lisa Murkowski, a Republican senator from Alaska, has said she opposes the elimination of programs like Energy Star and ARPA-E, which funds energy technology research. Both were cut in the draft budget. Republicans have also defended regional water programs that Trump proposed cutting.

Murkowski, along with five other Republican senators, urged Trump to set aside money for the Department of Energy’s research in a May 18 letter. “Governing is about setting priorities, and the federal debt is not the result of Congress overspending on science and energy research each year,” they wrote.

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Europe is going all in for batteries.

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