On January 3, President Donald Trump authorized a drone strike in Baghdad, killing Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force. Although Soleimani was the leader of a U.S. designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, many — both political pundits and casual social media commentators — viewed the killing of a foreign general as an inadvertent (or intentional) act of war.

Some of the nihilistic humor in the memes on social media since General Soleimani’s killing illuminates a common American concern. Many neglected, but often necessary, public services frequently go underfunded while military efforts receive surplus — and occasionally superfluous — financial support.

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), from 2001 through 2018, overseas military operations primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan — not including routine military base maintenance — cost the Department of Defense (DOD) an average of about $120 billion annually.

The staggering amount of federal funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a tragic juxtaposition to the state of many federal environmental justice initiatives and programs that often struggle to receive even $10 million in annual funding. Some of these programs fund pollution remediation efforts in communities of color, while others promote STEM education and employment opportunities for students from traditionally underrepresented demographics.

Unfortunately, Trump’s Executive Branch has been systematically cutting funding to many of these initiatives which could be continuously fully funded with just a fraction of annual military conflict spending.

1. Environmental Justice Small Grants Program

The Environmental Justice Small Grants Program (EJSG) was started in 1994 to support communities working on local environmental and public health issues. Over the last 26 years, this EPA directed program has awarded over $26 million in funding to communities addressing environmental justice concerns.

The 2018 budget records show the EPA allocated $1.5 million in annual funding to be distributed to projects in the form of $30,000 grants. EJSG grant recipient projects vary, but grantees like the Refugee Development Center in Lansing, Michigan, focus on mitigating childhood lead exposure in many of the young refugees from Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan.

Although the EJSG nominally refers to smaller grants, similar contamination control projects — particularly those related to lead contamination — can cost tens of millions of dollars. In fact, Newark had to secure a $120 million dollar loan in order to combat its 2019 Drinking Water Crisis.

An increase in funding for EJSG could ensure the long-term viability of projects like those in Lansing and Newark. Additionally, more funding for EJSG could facilitate financing for more than just 50 causes.

2. The Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving Cooperative Agreement Program

The Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving Cooperative Agreement Program (CPS) supports community organizations in their efforts to partner with stakeholders — usually private industry, policymakers, or academics — in order to solve local environmental or public health issues. Presently, CPS has $1.2 million in funding for ten community-based organizations to receive $120,000 over a two-year period.

Projects funded from through the CPS are often similar in scope to those of ESJG, but focus more on professional advising. This is apparent in Cape Fear River Watch’s initiative to research and inform on the severity of the mercury contamination problem in the Cape Fear River, near Wilmington, North Carolina.

Funding from CPS allowed Cape Fear River Watch to partner with Duke University’s Superfund Research Center, Wake Forest School of Medicine, New Hanover County Department of Health, Duke University Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, and the New Hanover County NAACP to undertake this project properly.

Given the scope of a project like this, and the number of organizations involved, $60,000 per year is inconsequential funding. Not including paying shareholders for their time, environmental monitoring equipment necessary for a project like this can cost thousands of dollars.

While it’s assumed the better-financed stakeholders may be responsible for some of the costs of these projects, additional funding could allow more dedication to the work being done. A funding increase for CPS could also expand the pool of grant recipients in the program itself.

3. Centers of Excellence on Environmental Health Disparities Research

The Centers of Excellence on Environmental Health Disparities Research (EHD) is a joint research initiative operated by the EPA, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), and National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD).

The goal of this program is to encourage and support research that can create innovative “approaches to mitigate environmentally driven health disparities” — particularly in low-income communities of color. Much of the $315 million in funding for this program is directed toward EHD Centers located at five universities around the country.

Research done by these EHD Centers concentrates on how environmental conditions can worsen health for those at the margins of American society. For example, one of the projects currently being conducted at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health focuses on how air pollution exposure affects health outcomes in low-income, mostly black, areas of Boston.

While the research done at the current EHD centers is very well funded, a financial expansion of this program would allow more universities throughout the country to become EHD Centers. This would ultimately make the work produced by this program more robust by increasing the geographic diversity of its research areas.

4. National Park Service’s Youth Training Program

The National Park Service (NPS) provides multiple Youth Training Programs that give students skills and experience necessary to qualify for NPS employment. NPS’ most justice-centered Youth Training Program is its Historically Black Colleges and Universities Internship Program (HBCUI).

HBCUI is a collaborative project, operated by NPS and the Greening Youth Foundation, specifically designed to provide HBCU students with an opportunity to work in state and federal land management sectors. It also immerses its interns in projects focused on not only national park preservation, but also on the preservation of national historic sites central to African-American history, like the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park in Georgia.

HBCUI provides black students with job skills while also getting them involved in federally protected outdoor spaces. Increased time in natural spaces has physical and mental health benefits, and black people are often underrepresented in surveys on outdoor activities like camping and hiking.

The professional and health benefits inherent to HBCUI are great reasons to expand its recent funding levels. In 2015 HBCUI was granted $450,000 from NPS to support the 42 interns in the program’s 2016 class. Although the program did expand by nine interns the following year — the more rapid expansion of HBCUI could accelerate the diversification of NPS’s professional workforce.

5. Minorities in Energy Program

In September 2013, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced that its Office of Minority Economic Impact (OMEI) would be pioneering the Minorities in Energy Program (MIE). The original objectives of this program included promoting STEM education and workforce development for underrepresented minorities, encouraging diversity in energy sector business development, and the education of minority communities in addressing climate change.

Since its creation, MIE has been an instrumental pipeline in increasing STEM education and retention in communities of color. It has largely done this by supporting pre-college STEM enrichment programs for disadvantaged communities, and by financially investing in minority-serving institutions like HBCUs.

The budget for OMEI has been steadily decreasing, however, the 2015 budget for OMEI was $1.4 million, but in 2017, its funding decreased to $1 million. According to the DOE’s budget documents, about $1.3 million in funding was requested for OMEI for the 2017 fiscal year.

The difference between what was requested and what was allocated is likely the result of budget cuts to federal agencies soon after President Trump’s inauguration. More funding injected into OMEI could expand the scope of MIE, possibly allowing it to provide STEM retention support to students of color throughout the United States — not just those at minority-serving institutions.

Final Numbers

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were astoundingly expensive, and not always for necessary reasons. Just one percent ($1.2 billion) of the funding used in the military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq would, conservatively, be enough to collectively finance (roughly $320 million) EJSG, CPS, EHD, HBCUI, and MIE almost four times over.

Sadly, this type of calculation is indicative of the federal government’s desire to fund military operations over the domestic public good. One can speculate on the many reasons why that might be, but real change for those in dire environmental crisis will come from a radical shift in what our elected officials deem meaningful.