I perused the Green Budget 2010 released last week by a large group of U.S. environmental organizations, including EDF, LCV, NRDC, NWF and WWF. Unable to find a total cost figure for the wish list of federal programs it includes, I assumed this omission stemmed from hesitancy to draw attention to a hefty price tag. After toting up the numbers, this seems not to be the case.

The total cost of the Green 2010 budget is $74 billion, just $4 billion more than the FY 2008 Bush administration budget reference. This is a diddly amount, not even a small down payment on returning environmental programs to parity with pre-Bush administration levels, let alone commensurate with the scale of the terrible risk before us.

The Green 2010 budget deals almost entirely in environmental line items, parsing each federal program as if it were operating in isolation, never addressing the fundamental question of what is required of the federal government. Incremental policy being our raison d’être, this is not a surprise, but the failure to propose obvious budget solutions, such as shifting all fossil fuel subsidies to renewables (what ever happened to Green Scissors?) is perplexing. Nor do important political questions, such as the degree to which particular governmental agencies are beholden to given interests, seem to enter the equation.

I took a whack at constructing a “true green” 2010 budget (using a spreadsheet available here), coming up with a total of $273 billion, which still seems a little light, but in the right the ballpark.

Some highlights:

  • Zero funding for the Army Corps of Engineers (we should call for its abolishment) and Department of Agriculture programs (which should be paid for by transfer of subsidies or moved elsewhere in the federal government). We should spend no money to maintain agencies that are congenitally anti-environmental, and propose no allocations where programs should be paid for by shifting current allocations or subsidies.
  • 1/2 cut in Forest Service programs below 2008 until fire suppression programs are reinvented.
  • I took as a rule of thumb that we should call for doubling 2008 Republican expenditures on environmental programs, at a minimum, with far more significant increases in energy efficiency, transportation reform and renewables. I bumped solar, wind, geothermal and ocean development to an arbitrary $500 million each, on which Republicans spent $169, 50, 20 and 0 million, respectively in 2008, and the Green Budget proposes $252, 75, 55 and 40.
  • Budgets are boring; we need a few dramatic, visionary proposals to capture the imagination. (One item does stands out in the Green Budget. It’s so striking, in fact, that it looks like an error. Very last on the list is a proposal to boost Great Lakes restoration from $76 to $666 million. Now that’s more like it. By proposing serious money, we turn an abstract ideal into a exciting, serious proposal that the U.S. reclaim these precious waters.)
  • I added massive investment of $170 billion to rebuild the nation’s train system, up from $5.3 billion in 2008 (which the Green Budget increases to an anemic $7.6 billion).
  • Doubled the EPA, NOAA, National Ocean Service and US Geological Survey budgets (increasing EPA from $9 billion in the Green Budget, for example, to $18 billion up from $2.4 in 2008), which probably isn’t even enough to undue damage of the Bush administration.

This kind of line-item exercise is no substitute for comprehensive assessment and macro-political analysis, but it does help free thinking from the sort of incremental micro-steps which imprison our current approach. Where we need dashing, exciting, and vigorous movement we have offered a plodding endorsement of bureaucracy.

The Green Budget is obviously cobbled together from the wish lists of individual organizations. Easy to imagine the sessions where these numbers were dreamed up (“OK, I’ll go with another twenty mil in parks, but you gotta to bump solar by ten”). Like kids grabbing for penny candy on the lower shelf we went for the cheap stuff, but as the president has said, it is time to aside childish ways.

Failure to approach the budget in a thoughtful, strategic and comprehensive manner is an abdication of our responsibility. It stems from our continuing inability to act as an institution rather than a collection of organizations, and our failure to grasp the reality that time has run out.