In 2005, President George W. Bush read the book The Great Influenza about the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak and was inspired to push for funding to prevent pandemics.

At nearly the same time, his one-time opponent, Al Gore, directed the spotlight to another existential threat, climate change, through his 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth.

The nation has since grappled with both issues in reality: COVID-19 claimed the lives of over a million Americans and shut down the economy. The summer of 2023 was the hottest in recorded history, while erratic weather patterns, intense wildfires, and receding habitat become routine events.

But in the early 2000s these alarms — based solely on historical precedents and scientific estimates — seemed abstract, distant from our everyday lives. These issues went beyond the typical political debate. They were a call to action against a looming external threat.

Another source of existential risk, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), poses similar consequences to the United States. An EMP can not only render computers and electronics permanently inoperable but can also cause a prolonged outage of the nation’s bulk power distribution grid. For a society in the digital age largely dependent on electric power in every sector of its economy, an intense EMP event would spell catastrophe, causing trillions of dollars of damage and up to 100 times the casualties of COVID-19.

While EMP can be generated by nuclear weapons in the hands of foreign powers, geomagnetic storms from solar activity can and have historically occurred to critical magnitudes. Scientists estimate an intense solar EMP has a 12 percent probability per decade.

This post explores the costs of preventing disaster. We’ll compare the resources allocated to other external threats compared to those currently dedicated to EMP.

Budget Allocations for Disaster

In all the following examples, policy priorities and allocations have varied over the years and funding may be spread among several Federal agencies, so it is difficult to aggregate the consistent totals year to year. Major bills and earmarks, however, do reflect the general scale of effort the United States has placed on preventative measures.

Pandemic Monitoring and Response

In 2006, the George W. Bush administration launched the International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza. The U.S. Congress approved $3.8 billion in emergency funding for pandemic flu preparedness.

Another global outbreak, H1N1, led to increased awareness and funding for pandemic preparedness. The U.S. Congress approved about $7.65 billion for the department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

In the years 2014-2016, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa prompted further U.S. involvement and funding. The Obama administration requested, and Congress approved, $5.4 billion in emergency funding. Initiated in 2014, the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) was a global effort to strengthen the world’s ability to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats. The U.S. committed over $1 billion to GHSA to support capacity-building in at-risk countries over a period of five years.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to unprecedented funding measures by the U.S. Congress. Three major packages total close to $4 trillion. Since the disaster was already underway, these amounts may not all be classified as preventative, but rather the costs to mitigate damage that had already occurred.

Reducing Emissions

While the switch from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources may be motivated by several factors, government actions over the past two decades have centered on the need to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

In the years 2006-2008, the Bush administration focused on technological solutions for cleaner energy. The Department of Energy (DOE) had initiatives such as the Advanced Energy Initiative, which saw investments in cleaner energy technologies. Precise numbers vary year by year, but these investments were in the billions of dollars.

Under the Obama administration, there was a significant push to address climate change and reduce emissions. From the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, around $90 billion was allocated toward clean energy investments, including grid modernization, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and public transportation. The Clean Power Plan (CPP), introduced in 2015, was an EPA initiative aimed at reducing carbon emissions from power plants.

Although the Trump administration sought to roll back many energy and environmental policies, including the Clean Power Plan, and announced withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, President Biden largely restored these commitments, and additionally funded clean energy projects in his Infrastructure Plan.

Each year, the federal budget has included billions in funding for energy efficiency, renewable energy research, and development. These budgets funded agencies such as the DOE, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and others involved in energy and environmental activities.

Strengthening Electrical Infrastructure Against EMP

While billions have been meted out to these concerns on a yearly basis, another undeniable possibility of disaster has failed several times to achieve meaningful Congressional action.

In 2008, the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from EMP Attack released its critical national infrastructures report, a significant step in understanding the potential vulnerability of the nation’s critical infrastructure to EMP effects.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) included EMPs in its National Planning Scenarios in 2015, acknowledging the potential threat posed by EMP events.

President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses, aiming to strengthen national resilience against the potential consequences of EMPs. This EO directed various federal agencies to assess the risks, explore ways to strengthen critical infrastructure, and promote R&D in EMP protection. No funding accompanied the directive.

Over the years, various legislation has been introduced in Congress to allocate funds or guide efforts to safeguard against EMP and geomagnetic storm threats. For instance, the Secure High-voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage (SHIELD) Act was proposed multiple times but has not been enacted.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) has issued alerts and guidelines about geomagnetic disturbances and their potential impact on the power grid.

A Call Heard but Unheeded

Although EMP mitigation has been the subject of governmental attention over the last 20 years, the narrative is vastly different from the other two examples. Actions have primarily consisted of research and internal agency assessments of risk, rather than large-scale funding for infrastructure upgrades or response plans.

The probability of EMP events is on par with contagious diseases. And their destructive global impact could be just as tumultuous as fallout from a rapidly changing climate. Yet the recognition of this threat has not yet materialized into effective preventive actions.

The cost to harden the grid to resist EMP, according to a meta-analysis of Congressional reports, would be $3.8 billion. This amounts to the initial outlay of pandemic funding proposed by President Bush in 2006. Though recommended by NERC, this hardening of infrastructure has not been funded, nor for the most part has it been implemented.

Those in a position of influence can bring attention and action to serious — but often overlooked —existential threats. TSS USA Manufacturing creates technical solutions that protect the grid and mission-critical electronics from the overwhelming currents induced by an EMP. For more information about the risks of electromagnetic hazards, download our whitepapers.