As President Trump and his administration attempt to normalize ‘alternative facts,’ they will inevitably try to use similar sophistry to debate climate change. With the new cabinet so blatantly in favor of corporate wealth and expanded oil and gas development, climate change is one reality that is certain to be on the list of inconvenient facts to be denied, deleted from federal websites, and discouraged from being disseminated. Despite unequivocal agreement within the scientific community and evidence conclusively demonstrating a cause and effect relationship between the planet’s warming due to human activity – primarily fossil fuel combustion – and a host of dangerous climate change impacts, we can expect to see heavy-handed censorship of scientific information about how and why the global climate is changing from this climate-change denying administration. President Trump is not the first to employ politically motivated tactics strategically aimed at preventing the federal government from issuing serious warnings regarding a climate-disrupted future – including the evidence behind these warnings embodied in climate science data sets and information – from reaching the public. We can expect, at the very least, many of this new White House’s actions and policies to evolve from or replicate actions taken by appointees during the George W. Bush Administration to edit and suppress the products of federally-supported climate change science and policy research.
Yesterday, The Washington Post announced a White Paper that I researched and authored as a 2016 CSPW Fellow under Harvard University’s Mindich Summer Fellowship. While writing the Paper, it became clear that the orchestrated campaign to keep the American public from grasping the full extent of the climate threat could easily happen again.
The case study “Promoting and Sustaining the National Climate Assessment After a Period of Suppression and Political Influence,” highlights the numerous ways that appointed officials in the Bush Administration systematically edited government documents and web sites to minimize the voice and reach of climate science generally, and the National Climate Assessment in particular. I felt I was drafting a cautionary tale for what would happen if a denialist with a pro-fossil fuel stance regained control of the White House. With Trump now in office, these disturbing previous abuses of scientific integrity are as much historical as they are now a blueprint for both what is already happening and what may yet be to come.
Given that President Trump as a candidate mocked climate science, indications that his administration will swiftly target science agencies for budget and staff cuts is unsurprising but nonetheless worrying. At the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, he froze the distribution of new grants and contracts (now lifted after significant pressure); instructed the EPA to remove the climate change page from its website; replaced the White House climate change page with an “America First Energy Plan” that both promises to eliminate “harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule” and fails to mention climate change, global warming, or science; and banned federal employees from communicating to the public via reports, press releases, or social media. When a former employee at the National Park Service tweeted out basic facts about the climate, they were subsequently deleted. While President Trump’s decisions have received the criticism they rightly deserve, they are not aberrations; in fact, they mirror and amplify tactics employed by George W. Bush’s Administration – as well as that of former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper – to limit the scope of research deemed problematic for the political agenda.
In 2007, GAP commissioned legal academic Tarek Maassarani to prepare a comprehensive report detailing how federal climate science agency media policies and practices stymied the dissemination of climate change science communication. Focusing especially on the problems at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Maassarani demonstrated that Bush Administration tactics impinged on scientific integrity by interfering with media-scientist communications by, for example, delaying, screening, monitoring, and denying interviews or delaying, denying, or extensively editing press releases. Bush-Cheney White House operatives also routinely interfered with scientists’ ability to communicate with the public by delaying, suppressing, and inappropriately editing federal reports. Moreover, the Union of Concerned Scientists catalogued examples of government interference occurring from 2004 through 2009 in science agencies, including EPA Scientists Restricted from Speaking Freely with the Media (2002), White House Office Overrules Science and Procedures at the EPA (2003), Government Climate Web Sites: Missing in Action (2006). Sound familiar?
These early White House actions to restrict and censor basic climate change information portends graver, more damaging actions that are of great concern to the scientific community. Many worry about political interference with the collection and storage of data from NOAA and NASA satellites, data that plays a critical role in the National Climate Assessment. Historical temperature records and other large data sets may also be at risk. Scientists have been scrambling to back up climate data; many are working around the clock with a public project called DataRefuge formed to safeguard, manage, and distribute environment and climate data for researchers. Their fears are not exaggerated: under President Bush, NASA’s Earth Sciences satellite program suffered an unexpected and unprecedented 20 percent budget cut.
Scientists and coalition groups are also uneasy about the ramifications of appointing Scott Pruitt to head the EPA, and Jeffrey Wood – a former lobbyist for Southern Company with a history of opposing environmental regulations – to oversee the division of the Department of Justice responsible for civil and criminal environmental laws. Fear of politically-motivated, ideological, top-down obstruction of climate change science is reasonable given the precedent set during the Bush Administration as well as the statements and actions of those within the Trump Administration. Perhaps President Trump will borrow from President Bush and manipulate the Informational Quality Act of 2000 to unfairly undermine the credibility of valid science, as was the case for the 2000 National Climate Assessment. Although President Obama issued a memorandum in 2009 to develop scientific integrity policies, few agencies have strong policies across the spectrum and very few have good whistleblower protection policies, as shown in a UCS 2017 report on preserving scientific integrity in policymaking.
Outright censorship is not the only type of pernicious silencing. Among scientists, it leads to pervasive self-censorship, which then becomes a form of suppression that is more damaging and affects information flow on a broader scale. Out of fear of retaliation or discomfort with acting or being seen as political, scientists become hesitant to report what is occurring in their agencies. In a recent interview with NPR, Tracey Woodruff, a former senior scientist and policy advisor at the EPA, shared that she knows “scientists who have been retiring or are thinking about retiring because they’re worried about what’s going to happen with their science or what’s going to happen to them if they speak up about their science in the new administration.” Sharon Lerner with The Intercept has reported how wary scientists were to discuss anything with her, even basic facts about climate change, in the aftermath of Trump’s series of directives. She wrote that her “presence inspired fear.” A culture of terror within federal science agencies is exactly what Trump’s Big-Oil agenda of denial wants to achieve in order to actively ignore and neglect the largest global crisis of today.
CSPW founder and federal whistleblower Rick Piltz, a model of bravery in the face of climate change science suppression, aptly termed self-censorship “anticipatory surrender.” To him, an unwillingness to speak out and resist politically-motivated obstruction of free speech was tantamount to capitulation: it represents the antithesis of science. As the past begins repeating itself, the scientific community must stand firm against the Trump-Pence White House to avoid the negative consequences we witnessed as the result of Bush Administration tampering with science. The United States as a whole is much less prepared for the wide array of climate impacts occurring now, in real time, than it would be if the warnings issued in the 2000 climate impacts assessment reports were issued and heeded.
If I had one takeaway from researching and writing this white paper, it is that scientists must be ready to blow the whistle on censorship so that the public has the full benefit of the fruits of our $2 billion climate change research program. Unfettered communication is critical to ensuring that science maintains its integrity and that policymakers can be fully and accurately informed. I would urge all federal scientists to read this White Paper and to keep in mind the words spoken by Piltz as he accepted the 2006 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling, which has become a mission statement of sorts for his Climate Science & Policy Watch program at GAP:
“You have to have the leadership listen to what federal climate scientists are saying, and embrace it and accept it and promote it and act on it…. But it’s really for the rest of us to take the responsibility to hold public officials accountable to enable society to get the global warming problem dealt with effectively. And that’s something I think that we all have a role in. I’ll leave you with that thought.”
Given all the recent scientific warnings regarding a massive disruption of Earth’s global climate system, we can ill-afford a return to the past.
A Mindich Summer Research Fellow with CSPW during the summer of 2016, Jonah Hahn is the author of the CSPW White Paper: “Promoting and Sustaining the National Climate Assessment After a Period of Suppression and Political Influence: A Cautionary Tale: A Cautionary Tale,” and a senior at Harvard University where he concentrates in Social Studies.