by Anne Polansky and Michael Termini
More than one full year into a Donald Trump presidency, we are taking stock of the new political landscape, already marked by turmoil and volatility. Never before in modern US history have we seen such instability and unreliability in basic governance at the federal level. Here in the nation’s capital, just about everything feels upside down and inside out. Each day’s news serves as a reminder that what once would have been considered abnormal behavior is increasingly giving way to the bizarre. The rapidity and growing accumulation of a host of upsetting, precedent-breaking developments can feel as dizzying and disorienting as being swept up in a Kansas farm house, spinning in a cyclone towards Oz, and waking up in the Twilight Zone.
Well-established scientific findings (such as those regarding anthropogenic global warming and climate change impacts) and simple facts are routinely cast aside by the Trump White House and virtually every federal department head. A significant proportion of executive branch positions remain vacant (including key positions in science and technology – we still do not even have a White House Science Advisor). The White House has been preoccupied with the judicial branch, hastily filling the courts with judges whose views and track records align politically with the (extreme) right wing. Meanwhile, government employees continue to leave their posts in droves. Those who remain privately confess to us their growing frustration at the disrespect they feel from top management, and from feeling prevented from doing the job they were hired to do. Congress is failing to conduct proper oversight, accountability is going out the window, and employees feel chilled into silence. Without a functional democracy, there can be no federal role in responding to voter demand, not only for a clean energy economy that is less dependent on fossil fuels, but also for clean air, water, large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and a robust federal climate change science program.
We are already seeing clear evidence of government censorship around the climate change problem: gag-orders issued to researchers preventing them from presenting scientific findings at conferences, disappearing websites and content, prohibitions from using the word “climate” in official documents, and arbitrary transfers of federal employees away from roles in climate science and policy.
Rising to the Challenge
The unprecedented challenges we face can be broken down into multiple significant factors, including but not limited to:
- The rapidly worsening climate change threat marked by increasingly harsh and more frequent climate change impacts – such as extreme weather events including the devastating hurricanes of 2017, and climatic conditions, such as prolonged drought, increasingly incompatible with human health and wellness;
- The critical importance of US leadership in the global effort to mitigate climate change by reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, and to adapt so as to survive in a climate-disrupted world;
- The Trump Administration’s wholesale refusal to engage in climate talks at the international level, as evidenced by the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, and thus the relinquishing of our traditional leadership role going back several decades;
- The rush by the Trump Administration to expand and maximize domestic fossil fuel extraction, regardless of the climate implications or other harmful side-effects, and irrespective of broad public opinion favoring a clean, renewable energy economy; and
- A sustained attack on climate change science and scientists, emanating from the administration’s being stacked full of known climate change deniers – including the heads of the EPA and DOE. This is marked by rampant censorship, budget-slashing of climate programs, arbitrary transfers of high-level federal employees who have been speaking out on the urgent need to address climate change, and a ramped-up attempt to convince the public that climate change does not represent a serious threat.
The overall reaction to this harsh and troubling political environment in the federal government climate science and policy community at large has been mixed. At one end of the spectrum are the “quiet copers,” primarily made up of those who are motivated by the need for job security, and some wise, old veterans who have seen US presidents come and go. The modus operandi of this demographic is to play it safe, keep a low profile, hunker down, avoid rocking the boat, zip their lips (a form of self-censoring), and rebrand their job to avoid getting caught up in controversy.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who blow the whistle: they retain legal counsel specializing in whistleblower protection, make a loud splash in the media, and boldly speak truth to power by criticizing and condemning people and actions they view as unethical, immoral, or illegal. Federal whistleblower Joel Clement is a case in point; CSPW has written extensively about him and his case. Overall, we’re seeing a recent explosion of public interest in whistleblowing, accompanied by a growing number of civil servants who have already either blown the whistle or are planning to do so. Others just short of this end of the spectrum have opted for the “noisy exit” by leaving their posts in protest and calling out the wrongdoing they perceive. The case of former EPA Region 10 employee Michael Cox provides a good example: upon taking early retirement last year, he wrote a scathing letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt exclaiming, “we are insulted” (see CSPW’s April 2017 post).
Then there are those who fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, who are taking calculated risks in the workplace in order to stand their ground, who are providing information to journalists and non-profit watchdog groups, and who are finding ways to maintain their personal and professional integrity while avoiding being too marginalized or benched altogether.
Outside of the federal government, we are witnessing a growing set of grassroots movements driven by citizen-activists demanding both fact and science-based policymaking (especially regarding climate change), better government accountability, equal treatment under the law, a healthy system of checks and balances, protection of our constitutional rights, and other important elements of civil society. Together with Dana Gold – an attorney here at the Government Accountability Project (GAP) and GAP’s Director of Education – CSPW is strengthening existing partnerships with strategic allies in the non-profit sector, and developing relationships with new ones. For example, we are working closely with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) on several important projects.
One of these projects is the UCS Federal Scientist Survey now being issued to federal employees in key areas of the government; the responses will shed much-needed light on the way civil servants are responding to the new political environment. Please visit the UCS FAQ page and blog post about the survey. UCS is also inviting Twitter users to help spread the word using this sample tweet:
Are you a government scientist? @UCSUSA wants your input! They’ve sent out the 2018 Federal Scientist Survey to more than 63,000 scientists at federal science-based agencies. UCS has been surveying scientists since 2005. Read more about their work at www.ucsusa.org/2018survey
CSPW has also been engaged with UCS and other organizations to put together an important educational tool for federal employees who find themselves in difficult situations and want to safely and effectively document their observations of potential wrongdoing. The document, titled Make a Note to the Record, is being printed as a brochure and is also available electronically on the UCS website. Carefully documenting events as they occur in real time is one of the most important means for holding government officials accountable and for making a strong case for corrective action and reparations. However, it is imperative to follow certain guidelines so that the documentation is safe and will be accessible when and if it is needed.
These are just a few examples of the way CSPW is now ramping up its efforts and engaging with non-profits and citizen-activists across the nation to promote better accountability, increase our watchdog capacity, and effectively call out instances of illegal, unethical, and improper behavior. Our network of fellow watchdogs is expanding and our pool of insiders is widening.
Our educational output is also increasing in 2018. In addition to our research-intensive blogs, CSPW’s Senior Fellow, Nicky Sundt, is currently drafting a white paper that takes a close look at every detail of the management (and mismanagement) of our two billion-dollar, interagency US Global Change Research Program by the Trump White House. Meanwhile, I (Anne) am in the throes of a white paper on ExxonMobil’s involvement in generating and perpetuating the “global warming denial machine” and its decades-long pattern of deception designed to thwart US policy to control carbon dioxide emissions. According to several Attorneys General, the deception amounts to securities fraud, and we believe it is only a matter of time before this oil giant is prosecuted and held accountable.
Finally, just like when we helped CSW Founder Rick Piltz blow the whistle, as a core CSPW and GAP priority we are specifically expanding our ability to actively support whistleblowers who have had the courage to come forward by increasingly:
- Offering our expertise on complex science and technology issues related to climate and energy;
- Writing research-intensive blogs and opinion pieces for the media that serve to raise the profile of key issues and forward the goals and objectives of our whistleblower-clients;
- Introducing whistleblowers to like-minded truth-tellers and networks that can offer specialized information, guidance, and moral support;
- Enabling whistleblowers to make effective disclosures internally and to law enforcement agencies, Congress, the media, other NGO organizations, and to the public; and
- Developing effective public interest strategies that will allow for the safeguard of climate change-related rules and regulations as well as reinforce the intention of Congress to preserve the environment.
At this unique moment in time, when concerns about the direction of this country are at a fevered pitch, there is widespread hunger for tools beyond marches and phone calls; there is a profound demand to hold this administration accountable and expose Big Oil and the climate denial machine’s accelerated efforts to sow doubt about climate science and derail any meaningful effort on global climate change. Whistleblowers, and the information they disclose, may be the most powerful of those tools, reflecting the adage that information is power and tends to flow to those who are either able to suppress that information or to those who are able to strategically disclose it. Employees who discover and disclose serious concerns – whistleblowers – have always been one of the most effective mechanisms for holding the powerful accountable for misconduct, illegality, harm and violations of trust in both the government and corporate sectors. So, stay tuned. Although we have some tough challenges ahead, and Rick Piltz gave us a tough act to follow, there is much to look forward to this year, and we are committed to giving it our all.
CSPW Senior Climate Policy Analyst Anne Polansky has 30 years of experience in public policies relating to energy and the environment, with a strong focus on climate change and renewable energy. She is a former Professional Staff Member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
Michael Termini is Chief of Staff of the Government Accountability Project. He also serves as the Acting Director of GAP’s Climate Science & Policy Watch program.