By Michael Halpern, Union of Concerned Scientists
CNN had a scoop this past weekend: the U.S. Department of Transportation recently removed several climate change pages from its website. The changes are indicative of a greater trend within the federal government when it comes to climate information: when in doubt, take it out.
The DOT is responsible for fuel efficiency standards and infrastructure development, two issues with major climate change components. The pages described greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector and detailed the impacts of climate change on road and bridge infrastructure. While much of the information was more than a decade old, it wasn’t replaced by anything newer.
A DOT spokesperson describes the changes as routine maintenance. Science and good government advocates are concerned about a greater trend of censoring and sidelining climate science and scientists. It turns out that all of us could be right.
It can be difficult these days to figure out what is routine and what is more nefarious. Sometimes, professional staff are inappropriately directed by political appointees to remove content. Sometimes they self-censor to protect existing work or avoid hassles down the road. And sometimes they are just doing their jobs and ensuring that outdated content is removed and archived, yet the political context makes it look as if there’s something more going on.
There are several challenges that this controversy identifies.
Suppressing and attacking climate science
First, as is news to virtually nobody, there’s a problem with this administration and climate change science. Several federal agencies—the EPA, Department of Interior, Department of Energy, the State Department, and USAID, just to name a few—have done their best to shut down communication of climate science and climate impacts when they should be doing the very opposite. Climate change has been omitted from research plans and report after report after report.
We’ve witnessed an increase in political control over government scientists and scientific information for two decades, control that has only accelerated under this administration. USGS and scientists now need to ask permission to speak to reporters (in violation of existing policy). At EPAand Interior, a political appointee now holds the veto pen in what was an apolitical grantmaking process. In a survey of government scientists conducted by UCS, hundreds reported being asked to refrain from communicating publicly about climate change.
When a National Park superintendent is flown to Washington to be reprimanded for climate change tweets, and climate change content is removed from planning reports across government, it’s perfectly appropriate for changes to this kind of content to come under additional scrutiny. We wouldn’t even be talking about this if all federal agencies actively encouraged scientists to communicate about their work.
Excluding science from policy proposals
Second, a responsible government would incorporate science into the policy it puts forward. Instead, we see DOT officials twisting like Gumby to sidestep and misrepresent science in an attempt to justify rolling back fuel efficiency standards. We see Department of Interior officials attempting to prevent consideration of climate change in developing plans to protect endangered species. We see climate change analysis omitted from plans to roll back the Clean Power Plan.
And it’s easier to escape accountability for decisions that lack a scientific basis when the science isn’t made easily available in the first place.
Confusion about how government information is saved
Third, the government needs to do better in developing and communicating standards for saving and archiving digital information. Website changes could be made less disruptive with sufficiently robust systems in place for continued access to older content. As we are learning from the row over the Department of Interior Records Retention proposal, the current methods the government uses are opaque and confusing to many, and may lead to poorer choices about what is retained and made accessible. Fortunately, there are great minds within and outside of government committed to tackling this problem.
The good news: people are paying attention. That’s no accident. Over the past two years, scientists, librarians, and archivists have highlighted the importance and vulnerability of federal government data and data interpretation tools and started telling stories about the connection between data and people’s lives. (They even have a new podcast!). Organizations such as the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, aided by tools such as the Wayback Machine, monitor federal websites and report on changes. Members of Congress conduct oversight into missing web content and draft legislation to improve agency accountability. Like anything else, government scientific information needs someone to advocate for it, and a diverse community is coming together to make that happen.
There’s a critical role for the federal government in informing state and local officials about what’s happening now and what’s coming next. A responsible government would be bending over backwards to put climate change information front and center. But until we have political leadership that respects the role of science in policymaking, we’re going to continue to see these kinds of stories.