Thousands of webpages with climate change information have been removed or buried at agencies including U.S. EPA, the Interior and Energy departments and elsewhere across the government, according to a new report.
The study from the watchdog group Environmental Data & Governance Initiative tracked a year of editing of government websites and has found a drastic overhaul of public information on climate change during the Trump administration. Information that has been removed or buried includes research such as climate mitigation strategies for cities and states, a student's guide to climate change and the benefits of renewable energy.
Every administration imprints its own priorities on the government's webpages, and backers of President Trump's policies say the changes are par for the course. But critics of the new administration see a troubling pattern where information is hidden from the public.
The removal of climate information from across the federal government's web presence is evidence that the administration is not interested in engaging in an actual scientific debate about climate change, but rather stifling the truth, said Paul Edwards, a senior research scholar at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has repeatedly called for a public debate on climate science.
"It actually certifies the point that this EPA has already decided the outcome of that debate, if there is one, and moved the needle away from human causality or even in some cases from the existence of the phenomenon at all," Edwards said. "Even though they often say the climate is changing but we don't know why, the removal of this information really goes against the idea that there still is an open question there."
During the first year of the Trump administration, the words "climate change" and "carbon" have been stripped from government websites across a wide range of agencies, including the departments of Health and Human Services, Transportation, the Interior, Energy and State, the report found. They have been replaced with vaguer terms like "sustainability" and "emissions."
The group also found a wide swath of alterations to climate change webpages. The White House no longer lists climate change as a priority. EPA, along with the departments of State and Energy, removed language related to U.S. international obligations to address climate change. Hundreds of pages at the EPA site that were designed to help local and state governments mitigate the effects of climate change have been removed. The Interior Department scrubbed a website for tribal climate programs of the word "climate change." The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences dropped a link to an educational fact sheet about climate change and human health.
EDGI recently discovered that the Bureau of Land Management altered and removed language and links about climate change, renewable energy and the overall mission of the agency and took down its climate change webpage without replacing it.
Burying or removing government research eliminates a primary and reliable source of information for the public, which is then forced to go elsewhere for information that may not be accurate, said Andrew Bergman, a member of the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative's Website Monitoring Committee. It also robs the public of the information it needs to comment on federal policy, he said.
"It's the federal government that really provides a place for scientists, policymakers, historians and the public to access results of scientific and policy research funded by taxpayer dollars," he said. "Removal of that information really hinders future efforts, and they also cast doubt on the consensus about issues like climate change when it's not the federal government but advocacy groups or private citizens that have to put forward the information, and it can't come from the trusted source the federal government provides."
Joseph Goffman, executive director of Harvard Law School's Environmental Law Program and a former Obama EPA official, said the report "illustrates, in a dramatic way, just how much the public at large, and the stakeholders and public officials charged with representing the public's interests, depend on the federal government to assemble and disseminate top-quality peer-reviewed scientific and technical information."
An EPA spokesman said the changes are a natural part of an administration attempt to imprint its own priorities on its public web presence.
"We are constantly updating our website to reflect new initiatives and projects of the Agency," the spokesman said. "Of course the site will be reflective of the current administration's priorities—with that said, all the content from the previous administration is still easily accessible and publicly available—through the banner across the top of the main page of the site."
The website changes should be expected as the Trump administration weighs scientific information, said Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and leader of Trump's EPA transition. He said there was "dubious information" on some of the Obama administration's climate-related webpages that needed to be purged.
"What constitutes dubious scientific information and what constitutes reliable scientific information is subject to political judgment," he said. "Even though EPA is part of an administration, it's not civil servants who are allowed to pursue their own agenda."
The report cautions that it's not immediately clear if the changes were made at the direction of political appointees or if they were the result of self-censorship from career employees looking to avoid controversy.
Notably, there has not been a removal of climate-related data sets, according to EDGI. Some have been buried, according to the initiative, which found that in November 2016, the climate section of the website Data.gov had 762 climate-related data sets. There are now 677 listed, but it appears the others still exist, though they are much harder to find.
Certainly, the effort to overhaul information that contradicts a political argument is not unprecedented, Stanford's Edwards said. Political appointees in the George W. Bush administration altered climate reports, he said, though that was met with significant public outcry. What's different this time are the volume of changes and the intense focus on climate change across so many agencies, he said.
"This time, it is so much more wide-ranging and systematic and specifically aimed at this one issue," he said. "So while there are many issues on which the administration has the right to declare its own policies, a lot of what is going on here is that they're simply trying to erase awareness of the existence of the issue itself, not promoting a different policy to address it, just erasing it."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.