It sounds like something from a cheap political thriller, but with President-elect Donald Trump’s team stacked with those skeptical of manmade climate change (at best) and already asking for names of researchers who’ve attended climate meetings, scientists are “frantically” acting to protect massive volumes of climate data in fear the incoming administration will delete or suppress it because it doesn’t serve its interests.
“Something that seemed a little paranoid to me before all of a sudden seems potentially realistic, or at least something you’d want to hedge against,” Nick Santos, an environmental researcher at the University of California at Davis, told the Washington Post. “Doing this can only be a good thing. Hopefully they leave everything in place. But if not, we’re planning for that.”
The University of Toronto has scheduled what it’s calling a “guerrilla archiving” event for Saturday, December 17.
“This event is focused on preserving information and data from the Environmental Protection Agency, which has programs and data at high risk of being removed from online public access or even deleted,” they write. “This includes climate change, water, air, toxics programs. This project is urgent because the Trump transition team has identified the EPA and other environmental programs as priorities for the chopping block.”
The effort was kicked off by a tweet from journalist, meteorologist, and self-proclaimed “climate hawk” Eric Holthaus, who posted, “Scientists: Do you have a US .gov climate database that you don’t want to see disappear? Add it here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/12-__RqTqQxuxHNOln3H5ciVztsDMJcZ2SVs1BrfqYCc/edit#gid=0”
That began a race to preserve as much publicly owned climate data as possible before the Trump team takes over in January. There’s more at risk than just data, though—there’s the expression of it for public knowledge. As Vice points out, once Trump takes over control of .gov web domains, he could easily shut down “National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sea Level Rise viewer (above), NASA’s suite of climate change apps, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s maps of the country’s worst polluters.”
This is not just paranoia. The George W. Bush administration systemically redacted, repressed, withheld, and obfuscated environmental information that didn’t suit its purposes. A 2007 report by the Government Accountability Project found:
A perception of inappropriate political interference is widespread among employees of the federal climate science agencies and programs, as well as among journalists from national, mainstream outlets who cover their research. This perception is substantiated by evidence from inside sources, scientists’ personal testimonies, journalists, and Freedom of Information Act disclosures.
The investigation found no incidents of direct interference with climate change research. Instead, unduly restrictive policies and practices were located largely in the communication of “sensitive” scientific information to the media, the public, and Congress. In this context, “sensitive scientific information” is meant to signify that science which does not support existing policy positions or objectives in research dealing with the effects of climate change or greenhouse gases on hurricanes, sea levels, Arctic ice loss, marine life, and human society.
These restrictive communication policies and practices are largely characterized by internal inconsistencies, ambiguity, and a lack of transparency. In turn, they send chilling signals to federal employees, including scientists and public affairs officers, that reinforce the suppression of “sensitive” information. There is a clear trend toward increasingly restrictive policies and practices unsupported by any official justification from the agencies and programs.
In an op-ed piece in the Post, Holthaus wrote, “I genuinely don’t think the Trump administration will intentionally delete data — such an act would be illegal, as well as unforgivable. However, I do anticipate budget cuts that will likely put data in jeopardy. Having an independent repository of the sum total of American knowledge of the climate system will serve as a testament to future fundraising efforts, if necessary, to support universities or other nongovernmental organizations to continue the (previously public) practice of climate science in the United States. I see our efforts as a firewall against a hostile administration: The more we can preserve before Trump takes power, the less incentive he has to stand in the way of science.”
With Trump, though, you never know. After all, he is the only one of the world’s 195 leaders to deny the existence of climate change. And as Holthaus points out, yes, that even includes North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.