Donald Trump’s presidency has climate scientists concerned about the implications for U.S. environmental policies, the worldwide effort to curb the impacts of climate change, and the ability of scientists to freely to continue their research, which can be insidiously undermined through funding cuts, gag orders, or punitive measures and retaliatory attacks against scientists who publicly discuss their research.
Though Trump has said he would remain open-minded about climate change, he has surrounded himself with appointees who are fossil fuel advocates and climate change contrarians. One of these, Scott Pruitt, a long-time adversary of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was recently confirmed as head of the EPA.
Here are a few of the many actions taken or planned by the Trump administration with implications for climate science and the environment:
- EPA and Department of Agriculture staff have been prohibited from discussing research with anyone outside the agencies, including the media.
- Trump signed executive actions to speed approval of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.
- Trump is preparing an executive action to order the EPA to rewrite rules that regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing electric utilities, i.e. Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
- The EPA’s climate change pages have, so far, been altered to remove mention of carbon emissions as a cause of climate change; emphasize adaptation to climate change rather than focus on the root cause of climate change; eliminate mention of Obama’s Climate Action Plan; and remove text about the commitment of the U.S. to international climate talks.
- The House of Representatives approved a measure that would undo the Bureau of Land Management’s rule curbing methane emissions from oil and gas production on federal lands. It will take effect if approved by the Senate and the president.
A number of other bills have been introduced in the House and/or the Senate that could also slow progress on climate change or roll back environmental regulations.
Another distressing aspect of Trump’s ascendancy is the surge of intolerant and hateful language, particularly online. Climate scientists have been subjected to this kind of harassment for years and are now concerned that it could grow worse.
“I have received some nasty emails, blog comments, and tweets, usually after I write an op-ed,” said Adam Sobel, director and chief scientist for Columbia University’s Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate. “And occasionally a hostile comment or two in person when I am giving a public talk somewhere.”
Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University and renowned for his “hockey stick” graph documenting the rise of recent global temperatures compared to previous centuries, is arguably one of the most harassed climate scientists. Mann has been called a liar, a charlatan and a scumbag, and he and his family have received death threats.
In 2005, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), then Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, commissioned a report on Mann’s 1999 hockey stick study, disputing the evidence. Barton’s report, done by Edward Wegman, a statistics professor at George Mason University, was later found to involve misconduct and falsification of data. Barton contends that the evidence for climate change is “absolute nonsense.”
In 2009, Mann’s email correspondence with scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit in the U.K. was hacked and taken out of context to make it appear that the scientists had falsified data. Critics said this proved climate change was a hoax, but the scientists were subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing. Yet, in 2010, Mann received a letter laced with white powder and an email that said, “You and your colleagues who have promoted this scandal ought to be shot, quartered, and fed to the pigs along with your whole damn families.” Mann’s office was evacuated and quarantined for possible anthrax exposure, until test results showed that the white powder was just cornstarch.
Katherine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University receives up to 200 emails or letters a day calling her a liar or fraud or threatening her after she appears in the media.
“There are people who become dedicated to following you, who have Google alerts set up on your name, who stalk your Twitter and Facebook accounts, who essentially make a career out of ridiculing and vilifying you,” she told Inside Climate News.
One of the main tools used to harass climate scientists who work for the government, or who receive public money through universities or other sources, is the 1966 federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which was established to ensure transparency in government. It gives the public the right to request access to information and documents from the U.S. government, including federally funded scientists. FOIA is a powerful law that has often been used for good, but the law’s breadth and strength mean that it can sometimes be misused in dangerous ways. FOIA requests for scientific materials are ostensibly used to verify the science, but sometimes their real agenda is to slow research, intimidate scientists into downplaying risks or not appearing publicly, or obtain private correspondence containing technical jargon that can easily be taken out of context.
The American Tradition Institute (ATI), a coal company-funded group that does not accept the scientific evidence for human-caused climate change, sued in 2011 for six years of Mann’s emails (roughly 38,000 emails) from the University of Virginia, where he had been a professor. The Virginia Supreme Court later rejected the claim, and ruled in favor of protecting researchers’ emails in order to protect academic research.
In 2013, ATI, under their new name, the Energy & Environment Legal Institute (E&E Legal), sued for 13 years of emails and documents from University of Arizona climate scientists Malcolm Hughes, Mann’s colleague, and Jonathan Overpeck, a lead author of a 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. As a result, Hughes lost an entire summer of research and a grant while searching through his emails; Overpeck spent six weeks gathering all his emails and could not use his sabbatical. In 2015, the court ruled in favor of the university, saying that the emails did not need to be released, but after E&E Legal appealed, the court reversed itself. The University of Arizona has appealed and the appellate case is currently pending.
In the current political climate, Robin Bell, a research professor at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and president-elect of the American Geophysical Union, said scientists need to “…continue to articulate how science is key to what the new administration cares about: intelligent investment in infrastructure, national security, public health. Science is really non-partisan. It is data and evidence — it is not a political issue. This is how we understand how the planet works and why it matters to our society.”
Scientists should refer to CSLDF’s pocket guide, “Handling Political Harassment & Legal Intimidation,” to learn about potential legal risks they may face, and how to protect themselves.
— Renee Cho is a blogger for the Earth Institute at Columbia University.