During Donald Trump’s first week in office, a steady stream of electronic signals pointed to upheaval within the agencies that deal with environmental protections and climate change. Via memos leaked to the press, rogue tweets, and unnamed agency sources, the public learned of growing pressure on federal employees to avoid sharing their scientific work. Meanwhile, small but significant changes to federal web pages hinted at the demise of former president Barack Obama’s efforts to manage climate change.
The Trump team got to work editing the web starting on inauguration day, when most mentions of climate change vanished from the White House website. Trump’s team did not post a replacement page on climate, though they did publish an “America First Energy Plan” that noted, “President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule.”
A coalition of scientists, researchers, and technologists had been preparing for this scenario. At events held in Toronto, Philadelphia, Chicago, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles they had worked to pull as many climate and environmental datasets as possible off the federal web sites of departments including the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Energy Department, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
As Obama’s climate plans disappeared from the White House site, the work of one of the groups involved in preserving data, the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), shifted, too. While the group continues to help host events at which technologists copy data from the web, EDGI has begun monitoring 25,000 pages for erasures. And in week one, they witnessed Obama’s climate legacy being scrubbed little by little from federal sites.
“I study the Clean Water Act, so I’m very, very worried about what might happen with data around water quality,” said Rebecca Lave, a professor in Indiana University’s geography department, who’s leading a team of five people who are monitoring sites. “There is certainly the possibility that that data would go away, but there’s also the possibility that ongoing monitoring would be defunded so that the data set would stop or simply that it wouldn’t be maintained.”
“We haven’t seen any of the kind of big smoking gun things that people were really worried about, of big data sets disappearing,” said Lave. “We did see small stuff that worried us.”
Some of the biggest changes Lave’s team noticed were to the State Department’s web sites. The department has begun purging from its pages the names and fingerprints of Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry, which has resulted in the disappearance of an array of climate-related reports, statements, and policy descriptions.
For example, a page titled “Climate Action Report” disappeared that had included links to a biennial report describing the United States’ progress on its internationally agreed-upon climate goals, as well as a White House plan for decarbonizing the U.S. economy by 2050.
Quotes from Kerry disappeared from a page on the phase-out of hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs, which are used in refrigerators and air conditioners and whose emissions can be thousands of times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide. Also missing is another HFC page containing a list of international statements that led up to an October 2016 Montreal Protocol amendment, a key climate achievement of the Obama administration that commits the U.S. and 196 other countries to cut their use of HFCs. That agreement is now at risk under Trump.
The State Department claimed the changes were routine. “Administration-specific content that was posted to state.gov during President Obama’s tenure was archived,” a spokesperson told the Washington Post. (ThinkProgress first noted the disappearance of State Department pages Wednesday.)
As pages disappeared, Trump’s people ordered the EPA and other agencies to halt external communications, including the issuance of scientific reports and routine data related to air and water monitoring, until the administration completes content reviews.
But there were hints of resistance. A Badlands National Park Twitter account began tweeting facts about climate change. The tweets were later deleted.
Lave’s team has also noticed small acts of resistance as they’ve monitored the web sites. Administrators have posted new hints about where to find at-risk data. She declined to share details about where those subtle changes live online, preferring that the sites keep a low profile until they’re forced to come down.