When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took down its sprawling climate change website on Friday evening, it did so with no prior notice to rank-and-file employees. The move, the agency says, is aimed at reflecting the EPA’s “new direction” under the Trump administration.
But some insiders and activists don’t see it that way.
They fear the move is an attempt to alter the climate change-related scientific facts and data that the agency has long presented to the public. The EPA’s climate site, after all, is among the largest and most relied upon in the entire federal government, rivaling NASA’s plethora of image-heavy sites. It’s also been around for two decades, surviving multiple administration changes including some like George W. Bush who were not exactly friendly toward climate science findings.
“The process, which involves updating language to reflect the approach of new leadership, is intended to ensure that the public can use the website to understand the agency’s current efforts,” the EPA said in a statement. “The changes will comply with agency ethics and legal guidance, including the use of proper archiving procedures. For instance, a snapshot of the last administration’s website will remain available from the main page.”
While the statement makes the changes seem administrative, don’t be fooled. The revisions notice raises serious questions about what will be rewritten and how.
According to veteran EPA employees, each of whom spoke on the condition that their names not be used in this story because they were not authorized to speak to the press, the revisions seem to be aimed at justifying the Trump administration’s drastic rollback of Obama-era climate change policies.
One agency veteran said altering the climate science section would be “a whole new level of willful ignorance that we’ve never seen before, and I’ve been here almost 30 years.”
The climate change website, which was still down on Tuesday, contained language explaining what climate change is, what causes it, how it affects your health, and more. In contrast to what Trump and his EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, have said about climate change (they don’t believe it’s human-made), the site notes many times how humans have contributed to climate change.
“Research indicates that natural causes do not explain most observed warming, especially warming since the mid-20th century. Rather, it is extremely likely that human activities have been the dominant cause of that warming,” the webpage read, according to an archived version captured before Friday.
Such EPA climate website language has even been used to rebut Pruitt’s comments, such as an interview with CNBC in March, in which he denied that carbon dioxide emissions are the main driver of global warming.
Climate scientists inside and outside the agency, as well as activists who took to the streets in global demonstrations last weekend, fear that the EPA’s climate science sections might be altered if and when a new climate change website is unveiled.
“I think we are feeling whipsawed and outraged on behalf of the American people, who rely on us for unbiased scientific information and data,” one EPA staffer said. “This hiding of and, going forward, refusal to update vital scientific data is completely unprecedented and counter to everything a democracy stands for and does.”
Others inside the agency said they are also troubled about the disappearance of vital scientific information from the EPA’s website.
“I think that it’s robbing Americans of information that they paid for, and that is vital to founding good decisions and being informed citizens,” an EPA official said.
“Also, it has validated the fears of people about the administration’s disregard for, and willingness to hide science and facts that counter their monetary interests. But I’m thankful for the armies of academics and others who saved the pages, fearing this would happen.”
Before the administration took office, scientists around the country downloaded federal environmental data, fearing that it might be taken offline by the Trump administration. Organizations have set up mirrored versions of the original climate change site, and the EPA itself has archived a version from Jan. 19, the day before Trump took office.
This will make it easier to track any language changes that do occur, for example, if the updated site plays up uncertainties in climate science, as Pruitt has repeatedly done in public appearances.
“These facts don’t change just because an administration changes.”
Rachel Cleetus, the lead economist and climate policy manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said while it’s understandable that the administration would want to bring its websites in line with the administration’s regulatory approach, any revisions of scientific statements would come at the detriment of the American people.
“The science pages … are a completely different thing,” she said. “These facts don’t change just because an administration changes.”
Cleetus said there are already valid concerns about the accessibility of EPA scientific information to the public, given that climate change information has been hidden.
“This information needs to be freely accessible,” she said. “It’s kind of like deep-sixing important information.”
She said the EPA needs to clarify that the updates will be consistent with science and that such science will remain easily accessible to the public.
So far, the EPA has given no timeline for when the revised websites will go online, either. The EPA did not respond to requests for comment and further details about the planned revisions.