Monday, June 15, 2020

A War Against Climate Science, Waged by Washington’s Rank and File

By Lisa Friedman
June 15, 2020, 3:00 a.m. ET

Efforts to undermine climate change science in the federal government, once orchestrated largely by President Trump’s political appointees, are now increasingly driven by midlevel managers trying to protect their jobs and budgets and wary of the scrutiny of senior officials, according to interviews and newly revealed reports and surveys.


Government experts said they have been surprised at the speed with which federal workers have internalized President Trump’s antagonism for climate science, and called the new landscape dangerous.

“If top-level administrators issued a really clear public directive, there would be an uproar and a pushback, and it would be easier to combat,” said Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, which supports scientists. “This is a lot harder to fight.”


An inspector general’s report at the Environmental Protection Agency made public in May found that almost 400 employees surveyed in 2018 believed a manager had interfered with or suppressed the release of scientific information, but they never reported the violations. A separate Union of Concerned Scientists survey in 2018 of more than 63,000 federal employees across 16 agencies identified the E.P.A. and Department of Interior as having the least trustworthy leadership in matters of scientific integrity.

Findings published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE in April on a subset of those agencies found that 631 workers agreed or strongly agreed that they had been asked to omit the phrase “climate change” from their work. In the same paper, 703 employees said they avoided working on climate change or using the phrase.

“They’re doing it because they’re scared,” said Maria Caffrey, a former geography specialist at the National Park Service who battled managers as they tried to delete humanity’s role in climate change from a recent report on sea-level rise. “These are all people who went to the March for Science rallies, but then they got into the office on Monday and completely rolled over.”


Patrick Gonzalez, the principal climate change scientist at the National Park Service, requested policy approval in March 2018 to publish a paper based on analysis of more than a century of climate data across 417 national parks.

His supervisor did not get past the opening sentence: “Anthropogenic climate change is altering ecological and human systems globally.”

“Without reading any more of the manuscript, she said, ‘I’m going to have to ask you to change that,’” Dr. Gonzalez recalled. He said in an interview that he was speaking in his own capacity and not on behalf of the federal government.


At least one case predates the Trump administration. Danny Cullenward, a Stanford Law School lecturer, said the Energy Department tried in 2015 to distance itself from his research, which showed the United States could not meet its Paris Agreement goals with the policies that President Barack Obama was pushing.

It is now widely acknowledged those policies most likely would not have cut emissions enough to meet those goals. But at the time, the Obama administration was working to persuade global leaders that the president’s plans would get the country substantially toward that goal.

Dr. Cullenward, then a research fellow working with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said a lab adviser initially told him the research could not be released before the Paris Agreement talks. After he objected, he was told the study would require further review.

“I interpreted that to be, ‘We’re going to stick this thing in a black hole,’” Dr. Cullenward said. He resigned his affiliation with the lab.


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