The first 200 days of the Trump administration have been marked by direct and consistent confrontations with the scientific community, and no area of science has been targeted more explicitly than climate science. The administration has proposed drastic cuts in the budget to federal climate change programs; removed climate-related information from government websites; and refused to renew the appointments of more than 30 members of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Board of Scientific Counselors - including me.
Scientists know that these actions are dangerous to public health, the economy and our national security. Thankfully, some government workers concerned about climate change are pushing back on the administration’s attempts to muzzle them, finally speaking out - or, in some cases, leaking out - against threats to academic freedom.
This week, The New York Times published a draft report written by scientists from 13 federal agencies. The draft, completed this year under congressional mandate as a special science section of the National Climate Assessment, states that “evidence for a changing climate abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans.” It goes on to say that “many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse (heat-trapping) gases, are primarily responsible for recent observed climate change.”
The document was publicized before the Trump administration signed off on the release of the final draft. As the Times reported, scientists who worked on the draft feared that the Trump administration would not approve the document or might tamper with the report.
Fears of censorship are not unfounded. Staff members at the Agriculture Department’s Natural Resource Conservation Service must “avoid” using the phrase “climate change” in agency documents, according to a series of emails leaked to the Guardian this week. The phrase “weather extremes” is now the prefered language. Other phrases on the blacklist: “climate change adaptation,” “reduce greenhouse gases” and “sequester carbon.”
Such phrases are part of the language and lexicon of science, and instructing federal scientists to avoid using particular words is an affront to the pursuit of knowledge. This is censorship, and it is dangerous to both science and democracy.
Academic integrity, it turns out, is really important to professionals in scientific agencies of the federal government. The scientific community deeply values transparency, freedom, unbiased facts and evidence-based decision-making. Only through scientific research can we advance knowledge, so scientists tend to resist attempts to silence them. Science embraces critical thinking, but there is no place for “alternative facts” in science. Scientists do not like to be censored. Scientists do not like to be told to avoid using the language of science.
The United States previously served as a world leader in global environmental responsibility, but tragically that’s no longer the case. The administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord and President Donald Trump’s refusal to budge on the issue at the recent Group of 20 conference confirms that the United States is denying science and dangerously ignoring the threat of climate change.
Meanwhile, the removal of data and information about climate change from federal agency websites deprives the public, including teachers and students, of valuable information regarding the state of knowledge about climate change. And the administration’s proposed budget cuts would eliminate critical funding for programs that will help protect the country from the worst effects of climate change, and where appropriate, adapt to the changing environment.
Such actions are likely to provoke mistrust in government. Climate scientists have reached near-universal consensus that global climate change is occuring, and many agree that it is an existential threat to the global economy, quality of life and environmental sustainability.
A federal government that has the best interests of its citizens in mind would be unwise to silence its scientists, as integrity and transparency are fundamental values in good governance.
Thankfully, these are also fundamental values in science. When such values are tested through censorship and “alternative facts,” scientists will push back.
Robert Richardson is an ecological economist and an associate professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Community Sustainability. He served on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Board of Scientific Counselors from 2014 to 2017.