A year into the Trump administration, explanations of climate-change science and policy on federal websites have undergone major overhauls and have sometimes outright disappeared. There's no sign, however, that repositories of government-maintained climate-change data have been removed, as some had initially feared. The upshot is that, while environmental scientists still have the tools they need to do their work, information meant for policymakers and the public has been curtailed, as one advocacy group argues.
The news comes from the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI), a non-profit coalition of university researchers that formed soon after Donald Trump's election, in response to what they saw as his anti-science views. The group has spent a year monitoring the changes to the websites of energy and environment agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA. Overall, it keeps tabs on 20,000 webpages.
"We're not seeing these databases destroyed or anything like that," says Eric Nost, a doctoral student in geography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a an Environmental Data & Governance Initiative volunteer. "Instead, we're seeing the way climate issues are described are being changed."
The databases' survival is good news for scientists and citizens alike. The repositories include numbers that federal agencies have collected on sea-surface temperatures, polar ice, factory emissions, and more. "They represent the core of environmental science," Nost says. Without this data, it would be much harder for scientists around to world to track climate change over time, and for American communities to prove they've been victims of pollution.
It's less clear what edits and deletions to agency websites mean for the American people. On the one hand, it's expected that a new administration updates documents it gains control over. "I would say this fits more into the politics-as-usual category. Both the G.W. Bush and Obama administrations made similar kinds of language changes in public documents, in keeping with their own politics," Shobita Parasarathy, a public policy researcher at the University of Michigan who is not involved with EDGI, writes in an email. She gave the example of an Obama-era report that downplayed fracking's risk to drinking water.
On the other hand, EDGI argues that certain website changes hamper policymakers and the public in their understanding of environmental issues. For instance, in April, EDGI found that the EPA removed 380 separate webpages from its own site, all of which were grouped under the title "Climate and Energy Resources for State, Local, and Tribal Governments." Three months later, the pages returned, minus about 200 pages about climate change.
"The EPA has historically acted as a clearinghouse for other parts of the country—the states, the cities, the tribes—to make responsible decisions related to environmental issues, including climate change," Nost says. "If those resources are no longer accessible, those leaders don't have the same kind of information available to them." The EPA does maintain archived versions of its old site content, but, Nost says, "that archive is not necessarily easy to access because you have to know what you're looking for."
In another example, EDGI found that, months before EPA head Scott Pruitt announced he wanted to repeal the Clean Power Plan—an Obama-era policy that would have required power plants to cut their emissions by 32 percent by 2030—the EPA took down its Clean Power Plan website. The site wasn't immediately placed in the EPA archives, either, which EDGI researchers attribute to copying errors. EDGI members argue that the site's temporary disappearance made it more difficult for citizens to learn about the policy and submit public comment on its planned repeal. (The EPA is still accepting comments about the plan through January 16th, and the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan documents are now available online.)
Beyond the removal of these EPA resources, EDGI also found a number of smaller edits to various .gov webpages. Many pages had the phrase "climate change" replaced with words such as "resilience" or "sustainability." EDGI opposes these edits, which it considers to be vaguer terms that are more difficult for the public to understand. Although the edits have generated some outrage against the Trump administration, there's speculation that they're the work not of political appointees, but of staffers hoping their climate-change projects will fly under the radar of a hostile leadership. Occasional news stories and public statements have found that some changes did indeed come from agency staff. Most of the time, however, we just don't know the origins of edits that EDGI has tracked and publicized over the past year.
Overall, EDGI's report reveals changes on a spectrum of importance, from removals of helpful public resources, to copyedits that may add up to no more than jostling among bureaucrats. In that sense, it follows the ideal of any scientific dataset: It tells you what's happening (changes to websites), but figuring out why, and what's important, is still up to you.