As agencies fight back on social media, others look to history for lessons on how to pursue science under a hostile regime.
By Bob Berwyn
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt testifies during a hearing on his nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency on January 18th, 2017, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Zach Gibson/AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump’s assault on science seems to be nurturing an emergence of science activism on an unprecedented scale. During his campaign and since taking office, the president has rejected thousands of studies showing how greenhouse gas emissions are heating the planet to a dangerous degree, and this week his administration has made clear efforts to muzzle climate science.
In the past few days, tens of thousands of people have coalesced in solidarity around a growing number of Twitter feeds claiming to represent resistance within various government agencies in charge of overseeing the environment. The rogue tweets have been greeted with applause for bravery (“Breaking Badlands” ran one headline about the South Dakota Park Service), and some of the accounts gained hundreds of thousands of followers in 24 hours.
What we’re seeing is that a lot of Americans care about the science done by government agencies — and they recognize that censoring government researchers is out of step with American values. Standing for principles based on facts is American, and dissent is American, and the newborn scientific resistance movement wants the president to know it.
The sprouting social media feeds claim to represent high-profile agencies like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Weather Service. Some of them are using official government logos in their profiles and claim to be run by off-duty officials from those agencies, which, if true, would truly mark a civil revolt in the cybersphere, all in the name of government science for the public good.
These science tweets from the Badlands National Park feed were deleted a few hours after they were posted, but other rogue National Park accounts have started tweeting climate messages in the past few days. (Photo: Twitter)
Thousands of people who work in government agencies save lives on a regular basis using empirical data on diseases, medicines, earthquakes, floods, wildfires, and, yes, climate change. And now they’re saying they won’t be bullied, and won’t let themselves be silenced.
Other groups are tracking the communications crackdown, including the Sunlight Foundation, which seems to have the most comprehensive list, as well as Climate Home, which is cataloging “the key events of Donald Trump’s push to fry the planet.”
Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, says some scientists are worried that the upcoming National Climate Assessment, a key document for planning resiliency to climate change, will be censored and changed to downplay global warming impacts.
“Censorship is worrying and takes us back to days of George W. Bush administration,” Trenberth says. “My colleagues from other countries are amazed and appalled at what has happened and is happening in the United States. My view is that we need to resist and cry out loud against any such tendencies.”
Political censorship has already started at the EPA, and we’ve seen it in other agencies under past administrations, as during the Bush era, when a logging industry lobbyist suddenly found himself in charge of the U.S. Forest Service, making decisions that threatened endangered species. Now, the former chief executive of the world’s biggest oil company is in charge of the Department of State, and climate documents are disappearing from the department’s website.
Trump has said he will pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement and cut any funding for international climate programs.
In another agency, a widely circulated memo told employees in field offices to get clearance from national headquarters for press releases and interviews on policy or budget topics, while expressly permitting social media to continue per existing policies.
Some social media feeds from government science agencies reflect a certain anxiety about the new administration. (Photo: Twitter)
But more ominously, the memo said the the transition is a “time to align ourselves with the priorities of the new administration,” which sounds a lot like the Gleichschaltung in 1930s Germany, when civil society mostly shifted to adopt Nazi norms.
The new online resistance is pushing back.
By recent count, about 40 new Twitter accounts have been created in the past few days as alternatives to the official feeds from various agencies, according to a list curated by European Union environmental expert Alice Stollmeyer. It’s not exactly clear who is running all the accounts. In some cases the bios say the updates come from agency employees during their private time, while others, like a feed from @AltRockyNPS says it’s being held for people associated with Rocky Mountain National Park.
The feed from @RogueNOAA says: “Research on our climate, oceans, and marine resources should be subject to peer [not political] review.” The bio links to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration homepage, with a pinned tweet invoking the holocaust with a slightly altered quote: “First, they came for EPA, and we did nothing. Next, they came for…? Act, not react.”
As of Thursday, NOAA, NASA, and other key sites like that of the U.S. Forest Service still appeared to be maintaining regular Twitter feeds, including links to scientific materials concerning the environment and climate change.
Watchdog groups say any serious crackdown on communications would probably violate internal rules set up to protect scientific integrity, which may be the case at the EPA, where employees were told to remove climate change information, only to have the order reversed again later, as reported by several sources. But leaks from the agency indicate that the administration has restricted or banned the use of social-media feeds, a well as restrictions on travel and presentations.
A new Twitter account, @ungaggedEPA, has sprung up to share “news, links, tips, and conversation that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is unable to tell you,” according to its bio.
The Trump administration isn’t first to try and clamp down. In Canada, former prime minister Stephen Harper waged a relentless war against science that literally, in some cases, resulted in reports being dumped into garbage cans. Writing recently about this decade in Hakai magazine, Erica Gies described how many scientists were ordered to change their findings for non-scientific reasons. The Harper administration tried to bully scientists by requiring babysitters during interviews and appearances to make sure their statements were in line with government policy, she reported. And in Turkey just this week, parliament passed a law that would replace the scientific concept of evolution in high school textbooks with a section on divine creation.
For scientists right now in America, the risks of inappropriate interference are high, according to Bob Dreher, who has held posts in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the EPA and who now works in the non-profit conservation community.
Dreher served in the Department of Justice under Barack Obama, representing government agencies in a series of lawsuits brought by environmental groups. In several cases, the government had to withdraw decisions because courts found them in violation of environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires public participation in environmental reviews. Those laws were strong enough to withstand past attacks and will be tested again in the Trump era, he says.
Along with reversing earlier policies and preventing new regulations, Dreher says the Reagan and Bush administrations also tried to change the political culture at various resource agencies, without much success.
“It’s difficult even for an ideologically motivated administration to do that,” Dreher says. “The civil servants have so much commitment to the statutes they administer. And our environmental laws are pretty resilient, representing a strong public mandate for environmental protection.”
But still, there can be constant, demoralizing pressure to work on things based on a political agenda that the White House may be radiating. Trump’s federal hiring freeze will add to that pressure, as will the budget process, with all-but-sure tax cuts that could lead to massive defunding of agencies, “leaving them unable to fulfill their mandates,” Dreher says.
“In the face of all that, what we are telling people is there are no longer the normal checks and balances in the political system. The American public has to play the role of performing that vital check,” he adds, noting that conservation groups will also be waging the battle in courts across the country.