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“Climate change” and “global warming” are disappearing from government websites

The deletions follow a pattern of policy changes on climate change under the Trump administration.

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Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

After a year of the Trump administration, one of the most distinctive changes we’ve seen across the government is the removal of language around climate change on government websites.

It’s happened not just at agencies that deal directly with the issue like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, but also at the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services.

While largely superficial, these changes in wording are symptomatic of broader shifts of the Trump era occurring within federal agencies that are trying to boost fossil fuels and roll back efforts to study, mitigate, and adapt to climate change.

The Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, a watchdog group, has been tracking many of these deletions. And this week it reported that the removal of “climate change” and related terms as well as entire pages on the issue could have a real impact on policy. For instance, they note that EPA’s removal of the website describing Obama’s signature climate policy, the Clean Power Plan, could influence the administration’s efforts to repeal it.

“The removal of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan website in advance of the Plan’s proposed repeal, obscuring compiled state emission policy information from those interested in researching the Plan, is one example of how democratic policymaking is undermined,” the authors wrote.

In some cases, the removal of references to climate change is a political directive from new Trump appointees — what some scientists have described as censorship. In other cases, agency staffers are tweaking program names and language in internal documents to try to stay out of the crosshairs of their new bosses. In other words, out of sight, out of mind, and maybe out of range for budget cuts.

For instance, EDGI found that the DOE Energy Information Administration’s Energy Kids page was altered to play up fossil fuels and play down climate change, while the EPA’s “Student’s Guide to Climate Change” was unlinked from its main page and buried on its site. A separate report from EDGI released Wednesday showed that the section on climate change was removed from the Bureau of Land Management’s website.

Though there doesn’t seem to be a systematic effort to delete “climate change” and “global warming” from all government websites, programs, or internal documents, interviews with agency staffers and watchdogs combined with news reports suggest it keeps happening. For its part, EDGI says it doesn’t “assess​ ​any​ ​agency​ ​or​ ​entity’s​ ​intentions​ ​or​ ​rationale​ ​for​ ​the​ ​demonstrated​ ​changes​.” Here’s a list — that’s by no means exhaustive — broken down by agency.

Department of Energy

  • In June 2017, the agency closed down its Office of International Climate and Technology, the only division with the word “climate” in its name. But before it closed, agency staff were trying to change the office’s name to protect it. "It is absolutely true that prior to inauguration but after the election, the Office of International Climate Change Policy and Technology was seeking to change its name to remove 'climate,'" Graham Pugh, a career staffer who led the office until 2014, told E&E News. "The drill is you change 'climate change' to 'competitiveness.'"
  • Jennifer Bowen, an associate professor at Northeastern University, reported in August that she was asked to remove the words “global warming” and “climate change” from a research grant application she submitted to the Energy Department. Officials have denied that there is any policy banning the use of these phrases.
  • The Trump transition team in December 2016 sent and then disavowed a questionnaire to the US Department of Energy asking for names of personnel who attended international climate discussions.
  • A career staffer told This American Life’s David Kestenbaum that she and other workers went through internal documents shortly after the election to reframe justifications for programs from climate change to “weather” and “jobs.”

Department of Health and Human Services

  • The Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, which is monitoring government websites, reported in August that the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which is part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, removed language on climate change from a webpage.
Side-by-side screenshots showing the deletion of a document referencing climate change on the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences website.
Environmental Data and Governance Initiative

The institute “altered​ ​climate change​ ​language,​ ​updated​ ​climate​ ​change​ ​references,​ ​and​ ​reduced​ ​access​ ​to​ ​a​ ​Web resource​ ​with​ ​information​ ​on​ ​climate​ ​change​ ​and​ ​human​ ​health​ ​across​ ​several webpages,” the EDGI found.

Department of Transportation

  • In February 2017, the Federal Highway Administration renamed its "Sustainable Transport and Climate Change" team the "Sustainable Transportation and Resilience" team.

A spokesperson told E&E News that "the team name was changed to more accurately reflect our emphasis on our resilience activities which constitute a large portion of our portfolio of work."

Environmental Protection Agency

  • In April 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency announced website changes to remove “outdated language” and noted that “content related to climate and regulation is also being reviewed.” The words “climate” and “climate change” were then removed from EPA websites, such as those for state, local, and tribal governments.

“We are constantly updating our website to reflect new initiatives and projects of the Agency,” an EPA spokesperson wrote in an email. “Of course the site will be reflective of the current administration’s priorities — with that said, all the content from the previous administration is still easily accessible and publicly available through the banner across the top of the main page of the site.”

  • EPA scientists reported in October that they were blocked without explanation from attending a conference to present their work on climate change.

“It’s definitely a blatant example of the scientific censorship we all suspected was going to start being enforced at EPA,” John King, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, told the New York Times.

  • An EPA staffer who asked not to be named tells Vox that language in internal documents describing a program’s work on “climate change” was changed to “climate resiliency” to protect the program from potential politically motivated cuts.

Department of the Interior

  • A group of scientists reported in May 2017 that the US Department of the Interior objected to climate change references in a news release about a study they published on coastal flooding.

“While we were approving the news release, they had an issue with one or two of the lines,” Sean Vitousek, a research assistant professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, told the Washington Post. “It had to do with climate change and sea-level rise.”

  • In October 2017, a scientist at Interior who worked on climate change resigned and filed a whistleblower complaint. Joel Clement, who studied the impact of rising seas on Native American tribes, was involuntarily reassigned to a division that collects royalties from fossil fuel leases.

"They are clearly not going to address the climate change issue at all there and my voice is far more useful outside the agency than in it," Clement told CNN. "I'm not shocked. I'm discouraged. This kind of thing is not surprising anymore and I guess that's the most discouraging thing about it, it was a clear pattern."

Department of Agriculture

Another example we saw in Michael Lewis’s article in Vanity Fair last year was Brian Klippenstein, who led the Trump transition team for the USDA, gunning for people working on climate change as soon as he arrived.

Klippenstein previous ran a group called Protect the Harvest, which lobbies against groups like the Humane Society and raises awareness about “threats posed by animal rights groups and anti-farming extremists.”

“He came in and wanted to know all about the office on climate change,” a former USDA employee told Lewis. “That’s what he wanted to focus on. He wanted the names of the people doing the work.”

Agency staffers declined to give up names and tried to stay out of the spotlight by changing how they framed their work, as shown in an email signaling changes in messaging.

The email exchange, first obtained by the Guardian, provided guidance for how officials should rebrand their work. “Soil carbon sequestration” was to be reframed as “building organic matter in the soil to improve soil health,” for example.

The removals are pretty minor, but they reflect a broader change in attitude toward climate

It’s difficult to tell how many of these changes stem from self-preservation among career staff in government versus directives from political operatives, but for the latter, there doesn’t seem to be a strategy behind the changes.

It’s not a way to insulate the agencies from litigation, for example, since they are held to their obligations in statutes, not what’s written on their websites.

“I think it’s much more of a 1984-ish thought control motivation,” said David Doniger, director of climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They don’t want the EPA website to pop up when middle school and high school kids are doing their research on climate change.”

Researcher Victoria Herrmann also reported in March that Arctic data sets and policy documents were being deleted from government websites.

“Each defunct page is an effort by the Trump administration to deliberately undermine our ability to make good policy decisions by limiting access to scientific evidence,” she wrote at the Guardian.

Many agencies still retain robust information on climate change science and policy. But leaders are ignoring it.

The removals listed here are most likely a patchwork attempt to remove inconvenient references to climate change that contradict the policies of the Trump administration. But it’s not hard to find plenty of language that still acknowledges humanity’s impact on the climate and the imperative to combat it.

Go to the DOE site and you will find this: “Addressing the effects of climate change is a top priority of the Energy Department. As global temperatures rise, wildfires, drought, and high electricity demand put stress on the nation’s energy infrastructure.”

Though the EPA’s climate change landing page is down for updates, it still maintains a website for climate change indicators like storms, wildfires, and rising temperatures.

“Many of these observed changes are linked to the rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, caused by human activities,” the website reads.

And yet executive branch officials have shown they are quite capable of ignoring their own agencies’ high-quality science.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, for example, told USA Today that he would not change course in undoing greenhouse gas regulations in the Clean Power Plan despite the White House’s release last year of the Climate Science Special Report, which found that “human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming.”

The report received input from 13 federal agencies, including the EPA, the DOE, Interior, and Transportation.

"Does this report have any bearing on that? No it doesn’t,” Pruitt said. “It doesn’t impact the withdrawal and it doesn’t impact the replacement."

Similarly, Kathleen Hartnett White, who was renominated to lead the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, told lawmakers at her confirmation hearing that the climate assessment wouldn’t guide any of her work.

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