Scientists are feverishly copying potentially irreplaceable climate data and archiving it in independent servers around the world out of fear the future administration might shred it.
It all started last week when President-elect Trump’s transition team sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Energy asking for the individual names of researchers who were involved in climate research. The request actually included a total of 74 questions, one of which asked for a list of department employees and contractors who attended the annual global climate talks hosted by the United Nations within the last five years.
Scientists were dumbstruck. No one had ever made such a request and the underlying motivation behind the request was odd. People started smelling a trap. Yesterday, Energy Department spokesman Eben Burnham-Snyder said they will not comply.
“Our career workforce, including our contractors and employees at our labs, comprise the backbone of (the Energy Department) and the important work our department does to benefit the American people,” Burnham-Snyder said in a statement.
“We are going to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department,” he added. “We will be forthcoming with all publicly available information with the transition team. We will not be providing any individual names to the transition team.”
Texas Governor Rick Perry, a climate change denier, is expected to run the Energy Department once Trump comes to office. Yesterday, CNN reported none other than Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil and a decorated businessman by Vladimir Putin, will serve as secretary of defense. Earlier, one Trump adviser suggested cutting NASA funding for climate research, claiming the agency should stick to space flight. Then there’s the man himself, President-elect Trump, who reiterated his anti-science, climate change-denying stance on Dec. 11 by saying that “nobody knows if climate change is real.” How about 99% of the climate scientists, a.k.a the experts here?
Needless to say, many people from the Department of Energy and elsewhere are feeling very pressed by this borderline harassment behavior.
“This feels like the first draft of an eventual political enemies list,” a Department of Energy employee told Reuters, who asked not to be identified because he feared a reprisal by the Trump transition team
In response, Nick Santos, an environmental researcher at the University of California at Davis has been copying climate data onto a nongovernment server. “Doing this can only be a good thing. Hopefully they leave everything in place. But if not, we’re planning for that,” he told the Washington Post.
Trump and members of his transition teams from across various departments have time and time again expressed interest in castrating climate research and Obama-implemented environmental policies. A more in-depth look at what’s in store can be found in a previous op-ed I wrote for ZME Science. I expect Trump and co. to cancel America’s involvement in the Paris Agreement, kill the clean power act, and repeal federal spending on clean tech, among other things.
I would have never expected intentions involving the concealment or destruction of climate data, however. Don’t get me wrong, this is not explicitly the case. It’s just that some scientists are getting a bad feeling and have taken upon themselves to make sure their life work is protected.
“They have been salivating at the possibility of dismantling federal climate research programs for years. It’s not unreasonable to think they would want to take down the very data that they dispute,”Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists, told the Washington Post. “There is a fine line between being paranoid and being prepared, and scientists are doing their best to be prepared. . . . Scientists are right to preserve data and archive websites before those who want to dismantle federal climate change research programs storm the castle.”
Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, also told the WP that:
“I think it’s much more likely they’d try to end the collection of data, which would minimize its value. Having continuous data is crucial for understanding long-term trends,” Dessler said. “Trends are what climate change is about — understanding these long-term changes. Think about how much better off the people who don’t want to do anything about climate change would be if all the long-term temperature trends didn’t exist.”
He added, “If you can just get rid of the data, you’re in a stronger position to argue we should do nothing about climate change.”
This weekend, at the University of Toronto, scientists will meet for a “guerrilla archiving” where they will catalog key federal environmental data ahead of Trump’s inauguration. There’s even a Google spreadsheet which links to dozens of government databases.
Tuesday, in San Francisco, thousands of scientists had gathered for the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). While this is typically a very jovial event, this year was marked by many gloomy faces. A few hundred decided to go to downtown San Francisco and protest against the censorship of science at a rally organized by 350BayArea.org, climatetruth.org, and other activist organizations.
“I know you’re here because you understand just how essential science and evidence are to our democracy,” Peter Frumhoff, the science and policy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the crowd of more than 200 geologists, climate scientists and Earth scientists. “The science and evidence that we all get is at risk of being deeply interfered with by this incoming administration.”
“They [gov. researchers] are deeply discouraged about their own well-being, about their own ability to do their science,” Frumhoff told Live Science. “Many of the federal scientists I’ve talked to have talked about polishing up their resumes, looing for ways to duck and cover.”
Earlier in November, an open letter signed by 2,300 scientists — including 22 Nobel prizewinners — urged Trump to foster “a strong and open culture of science.”
“This election represented such a large change and threw such uncertainty onto the place of science in American government that we really had to reach out right away to the president-elect,” said Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
All of these events suggest scientists in America are feeling their work jeopardized by the new administration. it remains to be seen whether their well-founded fears are actually anything to worry about. Whatever may be the case, we’re already seeing friction between the nation’s governmental departments and transitional teams. The echoes of the most divisive campaign in the history of U.S. elections are far from over.