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Some EPA, State Dept climate pages changing under Trump administration

Feb 9, 2017

Shortly after the election, researchers from the U.S. and Canada got together to start backing up scientific data from federal agencies in the U.S.

They’re also keeping a close eye on how the Trump Administration is changing federal websites, and they're already finding some changes.

One of the groups heading up this effort is called the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative. (You can see EDGI's report on changes to some EPA websites here, and its report on the State Department and Department of Energy here.)

Tracking the changes

Matt Price is a professor of history and information science at the University of Toronto and one of the technical leads of the group.

His group has seen several changes to various federal agency websites: EPA, the State Department, Department of Energy, and to a lesser extent on NOAA and NASA pages. He says some of it is normal, like removing Obama administration staffer names.

But he says some of the changes go beyond that.

“The change that concerns me the most, I think, is a move away from the language of action on climate to a language of mitigating effects; away from the idea of responsibility and towards acceptance,” he says.

One of the group's reports notes that in at least one case, the mention of human-induced climate change was removed:

Screenshots from January 16, 2017 and January 22, 2017.
Credit Posted with permission / EDGI

"We're also seeing that: backing away from established science and retreating to a kind of 'say nothing, know nothing' stance," says Price.

He says most of the changes have been to the language on websites. They haven't noticed much removal of data, although some small data sets have become less available (not necessarily completely removed, but harder to find).

A warning from Canada

But Price isn’t convinced it will stay that way.

He lives in Toronto, and he experienced major changes to government-led science in Canada under conservative former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“We had a government up here that was pretty hostile to the idea of climate change, and acted on that hostility by making it harder for scientists - for government scientists - to talk, by taking data off of the web, and by destroying government libraries and also by stopping to collect data,” he says.

Price says there's a gap in the record of important polar meteorological data because the Harper administration shut down a Canadian monitoring station.

He's concerned that the Trump administration will be equally hostile to climate change science, and could act in similar ways. In late January, the Trump administration instructed EPA to take down its climate change page, although it later backed away from that.

"So, essentially, what the government of Canada was doing was to close down opposition by taking away the facts."

Matt Price says under Harper, there was a decline in the quality of scientific information from the Canadian government.

"And it became more difficult for people to use the knowledge that had been produced by the government in order to make effective arguments. So, essentially, what the government of Canada was doing was to close down opposition by taking away the facts that people were making their arguments on the basis of," he says.

But he says people noticed, and took action. Scientists held protest marches.

“And this became a major political issue that contributed to the fall of that government," says Price. "So I think there is both a warning, a terrible warning, about what can happen to policy discourse when it gets separated from science and the pursuit of truth, but also an opportunity for people to involve themselves in a really vigorous way in the political process."

Most of the changes that EDGI has documented have been to EPA and State Department websites. A State Department official speaking on background told me the department has archived the Obama administration’s state.gov website in a similar way officials did for the Clinton and Bush administrations: it's preserved as an archive website available at https://2009-2017.state.gov

I also reached out to the EPA for comment, and an EPA spokesperson sent this statement:

As part of EPA’s standard process and our continuous efforts to review and refresh the website, EPA career staff updated a number of web pages in January, before the change in administration. For example, staff edited the International Climate Partnerships page to reduce redundant text, and updated a number of pages to remove links from pages that would be impacted by the Presidential transition (the links went to the previous Administration’s White House webpage, which has been archived).  These updates were routine web maintenance and in line with the Agency’s web guidelines.  We did not remove any substantive information about climate change science or EPA programs.

Gretchen Gerke is part of EDGI's website tracking team who noticed the changes to EPA websites.

In an email, she said, "As for when exactly the text changes happened, we know it was sometime between January 16th and January 22nd, and the date stamp on the page indicates January 20th. Unfortunately, we do not know if it was before or after noon on January 20th."

I asked the EPA if they're committed to preserving all scientific data that’s currently available on the agency's websites. The EPA press office has so far not responded to that question.