A year ago, President Donald Trump was getting ready to take office and scientists and hackers around the world were backing up US environmental data before he did.
Canadian researcher Michelle Murphy summed up the fears of many environmental scientists who relied on that data for their work.
“We’re worried that the incoming administration is going to remove data sets that are available now, and once they’re offline, we don’t know what’s going to happen to them,” Murphy told The World last year.
Twelve months into the Trump administration, these fears have gone unrealized.
“No data has been removed, which was one of our significant concerns going into the Trump administration,” said Gretchen Gehrke from the watchdog group the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), which sprung up out of the data-back-up movement in 2016. “We haven’t seen either the raw data or even the synthesized reporting of that data blocked from public access.”
The story is different for climate change information aimed at the general public.
In a report released Thursday, EDGI documents major changes to climate change information across several government agency websites, from documents and webpages being removed to references to “climate change” being scrubbed from sites.
“There is a fairly pervasive, systematic alteration of climate change information and kind of a rhetorical shift across several agencies,” Gehrke said.
Hundreds of pages of climate change information have been removed from the Environmental Protection Agency’s website. Documents related to international climate agreements have been deleted from the State Department’s site.
“There are really large overhauls that have occurred,” Gehrke said.
The EPA’s climate change domain, she notes, has been down since April.
Elsewhere on the environment agency’s website, more than 200 pages of climate information for state, local and tribal governments have been deleted. Arctic researcher Victoria Herrmann said those resources and toolkits were designed to help local leaders plan for and adapt to climate change.
“Those are really important to smaller communities, like the many remote tribal communities in Alaska,” said Herrmann, who researches climate change in Alaskan communities and serves as managing director for The Arctic Institute.
An EPA spokesperson pointed out that the Obama-era website is archived online and linked to at the top of every agency page, so this information is still available.
“As we continue to make interagency reforms,” the EPA spokesperson wrote in a statement, “affiliated departmental websites will change as well.”
But the archived pages are harder to find, and Herrmann points out that in many remote areas, internet access often comes in the form of a slow dial-up connection at a community center or school.
“In those situations, spending time going through archived sites, Googling specifically what you want if you don’t know what the title is, means that you’re wasting valuable time, money and energy on something that was once very easily accessible,” Herrmann said.
Many federal webpages are being tweaked rather than taken down entirely. Words like “climate” and “climate change” are in some places being replaced by “resilience” and “sustainability.”
At the EPA, the report finds that a program formerly called “Climate Ready Water Utilities” was renamed “Creating Resilient Water Utilities.” Last December, the Department of Transportation changed the title of the Sustainable Transport and Climate Change group to the Sustainable Transport and Resilience group.
A Federal Highway Administration spokesperson told the Washington Post last year that the change was made “to more accurately reflect our agency’s emphasis on resilience activities.”
The word “resilience” has become a catch-all term that’s less politically charged than “climate change.” Swapping out the terms may seem like semantics, but to experts, the wording change signals possible policy shifts.
Harvard’s Jesse Keenan, who studied federal resilience policy during the Obama era, says “in many cases, [wording] really does matter.”
Resilience can be used to describe preparedness for all kinds of threats, not just those related to climate change, and changing the name of a program could change its focus.
“It’s really about interpretation. It’s not just the people in Washington, it’s the people in the regional offices, and ultimately in some cases it’s courts that have to interpret the intent of these programs,” Keenan said, “so actually, the nomenclature is actually really important.”
Every administration has a right to change its public face, and in recent changes of administration that’s meant changes to White House and federal agency sites.
So these website changes are not all that surprising given the Trump administration's policies.
As the error message at the now-defunct EPA climate change website says it’s being updated "to reflect EPA's priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt."