Interior watchdog highlights climate challenges as Trump officials suppress research

Ryan Zinke prefers to promote fossil fuel extraction.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is focusing on promoting fossil fuel drilling and extraction on public lands and in federal waters. CREDIT: AP Photo/Molly Riley
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is focusing on promoting fossil fuel drilling and extraction on public lands and in federal waters. CREDIT: AP Photo/Molly Riley

Climate change is among the “most significant management and performance challenges” facing the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), according to a new report issued by the department’s inspector general.

Interior’s internal watchdog is highlighting the growing challenges caused by climate change at the same time the department, under the leadership of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, is silencing climate scientists, working to open public lands to fossil fuel drilling, and hiring oil and gas lobbyists to fill its top ranks.

In the report, released Monday, the Office of Inspector General identified “climate effects” as one of the existing and emerging issues faced by the Interior Department. The inspector general is concerned with how the department will handle climate change’s impact on several areas, including Native American lands, water scarcity, and wildfire costs and strategy.

Communities in the Southwest, with large Native American populations, are facing prolonged drought, extreme floods, and loss of traditional food sources. Similar problems affect communities in the Northwest, and several have sought to relocate because of these effects, according to the report.

Two Alaska Native communities — Newtok and Kivalina — are seeking federal help to relocate as they face loss of water and food sources as well as destroyed infrastructure due to melting ice and rising sea levels, the inspector general said. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates the cost for relocating Newtok at between $80 million and $130 million, and as much as $400 million to relocate Kivalina.

In the southern United States, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe of Louisiana has lost 98 percent of its land to sea-level rise. Only 320 acres remain of Louisiana’s Isle de Jean Charles, home to the tribe. That acreage is down 98 percent since 1955 due to a combination of erosion and sinking land, rising seas, and more intense storms, Kyla Mandel reported last month in Mother Jones.

The tribe received a $48 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to relocate, “but members fear losing their cultural identity and traditions once they leave their homes,” the inspector general’s office found. “The DOI needs to develop and implement climate adaptation and resilience strategies to help preserve American Indian and Alaska Native ways of life,” the report said.

As the DOI’s watchdog highlights how climate change is altering how the department must operate, the department has taken a hostile stance on climate change research. An Interior policy director and scientist filed a whistleblower complaint with U.S. Office of Special Counsel earlier this year after being relocated from his position helping Alaskan communities adapt to climate change. He was then assigned to “an unrelated job in the accounting office that collects royalty checks from fossil fuel companies.”

Joel Clement alleged that his transfer was in retaliation for “speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities.” Clement was a lead author on a 2013 report for the president titled “Managing for the Future in a Rapidly Changing Arctic.”

And the department has removed descriptions of its priorities for tackling climate change and its climate-related coordination efforts, Toly Rinberg and Andrew Bergman, members of the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative’s website monitoring committee, noted Wednesday in an op-ed published in the New York Times.

In May, it came out that the DOI had cut a line about climate change from a report on coastal flooding. Zinke also has said he thinks clean energy — yes, clean energy — is a “hoax”. After President Donald Trump reversed a moratorium on coal leasing on federal lands, Zinke said, “We can’t power the country on pixie dust and hope.” His agency is now spearheading an attempt to open more federal waters  —  including off the southeastern coast and in the Arctic  — for oil drilling.

Climate scientists warn that the continued burning of fossil fuels, as promoted by the Interior Department, will only exacerbate climate change. As people feel the impacts of climate change, though, they will continue to demand answers, and the system is going to have to respond, longtime New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert said in a recent interview with Sierra magazine.

“And yet, I just read another piece about the Trump administration taking climate change discussions off another website. It’s completely Orwellian; you wouldn’t think it’s possible in 2017. Yet, it’s happening on a larger scale than ever,” Kolbert said.

Climate change, however, hasn’t disappeared from the radar of the DOI’s inspector general. After one of the worst wildfire seasons, the inspector general’s report highlights how the costs for containing these fires are continuing to escalate. Last year was the warmest ever recorded, a record broken previously by both 2015 and 2014, according to the report. Forecasters are predicting 2017 will be one of the three hottest years of all time. “Higher temperatures lead to drier soils, increased likelihood of drought, and a longer fire season,” the inspector general’s report said.

Through mid-September, the Interior Department, including its U.S. Forest Service, had spent more $2.1 billion in 2017 fighting fires — about the same as in all of 2015, the most expensive wildfire season on record. The department has yet to release updated figures.

Climate change also is affecting water supplies by increasing water demands due to longer and more frequent droughts. The droughts have resulted in water scarcity, particularly in Western U.S. reservoirs managed by the DOI’s Bureau of Reclamation. Low water levels due to drought not only threaten populations that depend on these sources, but also reduce the power generation capacities of the 53 hydroelectric dams operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, according to the report.

Island territories of the United States, where the Interior Department has jurisdiction, are facing major disruptions from the warming of the seas. Resident of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are still struggling to put their lives back together more than two months after Hurricane Maria made landfall.

Rising average ocean temperatures were an important element of Hurricanes Maria and Harvey, according to experts. Warmer temperatures are driving sea level rise, which is increasing risks from the storm surges that come with hurricanes. Increasing heat is also warming up the ocean, and hotter air holds onto more moisture, increasing the available energy for hurricanes, Umair Irfan reported at Vox.

In fiscal year 2016, the Interior Department, for example, authorized a grant of $828,050 for the Virgin Islands to develop a robust, multi-sector climate adaptation strategy.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the inspector general’s assessment “isn’t a one-off from career employees when it comes to the environment.” The newspaper pointed to a report issued by the Government Accountability Office in October that suggested the White House “use information on economic effects to help identify significant climate risks and craft appropriate federal responses.”

Given its proposed budget cuts and its aversion to addressing climate change, though, the Trump administration isn’t likely to heed the inspector general’s call to look at the challenges facing the Interior Department from climate change. Trump wants to cut DOI’s budget by about 12 percent as the department focuses more on promoting fossil fuel drilling and extraction on public lands and in federal waters.