Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources deletes accurate climate science from agency webpage

The site went from explaining man-made climate change to falsely claiming that the science on climate change is unsettled.

CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File
CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

A webpage run by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources used to explain to visitors that climate change is both occurring and is the result of human activity. Now, visitors to the same webpage will find false information claiming that the cause of climate change is still a matter of scientific debate.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the department, which is in charge of the state’s environmental policy, among other things, quietly scrubbed language from a page about the Great Lakes and climate change, striking out entire sentences about human contributions to climate change.

The website used to explain that “Earth’s climate is changing. Human activities that increase heat-trapping (‘greenhouse’) gases are the main cause,” and went on to discuss how climate change might affect Wisconsin directly — longer summers, shorter winters, changes in precipitation patterns.

Instead, the webpage now reads: “As it has done throughout the centuries, the earth is going through a change. The reasons for this change at this particular time in the earth’s long history are being debated and researched by academic entities outside the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.”

The claim that the causes of climate change are still subject to scientific debate is false. There is a 97 percent consensus among publishing climate scientists that the climate is indeed changing, and that human activities — especially the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels — are the primary cause. Scientists are about as sure that humans cause climate change as they are that smoking cigarettes leads to lung cancer.

This isn’t the first time the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which is led by climate change-denying Gov. Scott Walker (R), has deleted information regarding climate change under Walker’s tenure. According to the Associated Press, the Department of Natural Resources also deleted information compiled by former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle’s (D) global warming task force, and a guide on how to teach about climate change.

Bill Davis, president of the John Muir chapter of the Sierra Club in Madison, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the DNR’s move to delete climate information was “unfortunate, but not surprising.”

The Department of Natural Resources did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment by the time of publication, but DNR spokesman Jim Dick told the Journal Sentinel that the “updated page reflects our position on this topic that we have communicated for years, that our agency regularly must respond to a variety of environmental and human stressors from drought, flooding, wind events to changing demographics.”

He reportedly then went on to defend the false claim that the causes of climate change are still the subject of scientific debate, telling the Journal Sentinel that “the causes and effects of any changes in climate are still being debated and research on the matter is being done in academic circles outside DNR.”

Some climate scientists are worried that a purge of climate change data might happen next at the federal level, as President-elect Donald Trump continues to tap climate deniers to head crucial environmental and energy departments, including the EPA, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Energy. According to a Washington Post article from earlier this month, scientists have gone so far as to hold meetings or “guerrilla archiving” events in an effort to preserve climate information and data they fear might be deleted under a Trump administration.

Beyond physically purging information and data from public websites, it’s possible that the most insidious effect of a Trump administration will be the mainstreaming of climate denial at the highest levels of government. Despite the fact that 2016 is on track to be the hottest year on record, Trump remains steadfast in his denial of climate science. He recently told an interviewer that “nobody really knows” if climate change is real, an incorrect assertion challenged by the majority of climate scientists.

Claiming that the science is still up for debate might seem different from outright climate denial, but its still incredibly damaging to public discourse about climate change — many Americans still believe that there is an ongoing debate about mankind’s influence on climate, when in fact, among scientists, there is basically no question about the responsibility of humans in driving climate change.