Trump administration has quietly changed government’s sharing of climate data in unprecedented ways

Just one year in, the changes are pronounced.

The Environmental Protection Agency's Climate Change webpage. (CREDIT: EPA)
The Environmental Protection Agency's Climate Change webpage. (CREDIT: EPA)

In the days leading up to President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January of 2017, hackers, librarians, scientists, and environmental advocates spent days furiously downloading troves of climate-related data from government websites, fearful that the incoming administration — which had pledged fealty to fossil fuel interests and industry over climate action — would scrub important data from the web.

A little less than a year into the Trump presidency, fears of widespread erasure of climate data have largely failed to come to fruition — but that doesn’t mean the administration hasn’t quietly changed the way the federal government presents data and climate-related information in ways that are both pernicious and largely unprecedented.

According to a new report released on Wednesday by the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI), the first year of the Trump administration has been marked by “substantial shifts in whether and how the topic of climate change and efforts to mitigate and adapt to its consequences are discussed across a range of federal agencies’ websites.” That shift includes the removal and overhaul of the Environmental Protection Agency’s climate change website, reduced prominence of climate change content across several agency websites, and a shift from explicit terms like “climate change” and “greenhouse gases” to vague terms like “sustainability.”

“The most anti-science and anti-environmental administration in our nation’s history — the Trump administration — is engaged in an unprecedented effort to suppress science and rewrite scientific history, purging government websites of any information that is adverse to the polluting interests who are now running the show,” Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, said in a statement.

“Climate change is perhaps the greatest security threat we face as a nation and the Trump administration is advancing a dangerous policy of unilateral disarmament in the battle against dangerous and irreversible climate change,” Mann said.

According to EDGI, which has tracked changes to climate and environment-related information across tens of thousands of government websites for the past year, the problem isn’t so much that the Trump administration is obviously deleting or suppressing data; the main concern is that the administration has made hundreds of smaller changes, many of which might not be immediately noticeable to the average user, but which together undermine both the scientific consensus on climate change and the government’s position as a trusted purveyor of information.

If the federal government provides a place for scientists, policymakers, historians, and the public to access results, reductions [in information] really hinder further efforts and cast doubt on the consensus about issues like climate change,” Andrew Bergman, a member of EDGI’s Website Monitoring Committee, said on a press call in advance of the report’s release.

The first federal website to be changed under the Trump administration was the official White House website, which switched over almost immediately following Trump’s inauguration. While it’s common practice for incoming administrations to update the White House website, the Trump White House website removed all mention of addressing climate change and didn’t link back to a number of old climate change-related documents and information held over from the Obama administration. Therefore, in order for the general public to access this information, a user would have to search the Obama White House webpage’s archive directly. That step significantly reduces the ability of the average user — who might not know that each White House website lives in its own internet archive — to access old climate documents and information.

The same problem exists well beyond the White House website. Days after Trump’s inauguration, for instance, the State Department removed pages with climate change reports that were necessary for compliance with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. While those reports still exist, the State Department did not update the links to redirect to archived pages.

Perhaps most notably, the EPA’s website on climate change — which used to detail information about climate science as well as provide information for state, local, and tribal governments on climate action — has been offline since April 28, when the agency said that it was updating the website’s section on climate change to reflect the priorities of the current administration. The page still has not been restored, though it largely remains available through the agency’s web archive.

A different page, which under the Obama administration bore the title “Climate and Energy Resources for State, Local and Tribal Governments” was republished under the name “Energy Resources for State, Local and Tribal Governments”, and the phrase “climate change” was deleted from at least 15 separate references.

“Every administration has the right to choose policy priorities, including how it responds to the threat of climate change,” Paul Edwards, a fellow at Stanford University and professor of Information and History at the University of Michigan, said in a press statement. “But no administration has the right to lie about the existence of the problem, perhaps the most studied and the best confirmed of any environmental issue in history, nor to sweep it under the rug.”

Beyond removing climate information and data, Trump administration websites have begun to use different phrasing to describe the administration’s energy and environmental priorities. According to the EDGI report, the Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office (EERE) updated its language under the Trump administration to place more emphasis on fossil fuels, often referring to “U.S. energy security” rather than renewable energy.

Under Secretary Ryan Zinke, the Department of the Interior has also re-branded its webpages to place less of an emphasis on renewable energy and a greater emphasis on energy security. Under the Obama administration, the Department of the Interior’s “national priorities” included “clean and renewable energy.” Under Trump, that has changed to “making America safe through energy independence.”

A side-by-side comparison of listed "National Priorities" for the Interior Department under Obama (left) and Trump (right). (CREDIT: DOI/EDGI)
A side-by-side comparison of listed "National Priorities" for the Interior Department under Obama (left) and Trump (right). (CREDIT: DOI/EDGI)

The EDGI report also found that across government websites, programs and information that once included words like “climate change” or “climate” now tend to be referred to as “resilient” or “resiliency projects.” At the EPA, for instance, a website detailing a program called Climate Ready Water Utilities was renamed Creating Resilient Water Utilities, and all mention of “climate” was removed from the page. At the Department of Transportation, a program previously known as “The Sustainable Transport and Climate Change Team” was renamed “The Sustainable Transportation and Resilience Team,” and webpages that referred to “climate change” or “climate mitigation” were changed to “sustainability.”

Taken together, these shifts in website language not only reflect the administration’s changing priorities — which emphasize fossil fuel extraction and industry over climate action — but diminish the reality and severity of climate change for the public. While the Trump administration was busy obfuscating public information about climate change, for instance, the United States experienced its third-hottest year on record and its costliest year for weather and climate-related disasters, from devastating hurricanes to intense fires.

“The Trump Administration’s censorship of vital information about climate change will not protect Americans from the suffering that climate change will cause,” Ben Levitan, attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate and Energy Program, said in a statement. “It will not stop hurricanes, heat waves, or sea-level rise. It will only make it more difficult and costly to keep our families and communities safe.”