The first days of the Trump Administration have caught many of us by surprise with the volume of contestable statements, controversial orders, and provocative media appearances. Amidst this, the administration’s attacks on science are now fully underway.
At least, though, we’re clearer now what their climate change strategy is going to be, and can more effectively organize to fight it.
Tactic 1: CONTROL
If one’s goal is to undermine climate science and create an environment where the public is too uncertain to demand federal action (action that today a majority of Americans say they want), then the first thing you need to do is silence the relevant scientists under your purview.
This control is coming down swiftly in the new administration’s first few days. First, an emboldened Congress revived a rule on January 3 allowing them to reduce federal employee’s salary to $1. Shortly after taking control on January 20, the administration began ordering federal agencies to cease communication with the public. First reported were restrictions at the Department of Interior and its National Parks Service. On Monday, January 23, the EPA received similar orders. On Tuesday, USDA scientists joined their ranks. though outlets report that order was rescinded later in the day. By Wednesday, news broke that EPA work may be subject to review by political appointees. Bewildered scientists and citizens are watching and waiting for what comes next.
These orders can affect scientists working on a range of vital scientific inquiries and areas of public interest. But based on other of the administration’s policy priorities, like fossil fuel development and regulatory rollbacks, control of scientists working on climate change appears to be the target.
With scientists muzzled and the flow of tax-payer-funded data, information, and science halted, it becomes difficult for the public to access solid, accessible, publicly-translated information on climate change. It also weakens our ability to check and verify an alternative narrative on climate that the new administration might put forward.
In essence, control the science and you can begin to control the public narrative or conventional wisdom around climate change. Just when that appreciation of the climate threat is finally gelling, will they seek to dissolve it?
Tactic 2: Offer an ALTernative Reality and ALTer science-based policy
On a recent drizzly Friday, the clouds suddenly parted and “it became really sunny” for President Trump’s inaugural speech. The rain “stopped immediately” and “a million, a million and a half people” stood on the mall to take in his speech, making this “the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period.” This didn’t actually happen; anyone watching can attest, and both crowd scientists and meteorologists would support them. But when the nominal leader of the free world tells you green is blue, you can be forgiven for missing a beat. It is still not.
Why the administration is still investing in pointless lies now that Donald Trump is installed as president, others can speculate. But doing so is only preposterous of them if we take note each time and call it out. If we stay silent or get falsehood fatigue then it’s perfectly strategic and their Alt-reality eventually wins.
This tactic is being showcased, though more subtly, in the confirmation hearings for the President’s cabinet nominees. Rex Tillerson (nominated for Secretary of State), Scott Pruitt (for EPA administrator), Rick Perry (for Secretary of Energy), and Ryan Zinke (for Department of Interior), among others, have all acknowledged the reality of climate change but insisted in one way or another that we don’t really know why it’s happening or the degree to which humans are responsible. In the face of such uncertainty, the logic goes, inaction is the only reasonable approach. This is a brilliant new way of winding down the clock on climate action and watching the window of opportunity close—and it’s dangerous as hell.
The facts are the facts. There are no alternatives. In the media, those are called falsehoods; on the street, lies.
Tactic 3: DELETE
Next up, if you’re trying to roll back the clock on climate progress, you make things disappear. On day 1 of the new administration, the White House climate pages disappeared. No surprise, really; a new administration gets to start fresh with some new content. But people (like those of us here at UCS) have been watching other sites with trepidation. More recently, much of the State Department’s climate change policy content vanished. And on Thursday, the Department’s entire senior management team resigned.
What is next to go? And who else will decide they have to bail?
Today, Americans own a wealth of vital climate information, made accessible on federal websites. Data.gov/climate provides users, including local communities, with rich datasets for use in analyzing climate risks and adaptation options. The resilience toolkit organizes and connects users to the large array of resilience planning tools in an accessible, manageable platform. The EPA’s climate change web content alone covers climate change science and indicators, emissions reduction tools, climate justice, and climate adaptation training for local governments.
Because of resources like this, we’ve become a country with the means to assess and plan for climate change and to reduce global warming emissions at the local, state, and national level.
Conflicting reports have been circulating about the impending removal of additional federal climate web pages. Interviewed around the time of this posting, Myron Ebell, until recently Trump’s EPA transition lead, spoke of the administration’s goals for deep cuts to EPA staff numbers.
A key effect of taking sites down and, more broadly hobbling the science capacity at these agencies is a populace with diminished access to climate change expertise and information—and perhaps motivation to act. The benefits of this accrue only to those interested in a fossil-fuel, business-as-usual future. The costs on the other hand—a diminished ability to address climate change—are paid by all of us.
As my colleague, Alden Meyer, said recently, “Any legitimate analysis shows that the costs of climate impacts to communities and businesses are huge and mounting, while the benefits of the clean energy revolution that offers a major part of the solution to the climate crisis are clear. The agenda being pursued by the Trump Administration is designed to benefit the fossil fuel industry and other polluters, at a tremendous cost to the rest of the economy and to the health and well-being of all Americans.”
Many Americans clearly don’t want to take it. This administration is finding itself facing resistance (and scrutiny) like no other.
Just a couple of examples :
- Scientists, universities, non-profits, and private citizens have teamed up to download and safeguard federal resources – data, reports, tools, etc.
- A scientists march on Washington, recently announced, gained hundreds of thousands of followers in a matter of hours.
- Federal employees, now restricted on Twitter, have secured “rogue” Twitter handles and kept right on communicating with the public, to greater followings than ever.
— Rogue NASA (@RogueNASA) January 26, 2017
Stand Up for Science
- Join the Scientists March on Washington.
- Join the People’s Climate March. UCS will be there in force.
- Volunteer at a DataRefuge event. In recent weeks, citizens and scientists have teamed up to preserve government data and websites. Some of this work is still ongoing. Join them.
Pick up the phone:
- Call your legislator and urge them to help safeguard federal scientific research, datasets, tools, reports and websites. Read my colleague’s blog for more background. As he says “It’s important that your elected officials hear your voice directly about what’s at stake in your state or local community, especially since in a few days confirmation votes for cabinet positions will be coming up. Follow our guide below to get contact information for your Senators, and tips for a successful call with their staff members: http://www.ucsusa.org/action/phone-calls.html”
- Ask your senators, specifically, to question Pruitt on the EPA scientist gag and science review orders. Political appointees shouldn’t decide what science gets published and whether federal scientists can speak to tax-payer funded science. Does Pruitt commit to supporting the flow of EPA science, including climate science, and the public speech of scientists?
- Tweet or otherwise share your support for government agencies (specifically, today, EPA, NPS, USDA, and NIH) and the freedom of federal scientists to be transparent about their work with their colleagues and the public.
- Know a federal scientist? These may be difficult times for many. Reach out in some way and let them know you’ve got their back.
Stay up-to-date and engaged. This is a fast-moving environment. There will be LOTS TO DO and the priorities will shift. UCS and other organizations can help keep you informed and supplied with actions. If you’re an expert, you can sign up for the UCS Science Network. If you’re a concerned citizen, you can join our Action Network.
Wherever you go for updates and to-dos, thank you for staying informed and engaged. We all need each others’ sustained energy, ideas, and action in the coming months.
Our Democracy has always depended on science; it does as much now as ever. And with science under assault, we need to stand up. To paraphrase a popular chant from recent marches: this is what patriotism looks like.