Sabotaged Science in the Arctic Refuge: Interior Department Works to Undermine Its Own Scientists

February 25, 2020
Photo: USFWS/Flickr
Joel Clement
Senior Fellow

It’s been a long, tough road for scientists during the Trump administration—particularly those at the sprawling Department of the Interior. Interior scientists have been reassigned and marginalized by political appointees, their results have been suppressed, their funding has been choked off, and their programs have been threatened with closure or relocation. Those who remain on the job are keeping their heads down for fear of retaliation, diligently continuing to do whatever research is still permitted, and avoiding publicizing results that may draw fire from the Secretary’s meddling hallway.

Sabotaging science

Unfortunately it’s no longer just the scientific findings that the Trump administration is trying to sabotage. They’re now going after the very methods that scientists have depended upon for many decades to understand and accurately predict change.

This is not a new tactic. Climate deniers have long tried to demonize scientific models as false and misleading. These arguments don’t get much traction outside of denier echo chambers, largely because it’s well understood in scientific circles that no single statistical or scientific model will be right all the time, but by combining and overlaying lots of them, it is possible to generate very reliable predictions.

Perhaps because of all the scrutiny over the years, climate science has been incredibly effective at developing accurate model-based predictions. A recent assessment of climate model accuracy over the past few decades demonstrated that even the relatively primitive, punch-card driven climate models used 50 years ago were remarkably accurate at predicting what actually transpired, and modern supercomputing methods have of course become far more sophisticated.

Not surprisingly, however, these facts have not deterred the climate deniers who continue to flog the debunked notion that flawed models have predicted a false crisis. Ever eager to please the ideologues in the White House, the political appointees at Interior are following suit.

Putting the blinders on

The first ham-fisted attempt to do so was executed by none other than the Trump-appointed Director of the US Geological Survey (USGS), James Reilly. A former astronaut and geologist, Reilly was expected to be a steadying influence on the twitchy, hair-trigger impulses of the anti-science crowd at Interior. Unfortunately, in June of 2019 he caved to the Trump sycophants by declaring that the USGS—and by extension, the National Climate Assessment—would no longer consider model predictions that go beyond the year 2040, rather than the more customary 2100. This artificial constraint would erase data for the period when climate impacts are expected to be the worst and, due to the length of time that CO2 emissions remain in the atmosphere, the time period when immediate climate actions could bring a pronounced positive change.

By putting the blinders on, Reilly was both stifling the bad climate news and suppressing just how important climate action is right now. Reilly was both politicizing and dumbing down his own agency’s science, a move which normally would have cost the USGS Director his job.

This action brought an uproar from the scientific community and it’s not yet clear whether Reilly intends to follow through with his threat.

It was a learning moment for Interior’s political team, but not for the reasons you’d expect. Rather than back off on politicizing science, they learned to let others do the politicizing for them. In a highly unusual move that has invited new controversy, this week the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) has decided to use public process in an inventive new way.

A blatant attack on scientific integrity in Alaska’s Arctic Refuge

With all the controversy surrounding the Trump administration’s efforts to permit oil and gas development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, there has been intense scrutiny of Interior’s rushed process to start a leasing program there. First, a badly flawed draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) drew fire from scientists both within and outside Interior for relying on science that was incomplete and outdated, and then the final EIS used circular logic to determine that the ecosystem would be so disturbed by climate change that oil and gas development would not add much incremental damage. Remarkably, the EIS then recommended opening up the entire coastal plain to leasing.

In an effort to catch up with the aggressive push to drill, FWS has led several studies to fill in the missing pieces. One of those is a study of the impacts of seismic testing on denning polar bears. The results will inform the ultimate decision of whether or not to allow seismic testing in the Refuge. Typically this decision would then be subject to public comment.

However, in a Trumpian twist, FWS has invited comment on the science itself:

“We request public comments on the value of the model and the associated methodology described in the peer-viewed scientific manuscript in assisting in the evaluation of the effects of future seismic survey proposals for their potential impacts to maternal polar bear dens.”

Now, to be clear, the scientists at FWS do not need public comments to do their science—they’ve already published peer-reviewed papers on this topic. The only plausible reason for the agency to seek public comment on the study would be to give agency leadership something to point to, on behalf of fossil fuel interests, if they don’t like the scientific results. Not a good look for FWS, and it’s pretty clear that political appointees strong-armed the career staff into this blatant attack on scientific integrity.

This new tactic may be the anti-science crowd grasping at straws, perhaps, but it’s an insult to both the scientific professionals who do the work and the Americans who pay for it. In the rush to serve the needs of the fossil fuel industry, the clumsy political appointees at Interior appear to have entirely forgotten their public service role.

Americans, Alaskans, Alaska Natives, and the world class ecosystems of the Arctic Refuge deserve better.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that USGS director Reilly announced in 2013 that the USGS would no longer consider model predictions that go beyond the year 2040. The correct year is 2019.