by Oliver Milman and Sam Morris Sunday 14 May 2017 03.00 EDT
During inauguration day on 20 January, as Donald Trump was adding “American carnage” to the presidential lexicon, the new administration also took a hammer to official recognition that climate change exists and poses a threat to the US.
One of the starkest alterations to the White House’s website following Trump’s assumption of office was the scrapping of an entire section on climate change, stuffed with graphs on renewable energy growth and pictures of Barack Obama gazing at shriveling glaciers, to be replaced by a perfunctory page entitled “An America first energy plan”.
In the more than 100 days since, the administration has largely opted for a chisel and scalpel approach to refashioning its online content, but the end result is much the same – mentions of climate change have been excised, buried or stripped of any importance.
Federal government websites are being combed through to apply new verbiage. The state department’s office of global change, for example, has removed links to the Obama administration’s 2013 climate action report and mention of the latest UN meeting on climate change. Text relating to climate change and greenhouse gases has also been purged.
Source: The old US Department of State page for Office of Global Change (dated Jan 20)
Trump’s desire to champion the coal industry is reflected in the Department of Energy’s online pages aimed at educating children. Sentences that point out the harmful health consequences of burning coal and other impacts of fossil fuels have gone.
Source: EIA Kids website, page on Coal Source: EIA Kids website, page on Coal
Alterations to the Department of the Interior’s climate section weren’t quite as subtle. A nine-paragraph description of melting glaciers, wildfires and invasive species driven by climate change has been pared down to a single, noncommittal line.
Source: The old Department of Interior website under Obama, and the existing one
And then there’s the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the target of severe cuts to its climate programs by the administration and led by an administrator, Scott Pruitt, who has defied basic scientific understanding of climate change.
On 28 April, the EPA announced in as quiet a way possible – it was a Friday at 7pm – that its website was “undergoing changes that reflect the agency’s new direction” under Trump and Pruitt. This would involve “updating language to reflect the approach of new leadership”.
Immediately, the EPA’s climate change section disappeared, to be replaced by a static holding page. This page linked to a “snapshot” from 19 January that includes copious information on the basics of climate change, the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the US, temperature data and how the EPA is helping tamp down emissions.
The placeholder snapshot of the EPA’s climate change webpage pre-Trump administration. Photograph: EPA
These changes have caused deep alarm among environmental groups and some scientists, who fear that tweaked online language may soon morph into reams of climate data being deleted. While the record-keeping rules of the EPA and other agencies demand that data is retained, there is little to stop the administration hiding it from public view, only to be obtained via freedom of information laws.
Groups such as DataRefuge and the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) have swung into action to monitor and archive climate and other data, just in case. EDGI uses a team of volunteer analysts to track changes to around 25,000 pages across multiple government agencies.
Maya Anjur-Dietrich, member of EDGI’s website tracking committee, said the initiative has “observed several emerging patterns, which notably concern climate change and renewable energy”.
“Across multiple agency websites, we have seen a reduction in usage of terms like ‘climate change’ and ‘greenhouse gases’, and an overall reduction in access to information pertaining to climate change,” she said.
“In a few cases, we have also observed shifts in economy- and business-oriented language, where the descriptions of the office focuses have increased their mentions of helping to grow infrastructure, create jobs, and stimulate the economy.
“On certain DOE (Department of Energy) pages, in particular, we have seen a shift in emphasis away from renewable energy and, in some cases, towards usage of fossil fuels.”
Anjur-Dietrich pointed out that federal government websites have always been regularly updated, either during an administration or its transition. But unless care is taken, broad, important themes such as climate change can become obscured.
“It is when web pages are changed without transparency, explanation, or careful documentation that the public’s access to information – and thus the ability to understand the implications of that information – is imperiled,” she said.
Activists have sought to resurrect removed information through the so-called Beetlejuice provision, which is where three separate freedom of information requests for the same thing requires the content to be publicly displayed.
The Beetlejuice tactic has been used on a range of agencies – including Nasa and the EPA – for climate data, renewable energy information and other content. Researchers fret that changes to online generalities aimed at the public may ultimately grow to become threat to their work.
“It’s a serious concern that we will lose this information because long-term, large-scale environmental data is very hard to come by,” said Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University who submitted one of the freedom of information requests.
“At this stage it’s a fear – I haven’t had colleagues saying they tried to get data and it’s no longer there. But this has to be viewed in the context of an administration that’s very hostile to science. I mean, we have a president who has said climate change is a Chinese plot.”
Amy Atwood, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, added: “Scrubbing information about climate change will not make it any less dangerous.
“We’re going to fight the Trump administration’s efforts to bury the science showing the dangerous impacts of climate change at every turn.”