Climate experts say Trump’s Interior Department is sidelining scientists

By: - July 29, 2019 9:15 am

Students and activists participate in a climate change “strike” on March 15, 2019, in Chicago, Illinois. The strike was part of an international student movement to draw attention to climate change. Photo by Scott Olson | Getty Images

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration has been sidelining researchers and suppressing climate change science at the U.S. Interior Department, experts warned Congress last week. 

A climate change scientist and a former senior executive staffer at the Interior Department told the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee at a hearing July 25 that their work on climate change was stifled and that they experienced retaliation after the Trump administration took office. 

“It’s no secret that this administration is not a big fan of science, especially when it comes to science that has overwhelmingly determined that climate change is caused by humans and is threatening nearly every aspect of our lives,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, chairman of the committee. 

Among the witnesses at the hearing was Maria Caffrey, who was a University of Colorado research assistant and a paid partner of the National Park Service who worked for years on a report about how coastal parks would be impacted by sea level rise under different climate change scenarios. 

The release of her report was delayed several times, she testified, and NPS officials made “explicit attempts to get me to remove references to anthropogenic or human-caused climate change from my report.” Failing to mention anthropogenic climate change, she said, “would have eliminated crucial context and affected the scientific conclusions of the report,” she said. 

Caffrey’s work was the subject of several stories in 2018 published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. Caffrey thinks those stories – and the attention they drummed up – were responsible for the fact that her report was ultimately published with references to anthropogenic climate change. 

NPS management gradually cut off her access to research funding, Caffrey said: “I had become an outcast for standing up.” 

Joel Clement, a former career official at the Interior Department, also testified Thursday about censorship and retaliation at the agency. 

Clement resigned in Oct. 2017 after spending seven years as a senior executive at the department. In July of that year, he published a scathing op-ed in The Washington Post alleging that he had been reassigned by the Trump administration “for speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities.”

He had been director of the Office of Policy Analysis at Interior, but after speaking “very publicly about the need for DOI to address climate impacts” he received an email telling him he had been “reassigned to the auditing office that collects royalty checks from the oil, gas, and mining industries,” he told lawmakers. “I have no experience in accounting or auditing.”

Clement viewed the new posting as an attempt to force him to leave the federal government. 

He told Congress that the Trump administration “has sidelined scientists and experts, flattened the morale of the career staff, and by all accounts is bent on hollowing out the agency.” 

A fact sheet – published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration in August 2016 and archived online – outlines some of the ways that climate change caused by humans will impact Nevada. The expected consequences include more common heat waves, decreased flow of water in the Colorado and other rivers, increased frequency and intensity of wildfires and decreased productivity of ranches and farms. 

‘This administration is not a big fan of science’

Top Democrats on the Natural Resources Committee assailed the administration for reports of scientific suppression at the Interior Department and elsewhere across the administration. 

“We’ve seen story after story about climate change being deleted from government websites, senior advisers suggesting we consider alternative facts and science and climate change deniers being appointed to leadership positions,” Grijalva said. “There are few places in the Trump administration where the attack on science has been more intense than at the Department of Interior.”

Grijalva said the committee had asked a representative from the agency to testify at the hearing, “but they refused to come.” 

Interior spokeswoman Molly Block said the department “diligently works to accommodate Congressional invitations to testify,” adding that the department has participated in 59 of the 62 Congressional legislative and oversight hearings to which it has been invited this year. 

“Our scientific integrity policy is defined as the adherence to ethical and professional standards that lead to objective, clear, and reproducible science,” she said. “We appreciate the Committee’s interest in this shared commitment.” 

Republicans on the committee pointed to past allegations of scientific integrity violations during the Obama administration. 

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, the top Republican on the panel, said that such claims “can go through all administrations,” and he accused his Democratic colleagues of pushing “partisan propaganda” in another “cute” hearing, rather than seeking real solutions to address scientific integrity violations. 

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), defended Caffrey, her constituent. 

“I don’t think what happened to Dr. Caffrey …  is cute,” DeGette said. “It’s something we all need to hear today.” 

Another Colorado Democrat, Rep. Joe Neguse, called it “absurd” that Republicans on the panel dismissed the hearing as “political theater.” 

Neguse, whose district includes the University of Colorado, said, “The work of scientists in my district relies on the freedom to share scientific research in its entirely without political interference, intimidation or the removal of important facts. 

“This issue goes far beyond one paper being censored or one scientist being told not to use the term climate change,” he added. “It is a threat to the future of our scientific workforce. It undermines the gold-standard peer review process that research undergoes in this country and ultimately leads to poor policy making.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.