President Trump’s tweets get plenty of coverage. Yet, there are currently numerous actions by his administration that are designed to restrict the free flow of information from federal agencies. This is particularly significant in the fight against climate change. A combination of disinformation, suppression of facts that should be in the public domain, and the erasure of elements from federal websites are concerning from agencies set up to protect Americans.
In an effort to learn if staff members were told not to use established scientific language via a “gag order,” the Center for Biological Diversity filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. They directed their inquiries to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Department of Energy. The purpose was to get documentation of directives on the type of verbiage workers could or could not use.
Staff was allegedly instructed to either “remove” or “not use” any vocabulary that related to climate change. Examples include, but are not limited to, “greenhouse gas emissions,” “global warming,” “climate disruption,” and “global warming.” Ironically, “Paris agreement” was also in the mix.
The agencies were also asked to report if they had destroyed any records.
Almost two months later on May 30, the Center sued the Trump administration in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The reason? There had been no response, thereby “violating deadlines established under the law.”
The first point in the legal papers states:
“The Center for Biological Diversity (“Center”) — An environmental conservation organization that works to protect native wildlife species and their habitats — challenges the failure of the U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Energy, and U.S. Department of State to provide records concerning the Trump administration’s censorship of these federal departments’ and their component agencies’ discussion or dissemination about climate change, in violation of the Freedom of Information Act.”
I spoke with Taylor McKinnon, Public Lands Campaigner at the Center. He reiterated reports of EPA workforce harassment, and accounts of web pages taken down. It was apparent that staff and scientists were being intimidated.
“My response,” McKinnon said, “was we need to pry the hood off of this.” A key goal was to establish where the instructions were coming from.
Some records were delivered to the Center. However, for the bulk of what the Center was seeking – they were “stonewalled.” This is what prompted the lawsuit.
“We’re not going to allow the administration to drag its feet,” McKinnon emphasized. “We’re going to hold them to the letter of the law.”
With the belief that what was taking place needed to be “exposed,” McKinnon stated, “We think the information will say volumes.”
The conversation shifted to the EPA under the direction of Scott Pruitt. McKinnon expressed his concern over “fossil fuel corruption.” He underscored, “Pruitt is a catastrophe for America.”
The Center is also pushing back to save data. Along with conservation biologist Stuart Pimm and the Center for Media and Democracy, they have combined forces to save scores of environmental “data sets” on government websites, from removal by the administration.
Back in March, McKinnon released a statement that encapsulates the situation at hand:
“This is like telling government scientists not to mention gravity or the fact that the Earth revolves around the sun. The Trump administration can deny the reality of the climate crisis, but it can’t make it go away by simply telling government employees not to mention it anymore. This kind of anti-science meddling leads us straight back to the dark ages.”
Suppressing information, employee gag orders and perpetuating disinformation is a form of political pressure that adds to the weakening of the federal agencies we depend on to protect our families. We deserve better from our elected officials.