A War Against Climate Science, Waged by Washington's Rank and File

Lisa Friedman
President Donald Trump leaves after speaking at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, June 1, 2020. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — Efforts to undermine climate change science in the federal government, once orchestrated largely by President Donald Trump’s political appointees, are now increasingly driven by midlevel managers trying to protect their jobs and budgets and wary of the scrutiny of senior officials, according to interviews and newly revealed reports and surveys.

A case in point: When John Crusius, a research chemist at the U.S. Geological Survey, published an academic paper on natural solutions to climate change in April, his government affiliation never appeared on it. It could not.

Publication of his study, after a month’s delay, was conditioned by his employer on Crusius not associating his research with the federal government.

“There is no doubt in my mind that my paper was denied government approval because it had to do with efforts to mitigate climate change,” Crusius said, making clear he also was speaking in his personal capacity because the agency required him to do so. “If I were a seismologist and had written an analogous paper about reducing seismic risk, I’m sure the paper would have sailed through.”

Government experts said even they have been surprised at the speed with which federal workers have internalized Trump’s antagonism for climate science, and called the new landscape dangerous.

“If top-level administrators issued a really clear public directive, there would be an uproar and a pushback, and it would be easier to combat,” said Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, which supports scientists. “This is a lot harder to fight.”

An inspector general’s report at the Environmental Protection Agency made public in May found that almost 400 employees surveyed in 2018 believed a manager had interfered with or suppressed the release of scientific information, but never reported the violations. A separate Union of Concerned Scientists survey in 2018 of more than 63,000 federal employees across 16 agencies identified the EPA and Department of Interior as having the least trustworthy leadership in matters of scientific integrity.

Findings published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE in April on a subset of those agencies found that 631 workers agreed or strongly agreed that they had been asked to omit the phrase “climate change” from their work. In the same paper, 703 employees said they avoided working on climate change or using the phrase.

“They’re doing it because they’re scared,” said Maria Caffrey, a former geography specialist at the National Park Service who battled managers as they tried to delete humanity’s role in climate change from a recent report on sea-level rise. “These are all people who went to the March for Science rallies, but then they got into the office on Monday and completely rolled over.”

Examples are plentiful, not all of them new. But increasingly, scientists are willing to speak out.

On April 24, 2017, Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University, published a study showing the links between extreme weather events and climate change. Since the research was funded in part by Obama-era Energy Department grants that included more than $1.3 million for Diffenbaugh’s project, he credited the agency in the paper’s acknowledgments.

On April 25, emails show, the researchers were told that acknowledgment of Energy Department support would require additional review.

“It was alarming to receive this email because it was so far outside of our normal practice as a scientific community,” Diffenbaugh said.

Full disclosure of funding, he noted, is required by most scientific journals and the university.

The emails said managers in the Energy Department’s biological and environmental research program, known as BER, felt their program was “under attack internally” and were worried about certain terms, including “extreme event attribution,” which refers to how much a given weather event can be linked to global warming.

They also worried about references in Diffenbaugh’s research paper to terms like the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era regulation on coal-fired power plants; the social cost of carbon, a principle that puts a price on climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions; and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Citing those three subject areas, a research supervisor wrote to Diffenbaugh six days after his study was published, “Was trying not to put too much of this in writing, but the concern here is avoiding the impression that BER is supporting research directly focused on policy evaluation.”

Those were exactly the subjects of Diffenbaugh’s federally funded research.

A subsequent paper examined how meeting the Paris Agreement’s carbon reduction targets would affect extreme weather events. When Diffenbaugh submitted it for approval, he was told Energy Department officials felt it was “solid on the science” but contained “red flag words” like Paris Agreement, emails show.

His choice was to either remove those phrases and acknowledge the agency funding, or keep them and not mention the grant.

Diffenbaugh and Stanford decided that the research should not be changed and would be published with the red-flag words and the disclosure of funding sources. Department officials later notified the project leaders that funding would be cut in half. Diffenbaugh’s project was zeroed out.

Jess Szymanski, a spokeswoman for the Department of Energy, said in a statement: “There is no Department of Energy policy banning the mention of ‘climate change’ or ‘Paris Agreement’, nor is there department guidance to withhold funding for projects including this language. To allege so is false.”

Then there is the case of Marcy Rockman. Until she resigned from the National Park Service in November 2018, Rockman served for seven years as a climate change adaptation coordinator; five of those years were spent developing a strategy to protect cultural resources from climate change. But when the strategy was issued in late January 2017, her supervisors decided to drop plans to send copies to each national park.

“There was no appetite for any of my management chain to write a memo that would have their signature on it that said, ‘I am distributing the climate change strategy,’” she said.

The European Association of Archaeologists took notice anyway and invited Rockman to present her work in the Netherlands. Her boss approved the trip, and then retired.

But several months later, Rockman said, she was informed that she needed to reapply for approval. Her supervisors suggested she play down climate change. Then the trip was denied.

“I was responsible for making and carrying out decisions that no one above me wanted to make,” she said.

The Department of Interior declined to comment on Rockman’s case, citing pending litigation.

Patrick Gonzalez, the principal climate change scientist at the National Park Service, requested policy approval in March 2018 to publish a paper based on analysis of more than a century of climate data across 417 national parks.

His supervisor did not get past the opening sentence: “Anthropogenic climate change is altering ecological and human systems globally.”

“Without reading any more of the manuscript, she said, ‘I’m going to have to ask you to change that,’” Gonzalez recalled. He said in an interview that he was speaking in his own capacity and not on behalf of the federal government.

Emails and other documents show that Gonzalez then approached John Dennis, the agency’s deputy chief scientist, to protest. Dennis encouraged compromise.

Documents show that Dennis highlighted the phrase “anthropogenic,” or human-caused. “Is this word here necessary to the basic scientific thesis of the paper — which I interpret to be ‘climate change is revealed already to have had major impacts to parks?’” he asked.

“From a policy standpoint, it might be too strong for a DOI person to say ‘anthropogenic climate change,’” Dennis wrote, suggesting instead “carbon dioxide driven climate change.”

Gonzalez refused to make the change and, after three months, the agency backed down. The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters in September 2018, without changes.

Conner Swanson, an Interior Department spokesman, said Gonzalez’s research was about “adaptation to climate change rather than cause of climate change and, as a result, the integrity of the science did not require discussing the cause of climate change in a situation where such use could divert attention from the scientific findings of the article.”

That same summer, the Park Service tried to delete every mention of humanity’s role in climate change in a report on sea level rise. Its lead author, Caffrey, objected. It was released after more than a year’s delay without the attempted edits. Caffrey, however, said she was then demoted before her position was eliminated.

Gonzalez said he was taking a risk telling his story. But, he said, “I aim to serve as a positive example of standing strongly for science.”

Swanson said that since Trump took office, the Interior Department had “improved scientific integrity by following the law, using the best available science and relying on the expertise of our professional career staff.”

Trump administration officials have noted that in almost all these cases, the science was ultimately published.

But scientists said that came at a cost. Crusius was given informal approval in the summer of 2019 to publish research in the well-regarded journal Earth’s Future, which is published by the American Geophysical Union. Then, in September, after the paper had gone through a round of peer review, his employer, the U.S. Geological Survey, reversed course and opposed publication.

“I appealed this decision, and I was allowed to publish this as a private citizen,” he said.

Crusius said the research, on the environmental benefits and risks of storing carbon in trees, soil, ocean and wetlands to delay climate impacts, was important because climate change is a problem the government ultimately will need solid science to confront.

“We need all the help we can get, including from both federal and academic scientists,” he said.

The USGS denied that the paper was not approved because it dealt with climate change.

Lawmakers and others who work with scientists said publication of the research did not diminish the hurdles thrown in the way, which served to signal that writing about politically disfavored topics comes at a personal price.

At least one case predates the Trump administration. Danny Cullenward, a Stanford Law School lecturer, said the Energy Department tried in 2015 to distance itself from his research that showed the United States could not meet its Paris Agreement goals with the policies that President Barack Obama was pushing.

It is now widely acknowledged that those policies most likely would not have cut emissions enough to meet those goals. But at the time, the Obama administration was working to persuade global leaders that the president’s plans would get the country substantially toward that goal.

Cullenward, then a research fellow working with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said a lab adviser initially told him the research could not be released before the Paris Agreement talks. After he objected, he was told the study would require further review.

“I interpreted that to be, ‘We’re going to stick this thing in a black hole,’” Cullenward said. He resigned his affiliation with the lab.

John German, a spokesman for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said Cullenward had been free to publish his work on his own but that Energy Department research must meet strict peer review standards that had not yet occurred.

Cullenward said his experience did not compare with the scale of violations in the Trump administration. But, he said, a pro-climate change president would not automatically make scientists’ work secure.

“We can’t get partisan about what scientific integrity means,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company