In 2017, climate change vanished from a ridiculous number of government websites
Moments after President Donald Trump took the oath of office last January, nearly all references to climate change disappeared from the White House official website. A page detailing former President Barack Obama’s plans to build a clean energy economy, address climate change, and protect the environment became a broken link (archived here). Instead, “An America First Energy Plan” appeared, which touted Trump’s commitment to eliminating “harmful and unnecessary policies,” such as the Climate Action Plan that proposed a reduction in carbon emissions. Now, the web address leads to a collection of energy and environment fact sheets, White House news, and remarks by the president.
Whenever a new administration takes charge, government websites are often revised. But during the Trump administration’s first year in office, a striking number of references to science, climate, energy, and the environment have all but disappeared from various governmental websites.
Individually, the changes might not seem like much. Indeed, spokespersons from several agencies noted that revisions are part of routine website updates. When asked about the removal of “Change” from an NIH page that once was titled “Climate Change and Human Health,” an NIH spokesperson described it as “a minor change to a title page,” adding, “The information we provide remains the same — in fact, it’s been expanded.”
But even though website changes range from negligible to rebranding, in some cases they reach the level of what critics assert is outright censorship. “Each one represents a slow chipping away at science communication from the government,” said Gretchen Goldman, the research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
One watchdog group, the Environmental and Data Governance Initiative, has been monitoring the changes to tens of thousands of federal environmental agency web pages. Every week, their team reviews the changes to determine how serious they are.
“What has happened is a significant and systematic shift in ways that certain types of information and messages are presented on federal websites,” Toly Rinberg, a member of the EDGI website monitoring committee, said. “If they are going to make those changes, they should be able to explain why they are doing it.” He also points out that these websites are all paid for by taxpayers, so “it’s significant to reduce access to resources the public is paying for.”
Here are some of the times that scientific references have disappeared or changed during Trump’s first year in office:
- Environmental Protection Agency: EPA websites have arguably seen more radical changes than those in any other government agency. Scores of links to materials that help local officials prepare for climate change have all been scrubbed. On April 28, the EPA removed its website “Climate and Energy Resources for State, Local, and Tribal Governments.” In July, a new website titled “Energy Resources for State, Local, and Tribal Governments” was launched in its place. The site had fewer pages and omitted resources relating to climate and climate change; about 15 mentions of the words “climate change” were gone from the main page alone. The missing pages once had information detailing the risk of climate change, the approaches states were taking to curb emissions, and state plans to adapt to extreme weather. References to the EPA’s federal leadership and goals to cover 100 percent of its own electricity use nationwide through purchasing renewable energy have also been removed.
- Department of the Interior: A once extensive overview of the Interior’s climate change priorities is now a few sentences about the types of land the agency protects. Mentions of rising sea levels, worsening wildfires, and threatened wildlife are gone. The only mention of climate change in the body of text says “the impacts of climate change have led the Department to focus on how we manage our nation’s public lands and resources.” The Bureau of Land Management’s language about the purpose of the 2015 Hydraulic Fracturing Rule, and a link to that rule from a page on regulations for onshore energy production, were removed.
- Department of Transportation: The DOT Federal Highway Administration changed language across multiple pages relating to environmental effects of transportation; “climate change” and “greenhouse gases” were replaced with terms like “sustainability” and “emissions.” For example, its summary changed from helping “reduce greenhouse gas pollution and improve resilience to climate change impacts” to helping “enhance sustainability, improve resilience, and reduce energy use and emissions on our highway system.”
- Department of Energy: The Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy made extensive changes to pages involving the Bioenergy Technologies Office, Wind Energy Technologies Office, and Vehicle Technologies Office, including decreasing emphasis on renewable fuels as a replacement for fossil fuels and increasing emphasis on economic growth. The “Clean Energy Investment Center” was renamed “Energy Investor Center” and links to clean energy resources were erased. The phrase “clean energy” has been erased from the center’s page. E&E News reported a DOE statement said, “The decision was made entirely by the career staff within that office” and that the center’s name change was made to “better reflect the broader focus of the project.”
- Government Accountability Office: The part of its website that warned about the risks of oil and gas drilling was changed to promote their economic benefits, including that they “provide an important source of energy for the United States; create jobs in the oil and gas industry; and generate billions of dollars annually in revenues that are shared between federal, state, and tribal governments.”
- Office of Science and Technology Policy: This White House office still has no director (a position referred to as the president’s top science adviser) and many of its positions remain unfilled. In February, it removed a line from a description of the office that said it “ensures that the policies of the Executive Branch are informed by sound science.”
- Department of State: In January, the descriptions of the Office of Global Change and the Office of the Special Envoy for Climate Change were rewritten. The Office of Global Change’s mission statement was significantly altered with the addition of the terms “adaptation” and “sustainable landscapes” and the removal of the term “greenhouse gas.” The envoy website rephrased the description on its homepage from being “committed to combating climate change” to being “responsible for developing, implementing, and overseeing U.S. international policy on climate change.” Several links, including to the Climate Action Report, were removed from both office pages.
- Federal Emergency Management Agency: Statistics on access to electricity and drinking water in Puerto Rico from the “Federal Response Updates” section on FEMA’s “Hurricane Maria” webpage were removed in early October. The statistics were later restored.
- National Institutes of Health: The environmental unit of the NIH, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, changed some mentions of “climate change” to “climate.” Links to an educational fact sheet on climate change’s threats to human health are gone, though the sheet is still hosted by the NIH site.
- National Park Service: More than 90 documents describing national parks’ climate action plans, which include how different parks are responding to climate changes, have been removed from the Climate Friendly Parks website. NPS told Vice’s Motherboard the documents are being made more accessible for people with disabilities, and until they are reinstated they will be available via an email request.
“When you see something change in a deliberate way, it’s because somebody spent time to think about it,” Rinberg said. “If an employee feels strongly that they need to change the way they are talking about the work they have done, we should know why.”
Deliberate rewording extends beyond websites, as well. In August, the Guardian reported that Trump administration officials had instructed U.S. Department of Agriculture staff to avoid the term “climate change” in their work and use “weather extremes” instead. NPR found that scientists have begun censoring themselves and omitting “climate change” from public grant summaries.
To be sure, some information remains untouched. The most noticeable items are federal datasets on climate change. NASA and NOAA’s websites also remain intact, possibly because Trump’s picks to head the agencies haven’t been installed yet.
But all told, the changes are hardly surprising in an administration that intends to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, has blocked the Clean Power Plan, dropped climate change as a national security threat, attempted to boost fossil fuels, and rolled back efforts to plan for climate change.
Goldman says it will be important to continue monitoring changes to agency websites in the coming year, as well as keeping an eye on new lower level appointments and any interference with scientists’ work. When planning for the future, Goldman says, “I think we should brace ourselves.”
*Correction: The original version of this story included aGovernment Accountability Office website. GAO is under the legislative branch and does not report to the White House.