In its new strategic plan, published in March, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) describes 2017 as an “unprecedented year” of natural disasters. Photos of FEMA staff helping survivors of massive hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico pepper the 38-page document, which notes that the average number of major disaster declarations per year has increased from 25 in the 1980s to nearly 90 per year since 2010. “Due to rising natural hazard risk,” the plan says, “the need for forward leaning [sic] action is greater than ever before.”
To an observant reader, these are clear references to climate change. Yet the document fails to directly mention, even once, the root cause of natural disasters’ growing intensity. (In comparison, the previous FEMA strategic plan weaves climate throughout its section on future risks.) This omission is just one of nearly 100 examples of global-warming-related censorship that have been compiled by the Silencing Climate Science Tracker, a database run by Columbia University’s Sabin Center law fellow Romany Webb, since December 2016.
“When you look at the tracker you see that the Trump administration has really undertaken a systematic attempt to silence science that doesn’t support its policies,” Webb says—namely, fossil fuel expansion. Websites focused on climate change have been deleted or rewritten. The word “climate” has been erased from program titles. Climate scientists have been prohibited from attending conferences or otherwise speaking publicly about their work. And scientific advisory boards have been disbanded. So far, Webb has documented evidence of censorship at the White House, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and nine federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency.
In some cases, the purge appears to have been ordered by senior leadership; in others, scientists censor themselves to avoid attention or consequences. “The chilling effect that this administration has on the federal agencies—my clients, I’ve never seen them so afraid,” says Kyla Bennett, who represents government whistleblowers for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a legal nonprofit.
To Bennett, the motive is clear: “The more you remove [climate change] from public documents and the public eye, the less inclination there is for people to worry about it and want to do something about it.” Pretending the problem doesn’t exist also permits agencies to ignore it in policymaking. For example, in the months before the EPA announced its repeal of the Obama administration’s central carbon pollution-reduction policy in October 2017, references to climate change were wiped from many of its websites and climate scientists were reassigned to new departments. “In the absence of climate change, you don’t need something like the Clean Power Plan,” Bennett says.
However, climate denial hasn’t stopped agencies from addressing present impacts. In fact, only two days after the FEMA strategic plan was published, the agency approved a $1.7 million grant to relocate Alaskan climate refugees, who are losing their homes as melting sea ice, thawing permafrost, and rising sea levels combine to erode coastlines.
“They’re willing to start addressing the effects because they are becoming so severe and so pressing,” Webb says. “But they really don’t want to admit the underlying cause of them and take steps to address it.”
It’s not only direct climate action that’s corrupted by censorship, but also all sorts of everyday government decisions. Where we build roads and housing, how we invest public health resources, and which natural areas we protect today will determine our ability to adapt in coming decades, says Sarah Greenberger, Audubon’s senior vice president for conservation policy. “Climate change has to be a part of those decisions,” she says. “If we’re not doing that, it puts all of us and all of our interests at risk.”
The ultimate effect of this censorship is to suppress scientific information and research when we need it most. “Climate change is probably the biggest environmental issue facing us right now, and people will die. People are dying,” Bennett says. “The only thing that’s going to help us out of this is science and political guts.” For decades, we’ve been strong on science and short on guts. If we can’t even name the threat, we’ll soon find ourselves strapped for both.