Democracy Dies in Darkness

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I’m a scientist. I’m blowing the whistle on the Trump administration.

By Joel Clement

July 19, 2017 at 4:10 PM

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On July 19, the former top climate policy official at the Department of Interior filed a complaint and a whistleblower disclosure form with the Office of Special Counsel. The official, Joel Clement, says the Trump administration is threatening public health and safety by trying to silence scientists like him. (The Washington Post)

Joel Clement was director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the U.S. Interior Department until last week. He is now a senior adviser at the department’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue.

I am not a member of the deep state. I am not big government.

I am a scientist, a policy expert, a civil servant and a worried citizen. Reluctantly, as of today, I am also a whistleblower on an administration that chooses silence over science.

Nearly seven years ago, I came to work for the Interior Department, where, among other things, I’ve helped endangered communities in Alaska prepare for and adapt to a changing climate. But on June 15, I was one of about 50 senior department employees who received letters informing us of involuntary reassignments. Citing a need to “improve talent development, mission delivery and collaboration,” the letter informed me that I was reassigned to an unrelated job in the accounting office that collects royalty checks from fossil fuel companies.

I am not an accountant — but you don’t have to be one to see that the administration’s excuse for a reassignment such as mine doesn’t add up. A few days after my reassignment, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testified before Congress that the department would use reassignments as part of its effort to eliminate employees; the only reasonable inference from that testimony is that he expects people to quit in response to undesirable transfers. Some of my colleagues are being relocated across the country, at taxpayer expense, to serve in equally ill-fitting jobs.

I believe I was retaliated against for speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities. During the months preceding my reassignment, I raised the issue with White House officials, senior Interior officials and the international community, most recently at a U.N. conference in June. It is clear to me that the administration was so uncomfortable with this work, and my disclosures, that I was reassigned with the intent to coerce me into leaving the federal government.

On Wednesday, I filed two forms — a complaint and a disclosure of information — with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. I filed the disclosure because eliminating my role coordinating federal engagement and leaving my former position empty exacerbate the already significant threat to the health and the safety of certain Alaska Native communities. I filed the complaint because the Trump administration clearly retaliated against me for raising awareness of this danger. Our country values the safety of our citizens, and federal employees who disclose threats to health and safety are protected from reprisal by the Whistleblower Protection Act and Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.

Removing a civil servant from his area of expertise and putting him in a job where he’s not needed and his experience is not relevant is a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars. Much more distressing, though, is what this charade means for American livelihoods. The Alaska Native villages of Kivalina, Shishmaref and Shaktoolik are perilously close to melting into the Arctic Ocean. In a region that is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, the land upon which citizens’ homes and schools stand is newly vulnerable to storms, floods and waves. As permafrost melts and protective sea ice recedes, these Alaska Native villages are one superstorm from being washed away, displacing hundreds of Americans and potentially costing lives. The members of these communities could soon become refugees in their own country.

Alaska’s elected officials know climate change presents a real risk to these communities. Gov. Bill Walker (I) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) have been sounding the alarm and scrambling for resources to help these villages. But to stave off a life-threatening situation, Alaska needs the help of a fully engaged federal government. Washington cannot turn its back.

While I have given small amounts to Democratic candidates in the past, I have no problem whatsoever working for a Republican administration. I believe that every president, regardless of party, has the right and responsibility to implement his policies. But that is not what is happening here. Putting citizens in harm’s way isn’t the president’s right. Silencing civil servants, stifling science, squandering taxpayer money and spurning communities in the face of imminent danger have never made America great.

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump, along with their wives and two others, attend dinner at Mar-a-Lago. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Trump hugs a supporter he invited onstage to speak during a Make America Great Again rally at Orlando Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne, Fla. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Trump speaks during his first address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber at the Capitol. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Trump hold a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and first lady Melania Trump welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
Members of the first family take part in an egg race during the Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President Trump displays an executive order reviewing previous National Monument designations made under the Antiquities Act, during a signing ceremony at the Interior Department in Washington. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
President Trump speaks as he presents the Commander-in-Chiefs Trophy to Air Force Academys football team in the Rose Garden. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump meets with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump welcomes Abu Dhabis crown prince, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, outside the West Wing of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Christian Jacobs, 6, center, hugs Trump during a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Trump signs two bills at the White House: the American Law Enforcement Heroes Act of 2017 and Public Safety Officers Benefits Improvement Act. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President Trump, center, greets Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), left, as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), right, takes his seat during a meeting with House and Senate leadership in the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
After arriving in Cincinnati, Trump greets a family whose insurance premiums rose under the Affordable Care Act. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listen during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Trump pumps his fist after signing the executive order on Cuba policy at the Manuel Artime Theater in Miami. (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Trump greets visitors outside the White House after returning from Miami. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump speaks during the technology roundtable. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump shakes hands with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump arrives onstage to speak at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Susan Walsh/AP)
George Mathew, right, chief executive of Kespry, shows Trump a drone during the event at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President Trump speaks with first lady Melania Trump, Vice President Pence and his wife, Karen, during the Congressional Picnic. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President Trump greets Michael Verardo during the bill-signing event for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Verardo lost his leg in Afghanistan in 2010 when he served as a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne Division. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, with Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin by his side, displays the written Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 after signing it at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Steven Mnuchin and Louise Linton, center, at their wedding with Melania Trump, Trump, Vice President Pence and second lady Karen Pence at Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for LS)
From left: White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Vice President Pence, Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis listen during a meeting with Modi. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hug while making their statements. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, flanked by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), left, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), speaks as he meets with Republican senators about health care at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump meets with immigration crime victims in the Cabinet Room. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump holds a Chicago Cubs jersey as he meets with members of the 2016 World Series champions in the Oval Office. Cubs player Kris Bryant is holding a 45 sign. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, flanked by Southern Ute Councilman Kevin R. Frost, center left, and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, center right, speaks with Environment Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, left, during an energy roundtable with tribal, state and local leaders at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and first lady Melania Trump look on as South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his wife, Kim Jeong-suk, arrive at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, center, delivers remarks as Vice President Pence, left, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry listen during the Unleashing American Energy event at the Energy Department in Washington. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool photo via European Pressphoto Agency)
Astronaut Dave Wolf, left, pretends to grab a pen as Trump hands it to former astronaut Buzz Aldrin after signing the order to reestablish the National Space Council, a White House-based office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Trump shake hands during their joint statement in the Rose Garden. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump speaks from the Truman balcony of the White House as the first lady looks on. The president was hosting a picnic for military families for the Fourth of July holiday. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Trump talk during a meeting in the Hotel Atlantic Kempinski a day before the G-20 summit got underway. (Jens Schlueter/Pool photo via European Pressphoto Agency)
Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Trump and Macron at an official welcoming ceremony in the courtyard of Les Invalides. (Matthieu Alexandre/AP)
From left: President Trump, first lady Melania Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte Macron, tour Napoleon Bonapartes tomb. (Pool/Reuters)
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Trump sports a cowboy hat during the Made in America product showcase. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
President Trump sits in a firetruck while Vice President Pence stands below on the South Lawn of the White House. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
President shows off a presidential proclamation for Made in America Day and Made in American Week during the Made in America product showcase on the South Lawn of the White House. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
President Trump speaks at a luncheon with Republican leadership about health care in the State Dining Room of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Now that I have filed with the Office of Special Counsel, it is my hope that it will do a thorough investigation into the Interior Department’s actions. Our country protects those who seek to inform others about dangers to American lives. The threat to these Alaska Native communities is not theoretical. This is not a policy debate. Retaliation against me for those disclosures is unlawful.

Let’s be honest: The Trump administration didn’t think my years of science and policy experience were better suited to accounts receivable. It sidelined me in the hope that I would be quiet or quit. Born and raised in Maine, I was taught to work hard and speak truth to power. Trump and Zinke might kick me out of my office, but they can’t keep me from speaking out. They might refuse to respond to the reality of climate change, but their abuse of power cannot go unanswered.

Read more:

David Rank: Why I resigned from the Foreign Service after 27 years

Edward Price: I didn’t think I’d ever leave the CIA. But because of Trump, I quit.

Letters to the Editor: Interior Department cuts represent an assault on our public lands

Jacquelyn Gill: The ‘war on science’ doesn’t just hurt scientists. It hurts everyone.

Todd Stern: Trump just betrayed the world. Now the world will fight back.

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