In late December, blogger James Rowen pointed out a change in the wording of a state DNR web page devoted to climate change and the Great Lakes. The current version of the page reads, “As it has done throughout the centuries, the earth is going through a change. The reasons for this change at this particular time in the earth’s long history are being debated and researched by academic entities outside the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.”
The wording suggests that, although climate change exists, there’s still a scientific debate surrounding its causes. In fact, repeated studies indicate that there’s a near-universal scientific consensus on the idea that human activity — namely, the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere — are the primary driver behind modern climate change.
But as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel pointed out, archived versions of the website from earlier in 2016 show that the page previously supported the scientific consensus. A previous wording reads, “Earth’s climate is changing. Human activities that increase heat-trapping (“green house”) gases are the main cause.”
As the Journal Sentinel points out, a small Wisconsin newspaper has taken credit for spurring the recent changes to the DNR website. The Lakeland Times recently published an article suggesting that “DNR officials have been publicly stating for at least three years that the causes of climate change are debatable. That prompted The Times to ask again, in a Dec. 19, 2016, interview with DNR secretary Cathy Stepp and deputy secretary Kurt Thiede, why the climate change page was never changed.” According to the newspaper, the web changes were made shortly afterward.
According to the Journal Sentinel, DNR spokesman James Dick confirmed that the Lakeland Times called attention to the web page and noted that the agency “does not have the capacity to independently evaluate the causes of climate change. We leave that to the scientists/researchers working in that area.”
But these may not be the only climate-related changes the DNR has made to its website. The Journal Sentinel claims that the agency has also removed information related to former Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle’s Task Force on Global Warming, which he established in 2007 in an effort to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Web archives suggest that certain web pages devoted to the former task force, including a copy of its final report outlining a strategy for reducing global warming, once existed and have now been removed.
Additionally, the Journal Sentinel recently discovered that a page on global warming previously housed by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission and mainly containing information related to the former global warming task force also has disappeared. An archived version of the page can be viewed here.
According to the newspaper, Public Service Commission spokeswoman Elise Nelson said in an email that “the page in question appears to have been recommended for removal in 2014, en masse with 98 other pages, as part of a long-term website cleanup and maintenance effort.”
Representatives from both the DNR and the Public Service Commission did not respond to additional requests for comment from The Washington Post.
Other state web pages, which have not been recently altered, still present scientifically accurate information about climate change. Despite the recent action by the DNR, the agency’s web page on waste management acknowledges that methane emissions produced by landfills can have significant effects on the climate, noting that “we now have a clearer understanding of the role waste and materials management plays in global climate change and, most importantly, the opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within the waste and materials management sphere.”
Another DNR web page devoted to environmental education for children explains the science behind the greenhouse effect and notes that rising atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases are largely driven by human activities. Still, the page also claims that “there’s a lot of debate going on about global warming. Some scientists say it’s nature’s way — something that has happened in the past and will likely occur again. Others say global warming is occurring faster because of human beings and that human beings can stop it, or slow it, if they so choose.”
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services website also has a page devoted to climate change, which links to a report released this month on the link between climate and health. That said, the report focuses on the health effects of global warming and does not specifically address the role of human activity in causing it.
The recent changes to the DNR website have been met with criticism from Wisconsin scientists. A group of faculty members from the University of Wisconsin at Madison recently published an open letter outlining their concerns.
“Rapid changes in climate are threatening public health, safety, and natural resources,” they wrote. “Failing to accurately inform the public about these threats and the opportunities to reduce them, violates the trust we place in our public institutions. Even more disturbing, the Wisconsin DNR is repudiating its own long-standing tradition of applying the best available science in the public interest.”
This is hardly the first time in recent years that the Wisconsin state government has come under fire for environmental reasons. In 2015, the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands voted to ban its staff from communicating about climate change. Following backlash from Democrats and climate activists, the board later modified the ban to prohibit only advocacy or lobbying for climate change policies.
In 2015, former DNR employee Sally Kefer told Scientific American that discussion of climate change was also being suppressed within the agency. “I was being told to quit contacting the communities to determine their level of interest in having a discussion about climate adaptation,” she reportedly said.
And Gov. Scott Walker (R) has repeatedly faced criticism about his environmental policies, including Wisconsin’s involvement in an ongoing lawsuit against the Clean Power Plan.
For now, it’s unclear whether the recent web changes are related to any long-term efforts to change state policies surrounding the communication of climate change. But it looks like more changes may still be coming. The Journal Sentinel reports that it recently queried the DNR about its waste management web page, which still contains information about the role of greenhouse gas emissions in global warming.
The newspaper reports that a spokesman responded, “Thank you for bringing that landfill page to our attention. Now that you have, we’ll take a look at it and see if it needs updating.”