The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The EPA climate website taken down for review was accurate, scientists say

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. (Susan Walsh/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

As the Environmental Protection Agency proceeds with a large-scale update of its website, its climate change site has been taken down, pending review. But several climate scientists contacted by The Post argue that this is unnecessary.

“If any errors were present, they could have been fixed with minor editing,” said atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science in an emailed comment, who also noted that he’s never heard of any climate scientist objecting to any information on the website. “There was no cause for a wholesale review of the site’s materials.”

The climate change site, which has existed since the 1990s, contained a wealth of information on the scientific causes of global warming, its consequences and ways for communities to mitigate or adapt. An archived version of the site clearly states that “humans are largely responsible for recent climate change” and also includes data on the sources of greenhouse gas emissions, reports on the observable effects of climate change, fact sheets about its threat to human health and numerous other resources.

As of April 27, however, the site redirects to a page claiming that the agency is “currently updating our website to reflect EPA’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt.”

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, for his part, has publicly stated that he does not agree that human activity is a “primary contributor” to current climate change.

The EPA does direct readers who may happen on the redirect to the archived version of the climate change site, which it called a “January 19 snapshot,” indicating that this was the state of the page before President Trump’s inauguration.

The agency’s associate administrator for public affairs, J. P. Freire, noted in a Friday statement that the review — which has affected other parts of the website, including a site dedicated to information about the Clean Power Plan — was intended to make sure the agency’s website will “reflect the views of the leadership of the agency,” and would include the elimination of “outdated language.”

However, some scientists are challenging the idea that the climate change site is in need of reviewing or updating at all — or at least, that it warranted being taken down during the review process.

“[E]very administration has the right and indeed responsibility to review, update and improve the policies and websites of agencies under their purview, so there is nothing inherently wrong with the EPA website being revised,” said Matthew Huber, a climate scientist at Purdue University, by email. “It does strike me as unusual and irresponsible to take the entire climate change website down at once and not conduct a rolling review and update. This is akin to removing all emergency exit signs from a movie theater while a movie is showing because the upper management has decided they might need to improve their disaster plans.”  

According to Huber, the previous climate site contained valuable information related to the safety of human communities, such as a report aimed at helping citizens protect their health against extreme heat in the future.

So the administration has removed a well executed, scientifically valid guide to protecting health — information needed right now not just in the distant future,” he said. “This seems to be a direct abrogation of the EPA’s mission ‘to protect human health and the environment.’”

And other experts added that the information housed on the website was already accurate in its previous form.

“In particular, it was careful to describe the uncertainties associated with climate risks, such as rising sea level and changing incidence of extreme weather and climate events,” said Kerry Emanuel, a meteorologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It presented the current understanding of the science and possible solutions in a fair and balanced way. I am sorry to see it go.”  

And Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, previously told The Post, regarding the EPA website, that “it’s hard to understand why facts require revision.”

The EPA did not respond to a request for comment.

These website changes may have been planned for months now. In January, EPA staff members reported that the Trump administration was planning to scrub climate change information from the agency’s site — a plan that Trump administration officials backed away from shortly thereafter.

What the final product will look like, after revisions and updates, remains to be seen. But in the meantime, the climate science world is watching closely.