The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

EPA’s climate change website went down a year ago for ‘updating.’ It’s still not back.

The headquarters of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The news came on a Friday evening in late April last year: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had removed an informational website about climate change, taking down a page that had been up, in some form, for nearly two decades and under three presidents.

Before its removal, the page had plainly stated a position on climate change: It is caused by humans, and there’s no significant doubt about that. But that position contradicted statements by the new EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, who had expressed doubts about human activity being the dominant driver of climate change.

EPA said at the time that the site had been taken down for review and that it had been archived and was still available as part of a “snapshot” of the state of the site on Jan. 19, 2017, just as the new administration took command.

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But a year later, the agency’s climate page is still down, and would-be visitors are redirected to a notice saying that “this page is being updated.”

“We are currently updating our website to reflect EPA’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt,” it reads. (The archived snapshot remains in place.)

The removal of EPA’s main page on climate change (though it also has a number of others that remain online), an extensive informational resource, is significant because it underscores the ambivalence about climate change science within the Trump administration. From Trump to Pruitt, there are many who have called into question the scientific consensus on climate change.

Inside the agency and out, skepticism is rising that the agency’s main climate page will ever go back online.

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Two EPA employees familiar with the site, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal agency information, said they were unaware of any sign that the page is being updated to bring it back online. “There’s definitely no progress on the website. I’m not sure anyone’s even addressing it,” one employee said.

Toly Rinberg, who helps lead the website monitoring division of the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative — which has closely tracked the EPA’s website changes in the Trump administration — said he’s skeptical the site is coming back.

“The big picture perspective that we have is that the removals occurred abruptly — there was notice given the same day as the removals took place,” Rinberg said. “But to this day, there’s been no sufficient explanation for why the content needs to be removed.”

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Asked for comment, the EPA press office sent the following statement: “We are constantly updating our website to reflect new initiatives and projects of the Agency. Of course the site will be reflective of the current administration’s priorities — with that said, all the content from the previous administration is still easily accessible and publicly available — through the banner across the top of the main page of the site.”

The site that was removed served as a kind of gateway to EPA’s climate change-related content, some of which, like inventories of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, remain online. The page explained the science of climate change and its effects, and described actions that individuals could take and that the agency itself was taking to work on the issue. That included many of the initiatives launched under President Barack Obama.

When the site went dark, it was the science-and-politics equivalent of an earthquake. Critics of the Trump administration screamed censorship. The city of Chicago, under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who had worked in the Obama administration, reposted the EPA website on the city’s own official site.

“We are going to ensure Chicago’s residents remain well informed about the effects of climate change, and I encourage cities, academic institutions, and others to voice concerns to follow suit to ensure this important information does not disappear,” the mayor’s office said in a statement on the city’s website.

Meanwhile, a number of climate scientists argued that pulling down the page was hard to justify on substantive grounds because there was nothing scientifically wrong with the content.

For example, the statement that appeared to contradict Pruitt’s position cited the conclusions of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s most prominent climate science body. “Recent climate changes, however, cannot be explained by natural causes alone,” the page, now archived, had stated. “Research indicates that natural causes do not explain most observed warming, especially warming since the mid-20th century. Rather, it is extremely likely that human activities have been the dominant cause of that warming.”

“If any errors were present, they could have been fixed with minor editing,” Carnegie Institution climate scientist Ken Caldeira told The Washington Post shortly after the site went down. “There was no cause for a wholesale review of the site’s materials.”

The EPA’s approach to climate change does not necessarily reflect that of the Trump administration as a whole. While the agency took down its main climate website and Pruitt even considered bringing in outside skeptics to interrogate mainstream climate science conclusions, other expert branches of government have addressed the issue differently.

NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have generally continued to regularly post content on climate change without drawing major complaints about censorship or the disappearance of materials.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program, meanwhile, released a major report in November that strongly reaffirmed the mainstream consensus on climate change. That office, which coordinates across multiple government agencies that work on climate issues (including the EPA), is finalizing another document that will exhaustively catalogue all the ways in which a warming climate is affecting, and will affect, the United States.

Branches of the Interior Department have also removed or modified online content on climate change, but it is unclear whether any blanket suppression is occurring. Just last week, scientists with the agency’s U.S. Geological Survey published alarming research suggesting that atoll islands around the globe, some of which are part of or overseen by the United States, could become “uninhabitable” within decades. That research was funded by the Pentagon, another agency whose approach to climate change has differed from that of the EPA.

Still, the disappearance of the main EPA climate site sends a signal across the government under the Trump administration, warned Gretchen Goldman, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“We’ve seen already evidence of climate-related censorship at the EPA and elsewhere, as well as some self-censorship issues where career officials are choosing not to work on climate or say the word ‘climate’ in various venues,” she said. “And I think it’s all related. Having the website down sends the signal to scientists that this administration is not welcoming of climate-related work.”