This spring, political officials at the Environmental Protection Agency removed the agency’s climate change website, one of the world’s top resources for information on the science and effects of climate change.
To me, a scientist who managed this website for more than five years, its removal signifies a declaration of war on climate science by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. There can be no other interpretation. I draw this conclusion as a meteorologist with a specialization in climate science and as an independent voter who strives to keep my political and scientific views separate. I concede that this specific issue is personal for me, given the countless hours I spent working on the site. But it should be obvious to anyone how this senseless action runs counter to principles of good governance and scientific integrity.
Some 20 years in the making, the breadth and quality of the website’s content was remarkable. It lasted through Democratic and Republican administrations, partly because its information mirrored the findings of the mainstream scientific community, including the National Academy of Sciences, other federal agencies and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It “presented the current understanding of the science and possible solutions in a fair and balanced way,” says Kerry Emanuel, a world-renowned atmospheric scientist at MIT and a political conservative.
The site’s overarching conclusion, informed by these scientific organizations and reports, was that recent warming is largely a result of human activities, specifically the burning of fossil fuels, which releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Yet Pruitt, a lawyer who has spent much of his career fighting climate change mitigation efforts, decided that he knows more than the thousands of scientists whose decades of work support this conclusion. These are his words about the impact of human activity: “I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” Pruitt has championed the administration’s decision to exit the Paris climate agreement and called for a debate on the fundamentals of the issue, even though there’s virtually no disagreement about it among scientists. He then effectively cleansed the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, a steering committee for the agency’s research.
The EPA’s official line is that it is “updating” the climate change website to reflect new “priorities” under Pruitt and Trump. It has archived the old site but put nothing in its place nor announced a timetable for “updating” it. Pruitt may not accept mainstream climate science conclusions, but if he wanted to promote his alternative views, a much more defensible and transparent action would have been to leave the site up while posting his perspective as well. Instead, one of the world’s best climate science sites has vanished.
In its heyday in the early 2000s, if you Googled “climate change” or “global warming,” the EPA’s site was the first hit. The site not only presented climate science , it was also a portal to data on warming’s effects and greenhouse gas emissions, along with guidance and tools to help people, municipalities and states reduce their carbon footprints. It included a vibrant kids’ site treasured by educators, featuring interactive teaching tools and videos, which was also taken down.
While the George W. Bush administration attempted to exert some control over the site, it was never so drastic. When Bush’s political appointees filed into the EPA in 2001 — coinciding with when I began managing the site — updates were put on hold for several months. For a while, we were permitted to update only one page a month, which first went through an onerous White House review process. As the site contained several hundred pages of content at that time, this was effectively a “let it rot” policy. But at least the site wasn’t trashed.
During Bush’s second term, the constraints on updating were lifted, and we resumed regularly posting new material. That carried on through the Obama administration (I left the EPA in 2010 to join The Washington Post).
To be perfectly clear, it is any administration’s prerogative to revise or archive Web pages that relate to policies and programs it is no longer pursuing. For example, Pruitt’s move to archive material on the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan was totally justified; the Trump administration has shelved the policy.
But there is no justification for political interference with authoritative, carefully vetted scientific information. Neither the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration nor NASA has altered its online climate science content — which is not substantively different than material on the EPA’s site. They are not currently run by political appointees.
Pruitt’s order to delete the site feels purely spiteful, as if he simply couldn’t abide knowing that the agency he leads was publishing information he doesn’t believe. But science is not about belief — it’s about evidence. Of all people, the head of the EPA should have the utmost respect for this evidence and its transparent communication. Pruitt’s choice to destroy carefully vetted scientific information rather than preserve it is a reckless and dangerous abdication of his responsibility.