Lewis Ziska has called quits on his job as a leading climate scientist at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) – a position he has held for more than 20 years. His reason: the Trump administration has not only questioned his research, but actively tried to bury a study investigating the effect rising CO2 levels have on the nutritional value of rice because of its climate change implications.
Ziska, a plant physiologist, has worked under five administrations – Republican and Democrat – as a scientist in the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS). Much of that time has been spent in the US Global Change Research Program, launched under Bush Jr to research the changing climate.
His career has seen him undertake studies examining climate change's effect on herbicides, pollen quality, and allergy seasons among other things, but the one that drew the ire of the White House involved the nutritional value of rice.
The study, published in Science Advances in May 2018, found a strong correlation between rising CO2 levels and declines in protein, iron, and zinc, as well as vitamins B1, B2, B5, and B9 in 18 genetically-diverse strains. The results, the researchers concluded, raised serious concerns for the health of the 600 million people who receive most of their calories from rice.
The USDA ended up dropping the press release after senior ARS officials raised concerns and a communications officer asked the university involved to revise their plans to advertise the study. When Ziska was asked to discuss his research on CNN, he was denied permission to do so. "That was the first time that had ever happened," he told Politico.
Ziska admits he has been frustrated by the department's lack of focus around climate research for some years, but the Trump administration took it to a new level. Like others before him, Ziska describes an environment of fear with staff going to great lengths to conceal their research so as not to provoke political retaliation and budget cuts.
Any research linked to climate change was particularly vulnerable, he told Politico. There was an understanding that staff had to be careful with the language they used.
"[I]t got to the point where language started to change," he explained. "No one wanted to say climate change, you would say 'climate uncertainty' or you would say 'extreme events.' Or you would use whatever euphemism was available to not draw attention."
Following his resignation, the USDA published a study saying the justification for not promoting the study was academic and not political, citing disagreements the program leaders had with the data. Ziska is only the latest climate scientist to resign accusing the administration of trying to airbrush mentions of climate change and manipulate research to align with its political biases.
Last week, a senior analyst at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department discussed his resignation in an op-ed in The New York Times. His decision to leave was made after White House officials blocked his bureau's written testimony on how climate change could affect national security. Their reason: the testimony did not fit the administration's position on climate change.
The week before that, a former official at the National Park Service wrote a piece for The Guardian claiming her work as a climate scientist in a climate-denying administration cost her her job.
The White House has a precedent of appointing positions to people openly skeptical of climate change in the face of scientific consensus, not to mention mounds of (ever-growing) empirical evidence. One of whom is Ziska's former boss, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue – who recently dismissed climate change with a flippant observation, "It rained yesterday, it's a nice pretty day today".