The White House's apparent disdain for the climate crisis may not be new news, but there could be an even sneakier game afoot. This is according to a report published by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), an independent watchdog, accusing the administration of wiping climate change references from government websites.
Indeed, between the first half of 2016 and the first half of 2018, mentions of "climate change" across 5,301 sample pages decreased 25 percent from 6,552 to 4,912.
"We are at a pivotal point: climate change is recognized as past due for systemic, global action. While US federal websites still host substantial informational resources, we have also seen significant censorship," the report authors write.
But while policies such as the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and revokement of the Clean Power Plan might attract headlines, "website changes go unannounced and are often beyond immediate public recognition."
The writers say that they have not witnessed the removal of data per se – as previously feared. Indeed, many federal websites (think: NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA) continue to be important resources for information on climate change despite opposition from climate-denying politicians.
But there have been extensive modifications, including the removal of references to climate change, the replacement of "climate change" with less specific terms (e.g. "climate"), and the restriction of access to certain pages. In other instances, websites have been allowed to go unmaintained. One Government Accountability Office (GAO) page hasn't been updated since summer 2016.
For the report – the first attempt from the EDGI to systematically survey the entire federal webspace – researchers took two "snapshots". This allowed them to compare references to climate change during the Obama administration (January to July 2016) to those during the Trump administration (January to July 2018).
As the researchers themselves point out, the method is not entirely perfect. Some of the differences between the two snapshots may have been changes made under Obama during the final few months of his term. Plus, it doesn't take into account any of the changes since July 2018, but it does underscore some interesting trends.
While the use of the phrase "climate change" plummeted 25 percent, there was a smaller drop (4.5 percent) in the number of pages it appeared on. It was, however, completely removed from 136 pages, more than half of which (73) were on the EPA website. Of those, 43 were from the epa.gov/climatechange domain withdrawn in April 2017.
"Climate change" is often replaced with softer words like "climate", the report authors say, pointing to a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) page titled "Climate Change and Occupational Safety and Health" in 2016 that was changed to "Occupational Safety and Health and Climate" by 2018 as an example. This undermines the sense of urgency around climate change, they explain. A recent IPCC report concludes we must act now to avoid climate catastrophe.
"Our findings indicate subtle, yet systematic modifications to how climate change is portrayed and prioritized in relation to issues such as wilderness protection, water management, and foreign affairs," write the report authors.
And it's a trend that continues: since July 2018 – effectively the study end date – the Department of Interiors (DOI) has restricted public access to its climate page and taken "climate change" off its list of priorities.