Climate change is a dirty word in the United States federal government. Speaking about it gets you, at best, a “visceral reaction” from Rick Perry, and at worst, bullied, let go, replaced by someone ludicrous, or – as revealed by the Washington Post – reassigned to a completely inappropriate job posting.
Joel Clement, until recently, was the director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the US Department of the Interior. One of his key responsibilities was to help Alaska Native communities adapt to the challenges of anthropogenic, accelerated climate change. Few would doubt that this role wasn’t anything less than vital, but then Trump’s pick for Interior Secretary – Ryan Zinke – was approved, and everything changed.
Clement suddenly found himself in the accounting office, and was told his new role involved collecting royalty checks from fossil fuel companies. At the same time, Zinke testified before Congress, hinting that reassignments were designed to be so undesirable that the employees in questions would feel that they had no choice but to quit.
Although it cannot be conclusively confirmed, the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming – Clement was ousted because of his work on climate change.
In the same way that science advisors across multiple government agencies are disappearing – including at both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the White House itself – the Interior Department is getting rid of its researchers. Along with Clement, 49 other employees working on similar projects were also reassigned to inappropriate new roles elsewhere.
Those with inside knowledge of the reassignments have said that the scale and rapidity of the demotions and reassignments are occuring at an unprecedent scale, and little reason, if any, is given for them.
Zinke, although not as belligerent as other Trump appointees like Pruitt or Perry, isn't exactly known as a proponent of climate change science, and has been at times quite hostile toward it. His environmental record isn't exactly stellar either, and as recently as last month, he suggested that drilling and mining on federally protected land could boost the country's oil reserves.
He's turned his fire on other agencies too, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its attempts to ensure America's air remains clean.
It's a history like this that makes scientists concerned - a worry that stories like Clement's only helps to amplify.
“I am a scientist, a policy expert, a civil servant and a worried citizen,” he tells WaPo. “Reluctantly, as of today, I am also a whistleblower on an administration that chooses silence over science.”
“Removing a civil servant from his area of expertise and putting him in a job where he’s not needed and his experience is not relevant is a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars.”
Worse, he argues, is what will happen to the Alaska Native villages. Right now, many of them are facing an environment that’s warming twice as quickly as anywhere else on the planet. The ground beneath them is literally melting away before their eyes into the increasingly expansive Arctic Ocean.
“Trump and Zinke might kick me out of my office, but they can’t keep me from speaking out,” Clement adds. “They might refuse to respond to the reality of climate change, but their abuse of power cannot go unanswered.”
Clement will not be the last of these types of reassignments of dismissals. The EPA is still cleaning house in this regard, and the Trump administration is repeatedly pressuring Congress to vote for massive funding and staff cuts across the board.
Make no mistake, science in America is gravely threatened. The best way to respond to this is, inarguably, via the voting booth.