A Very Un-American Technique

By William Allen, Guest Columnist

If North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un decided he didn’t want his people to know about climate change, he could just do what tyrants do: order the words eliminated from government websites and ban his scientists from saying them.

Government censorship of climate change is alive and well, but not in North Korea. It’s happening in the United States of America.

The most recent examples of this dictatorial behavior by the Trump administration were reported today (Sept. 5, 2018) and Aug. 14. In the first case, the White House Office of Management and Budget was shown to have cut references to climate change and its effects on human health from an Environmental Protection Agency analysis.

In the August case, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit science integrity advocacy organization, reported that a survey it conducted with Iowa State University of scientists in 16 federal agencies found widespread censorship and self-censorship of climate science since Trump took office.

“We are no longer authorized to share scientific findings with the public if they center on climate change,” said one of the 4,200 respondents, who were allowed to comment anonymously. “Materials are marked as only for internal use.”

The observation was repeated by many of the scientists, who are just trying to do what we taxpayers pay them to do — discover the truth and tell us.

These are only two of the many examples of censorship committed by the Trump administration and governors of at least two states as they try to hide the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is happening, humans are causing it, and extremely serious consequences are ahead for all of us.

If, like me, you are a proud American with traditional democratic values, you:

  • understand that censorship has its place, such as occasionally in times of a shooting war, when we don’t want the enemy to know our plans.
  • get upset when censorship is used to keep the public in the dark on the facts behind a crucial public policy issue that affects the future of our families.

Climate change censorship is done at the behest of powerful corporate interests that profit from fossil fuel use. It is chicken-hearted, dangerous and immoral.

And very un-American.

By delaying a sensible discussion of what to do about climate change, the censors boost the likelihood that current and future generations of Americans will pay dearly — in blood and fortune. Not to mention the rest of the world.

For background on the 97 percent scientific consensus and the long-standing propaganda efforts by the fossil fuel industry, Dark Money operatives and their well-paid climate denial circus clowns to confuse the American public, please see my recent columns on “The Great Climate Hoaxers” and “A Most Hilarious Climate Change Myth.”

The current column is aimed at helping you understand the broad pattern of climate fact censorship. That pattern can be difficult to see, unless you connect the dots. Here are just a few of the most telling dots since the turn of the 21st century. (As someone who has voted for decades for candidates from both major parties, I sadly note here that all the climate denial perps below happen to be Republicans.)

Dot 1. Bush. The White House run by two oil executives, George W. Bush and Richard Cheney, was notorious for meeting secretly with fellow fossil-fuelers. And below the surface, their political hacks actively censored climate fact. The best example was Philip Cooney, a lobbyist for the oil industry trade association American Petroleum Institute who became chief of staff for Bush’s White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Philip Cooney appears at a Congressional hearing in 2007. Photo by C-SPAN.

In June 2005, Cooney was outed by a whistleblower and the New York Times for heavily editing a government climate science report to Congress in a way that produced “an air of doubt about findings that most climate experts say are robust,” according Andrew Revkin of the Times. The whistleblower, Rick Piltz, a longtime staffer in an interagency climate research program, said political appointees had hindered “forthright communication of the state of climate science.”

Cooney was a lawyer, not a scientist. A few days later, he left the Bush administration and was hired by ExxonMobil, prompting a wag from Greenpeace to comment, as reported by the Guardian newspaper, “The cynical way to look at this is that ExxonMobil has removed its sleeper cell from the White House and extracted him back to the mother ship.”

Extremely witty, except that calling it a sleeper cell misses the bigger point: the mother ship was running the whole White House.

Dot 2. Florida. In 2011, when Florida Gov. Rick Scott took office, his administration launched an unwritten policy banning scientists and other employees of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection from using “climate change” or “global warming.” This censorship of more than 3,000 people in the agency was revealed in 2015 by Tristram Korten of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

Official photo of Florida Gov. Rick Scott. The red patches on his Florida lapel pin do not represent areas projected by scientists to go underwater as sea level rises with climate change. Those areas are depicted in the graphic below.

Supervisors had made it clear the terms were not to be used in any reports, emails or other official communications. (My University of Missouri students and I heard about this censorship from scientists we interviewed on a 2013 trip around Florida to write about endangered plants, some of which will probably go extinct because of sea-level rise caused by climate change.)

Scott refused to comment for Korten’s widely published story, and his public relations people denied any such policy. (It’s fair to note that about $20 million of Scott’s $132 million net worth is in energy company investments, according to the Tampa Bay Times.)

The bitter irony here is the well-established scientific projection that much of Florida is likely to go underwater in coming decades.

Florida as it would appear under different scenarios projected for the coming decades of sea-level rise — 3 feet (1 meter), 9 feet (3 meters) and 18 feet (6 meters). More details here. Graphic by University of Florida.

Scott, who was once Bush’s partner in ownership of the Texas Rangers, is now running for U.S. Senate. The Tampa Bay Times reported that the governor recently has met with oil barons in Texas and Oklahoma and received a large influx of campaign contributions from fossil-fuel industries around the nation.

Fill ‘er up with regular, fellas! … Thanks. Now, what do I owe ya?

Dot 3. Wisconsin. The administration of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has been scrubbing the consensus view on climate change from its websites and other official communications since shortly after Walker took office in 2011. The censorship has been documented by the news media, led by independent blogger Jim Rowen, a longtime critic of Walker’s policies on the environment.

Official state photo of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Most recently, in December 2016, Rowen showed how officials in the state’s Department of Natural Resources re-wrote a web page on the Great Lakes to remove any mention of climate change and the scientific consensus.

For example, the old page said: “Earth’s climate is changing. Human activities that increase heat-trapping (‘greenhouse’) gases are the main cause. Earth´s average temperature has increased 1.4 °F since 1850 and the eight warmest years on record have occurred since 1998.” It added that “scientists agree” on a wide range of impacts if the pattern continues, including “severe economic consequences” for “our valuable shipping industry, lakeshore recreation, and coastal businesses.”

The new page ignores all that and falsely claims there’s still a debate about the science: “As it has done throughout the centuries, the earth is going through a change. The reasons for this change at this particular time in the earth’s long history are being debated and researched by academic entities outside the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.”

Note how the government censor replaced the word “scientists” with “academic entities.” Such a sublime rhetorical dis!

Dot 4. Trump. It’s not like climate change scientists and policy-makers didn’t see the big oily wave coming when Trump was elected in November 2016. That December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention canceled a long-planned February 2017 conference on the relationship between climate change and health.

The CDC cited “budget priorities,” but many scientists saw it as self-censorship. After all, keeping a low profile is one way to survive a president who sees climate change as a hoax. A non-profit foundation sponsored the conference, which lasted one day instead of the originally planned three. Meanwhile, evidence has mounted that diseases spread by mosquitoes, ticks and other blood-suckers are rising dramatically, as least in part because warmer temperatures are enabling these pests to survive in more parts of the United States.

The Trump climate censorship problem was well-documented by the Union of Concerned Scientists study mentioned above. But some agencies actually began cleansing websites even before his inauguration. For example, Environmental Protection Agency officials replaced “climate change” with “extreme weather” and cut references to “climate science” and “climate studies,” according to the Silencing Science Tracker.

The Silencing Science Tracker is a joint program of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. By monitoring news reports, it tracks federal “attempts to restrict or prohibit scientific research, education or discussion, or the publication or use of scientific information” since Trump’s election. (If interested, you can sign up on its website to receive daily or weekly email reports.)

As of this writing, the tracker’s climate webpage has listed 119 instances of “silencing” — defined as censorship, canceling research grants and pressuring scientists to change findings.

The only positive thing to say about this is, at least Trump’s ways of silencing critics aren’t as bad as Putin’s.

The top few among 119 entries on the Silencing Science Tracker climate webpage as of Sept. 5.

Connecting dots. There’s much more to tell, of course, including legal and social media harassment of scientists.

But if we stop here and connect just the dots above, the evidence is clear: there’s a broad campaign to reach into the world of scientific truth-seekers and silence them.

A hopeful sign is that climate researchers in government are practicing their version of “duck and cover.” They’re not giving up. But neither are Big Oil and Big Coal operatives and their vest-pocket politicians.

As citizens, we can make a statement on this in November by voting for politicians who stand against climate censorship and the climate denial circus. Until we do that, the show will go on in the denial Big Top. And it will keep going even if Trump goes to the Big House.


William Allen is a 25-year veteran of professional journalism, including 13 years covering science for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He also spent 2004-2017 teaching science, agricultural and environmental journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia. He currently is an assistant professor emeritus and still teaches part-time at the university.

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