Scientists Scramble to Hold off a New Dark Age
December 13, 2016
Here at the world’s largest scientific meeting, the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco, the mood is tinged with a steely resolve.
Have been interviewing scientists and will continue through the week.
It’s come to this.
Alarmed that decades of crucial climate measurements could vanish under a hostile Trump administration, scientists have begun a feverish attempt to copy reams of government data onto independent servers in hopes of safeguarding it from any political interference.
The efforts include a “guerrilla archiving” event in Toronto, where experts will copy irreplaceable public data, meetings at the University of Pennsylvania focused on how to download as much federal data as possible in the coming weeks, and a collaboration of scientists and database experts who are compiling an online site to harbor scientific information.
“Something that seemed a little paranoid to me before all of a sudden seems potentially realistic, or at least something you’d want to hedge against,” said Nick Santos, an environmental researcher at the University of California at Davis, who over the weekend began copying government climate data onto a nongovernment server, where it will remain available to the public. “Doing this can only be a good thing. Hopefully they leave everything in place. But if not, we’re planning for that.”
In recent weeks, President-elect Donald Trump has nominated a growing list of Cabinet members who have questioned the overwhelming scientific consensus around global warming. His transition team at the Department of Energy has asked agency officials for names of employees and contractors who have participated in international climate talks and worked on the scientific basis for Obama administration-era regulations of carbon emissions. One Trump adviser suggested that NASA no longer should conduct climate research and instead should focus on space exploration.
Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists, argued that Trump has appointed a “band of climate conspiracy theorists” to run transition efforts at various agencies, along with nominees to lead them who share similar views.
“They have been salivating at the possibility of dismantling federal climate research programs for years. It’s not unreasonable to think they would want to take down the very data that they dispute,” Halpern said in an email. “There is a fine line between being paranoid and being prepared, and scientists are doing their best to be prepared. . . . Scientists are right to preserve data and archive websites before those who want to dismantle federal climate change research programs storm the castle.”
Global warming — “it’s a hoax.”
Donald Trump has said that more than once.
So it’s understandable that the request by the president-elect’s transition team for the names of individual Energy Department employees and contractors who worked on the issue makes them worry that the trick could be on them.
“There is major concern amongst my members,” said Jeff Eagan, president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) chapter at the department’s headquarters building in Washington. He’s also a 17-year Energy employee, but was speaking in his union capacity. “I have received lots of calls, emails, messages expressing shock and dismay.”
The scientists and their colleagues at Energy know global warming is real. What they don’t know is what Trump might do to those whose work has been in line with the science and the Obama administration, which has spoken about “the urgent imperatives of climate change.”
Given civil service protections, it’s not likely department employees would be fired for working on climate change. There is good reason for concern, however. Trump advisers have urged him to fire feds faster and Energy staffers know protections for senior executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs have been weakened. But firing isn’t the only way to punish people.
“A greater concern would be that selected employees could be marginalized, i.e., ignored, by new leadership at the Department solely based on unfounded conjecture that those employees cannot be trusted by the new political team,” said John Palguta, a civil service expert with decades of federal government experience. “The consequences for contract employees could be greater if a future decision not to renew a contract is influenced by the same unsupported speculation.”