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Government Climate and Environmental Research Is Under Threat

Politically motivated manipulation of government research and data puts our health and safety at risk.

November 11, 2019

The Trump administration took another formal step last week toward withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change. The agreement aims to strengthen the global response to climate change by limiting global temperature rise and increasing the ability of countries to deal with climate impacts. Parties to the agreement are required to actively reduce carbon emissions, a move that the Trump administration charges will have damaging economic consequences.

The administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement highlights the importance of having the federal government set policy based on objective research and data. While there are potential economic consequences associated with participating in the Paris Agreement, it’s also possible the decision to withdraw from the accord was more about politics than science. 

A recent report from the bipartisan National Task Force on Rule of Law & Democracy details how the current and past administrations have manipulated, downplayed, and quashed scientific findings about the environment and climate change to accommodate their political priorities, rather than base their policies on facts. Such actions have real consequences. Government research drives federal policy as well as private sector development and innovation. If that research is manipulated or suppressed, society cannot effectively respond to its most pressing concerns, such as limiting the rise in global temperatures and increasing the resilience of communities most affected by climate change. As the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg recently testified before Congress, “I want you to listen to the scientists. And I want you to unite behind the science. And then I want you to take action.”

When political officials tamper with government research about the environment to advance their political agendas, it puts the health and safety of people at risk. The following examples demonstrate the stakes of government research on addressing climate change — and the perils of political interference in that research.

In March 2019, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released a study of the California coastline showing that rising sea levels threatened to destroy a significant portion of the state’s economy. According to the study, flooding could impact “over $150 billion of property equating to more than 6% of the state’s GDP and 600,000 people” by the year 2100. The study’s authors drafted a press release detailing the extreme effects climate change would have on California, but that information was removed, and the study’s release was delayed for several months. The press release passed through the office of the USGS director, who has downplayed the effects of climate change and reduced its consideration in agency decision-making.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, is a public health agency tasked with minimizing human health risks related to exposure to hazardous chemicals. In early 2018, the agency completed a study showing that a class of toxic chemicals endangers human health at far lower levels than the EPA previously called safe. The substances have long contaminated water supplies near military bases, chemical plants, and other sites in several states, making it all the more important that the study’s findings be made public. But EPA and White House officials suppressed the report, worrying its release would cause a “public relations nightmare.” The report was finally published several months later.

Unfortunately, these tactics are not new. 

In 2007, White House officials edited remarks by the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, removing entire sections about public health concerns and other vulnerabilities related to climate change.

In 2005, the EPA’s annual report on automotive fuel economy revealed that mileage was declining due to regulation loopholes that allowed carmakers to produce less fuel-efficient vehicles. Political officials delayed the release of the report due to their concern that its findings about the ineffectiveness of existing regulations would derail the administration’s efforts to enact energy legislation that did not address fuel economy standards.

In 2003, a White House official made at least 294 edits to the EPA’s Strategic Plan for the Climate Change Science Program, exaggerating scientific uncertainties and downplaying the role of human activity in driving the warming of the planet. That official resigned following reports of the editing of reports from various agencies.

The Task Force’s report catalogs numerous additional threats to environmental science in the last several presidential administrations and outlines a series of legislative proposals that would:

  • prohibit the executive branch from tampering with and suppressing research, as well as discriminating against scientists for their scientific conclusions or retaliating against them;
  • require agencies that perform scientific research to establish scientific integrity policies and articulate clear standards for, and report on, how political officials interact with career researchers;
  • ensure the proper functioning of science advisory committees; and
  • require proactive public disclosure of government research and data, as well as the nonpolitical expert regulatory analysis produced during the rulemaking process.

These reforms would help ensure that political officials listen to the scientists, unite behind the science, and take appropriate action.