By Laignee Barron
March 1, 2018
Throughout the Trump administration’s first year in office, the Environmental Protection Agency has been quietly scrubbing mentions of climate change and tweaking related language on its website – an effort critics have decried as scientific censorship.
The EPA is far from the only federal agency to get a Trump-era work over. But monitoring organizations say it has suffered the most extensive revisions over the past year.
These alterations, which began within days of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, reflect a marked departure from the EPA’s roots in an era of burgeoning environmental activism. In 1962, marine biologist Rachel Carson ignited an advocacy movement with her book Silent Spring, which warned that humans were poisoning their environment with pesticides, and, in turn, the environment would eventually poison humans too. The message, compounded by environmental disasters of that decade, attracted the sympathies of President Richard Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 in part to regulate the impact of human activities on the environment.
Nearly five decades later, the current administration is waging a blitzkrieg against the widely held consensus that human activity is a driving force behind climate change. This reorientation has triggered a purge of environmental websites, and especially, the EPA’s, which once boasted readers had “come to the right place” for the latest information on climate change.
According to former government officials and EPA staffers, the level of scrutiny is without precedent. In the hands of an administration that has eschewed facts for their alternative cousins, the agency’s site is increasingly unmoored from its scientific core.
“In my experience, new administrations might come in and change the appearance of an agency website or the way they present information, but this is an unprecedented attempt to delete or bury credible scientific information they find politically inconvenient,” Heather Zichal, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center, and previously President Barack Obama’s top White House adviser on energy and climate change, tells TIME.
The EPA’s site is now riddled with missing links, redirecting pages and buried information. Over the past year, terms like “fossil fuels”, “greenhouse gases” and “global warming” have been excised. Even the term “science” is no longer safe.
Christine Todd Whitman, the EPA Administrator under George W. Bush, says the overhaul is “to such an extreme degree that [it] undermines the credibility of the site”.
“The message they’re sending, particularly to young people, is that science doesn’t matter,” she tells TIME. “Don’t get me wrong – questioning is fine and good, but when you have overwhelming consensus on something, you concede to that. Undermining science means there is no basis on which to act based on fact, which is dangerous.”
Scientists say the year-long overhaul has unraveled decades’ worth of research, while undermining the agency’s mission, which promises to source the “best available scientific information”.
“The idea that the science of climate change is in doubt – and that this justifies changing EPA websites – is simply false,” Philip Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center, tells TIME.
“I see no way to avoid concluding that [the current EPA administration] places the interests of the fossil industry above those of the people it is charged to protect,” he added.
During his campaign, Trump vowed to “get rid” of the EPA. Once in office, he proposed gutting the budget by 31%, appointed a notorious climate change skeptic to head it and issued a series of executive orders aimed at decimating any work deemed an impediment to energy production. He also immediately ordered the removal of climate change information from the site, according to Reuters.
Of the more than 25,000 web pages tracked by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) since Trump’s election, they say the EPA’s have been hit hardest. One section, which provided local communities with resources for combating climate change, disappeared for months only to resurface heavily redacted, including just 175 of its 380 pages.
Although the EPA did not return requests for comment, it said in a statement in April that it was “removing outdated language” on the website and acknowledged that “content related to climate and regulation is also being reviewed.”
“We are currently updating our website to reflect EPA’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt,” says the error message now ubiquitous across the site.
Burying climate change information
When Scott Pruitt’s name emerged for the EPA administrator position, scientists raised concerns about the effect he could have on Americans’ access to climate science. Pruitt billed himself as the “leading advocate” against the “activist agenda” of the agency, which he sued 14 times. Now spearheading the EPA, Pruitt is seen as pivoting the agency away from environmental activism toward a more private business-friendly stance. He calls his approach a “back-to-basics agenda” that prioritizes engaging with partners, and implementing “sensible regulations for economic growth”.
This shift in outlook is immediately apparent on the EPA’s new homepage. The previous homepage welcomed viewers with a pledge that “cleaning up our communities and taking action on climate change are among our priorities”. That’s been replaced with an appeal to “learn how EPA is increasing transparency and public participation in litigation against the agency”.
But the changes go beyond rhetoric. After the EPA announced its website “update” last April, months after the alterations began, the “Climate Change” section was taken down.
This vast section had existed in various forms for over two decades. Initially launched as a section on “Global Warming”, it served as a hub for basic scientific background on what climate changes is and how human are contributing. “What can we do about this change?” it asked, and provided tools like a carbon footprint calculator and resources for teachers.
“Humans are largely responsible for recent climate change,” one page read, adding, “The choices we make today will affect the amount of greenhouse gases we put in the atmosphere in the near future and for years to come.”
Previously, the climate change section was accessible via the EPA homepage. Now, its URL – www.epa.gov/climatechange – prompts the message, “This page is being updated.”