Following a week of mixed messages on energy and climate coming from the Trump administration, environmental groups and scientists are fighting to gain assurance that scientific integrity and climate change data will be safeguarded under the new leadership.
Under President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State John Kerry was the mouthpiece for the administration's agreement with fellow world leaders to address the challenge of a changing climate. In his last months as secretary, Kerry traveled to far-flung locations of the world to explore the impacts of a warming world, seeking to reassure officials that the U.S. would not back out of its pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
But the first few days of the Trump administration have cast doubt on Kerry's promise. Leaks from inside various government agencies showed an effort to remove climate change information from the federal government's vast array of web pages. The White House website was the first to have its climate information erased, followed by a pledge to do so at the U.S. EPA that the Trump administration ultimately relented on. Now the climate pages at Kerry's former State Department have gone dark. That was followed by conflicting signals as to whether the work of EPA scientists would face prepublication review from political appointees.
'It's a slam dunk'
In an effort to stem the loss of important scientific data, groups such as the American Geophysical Union and the Sierra Club have written to the Trump administration and the EPA to request a continued dialogue with the public on science.
"We are concerned that such directives flout principles of sound scientific integrity, which includes transparency, and may even violate your agency's scientific integrity policy," the AGU wrote. "Perhaps more importantly, science plays a critical role in advancing national security, a strong economy, public health, and food security, and as such, scientists must be allowed to share their work directly and openly with the public."
Scientists of all kinds and environmental groups have also banded together and plan to host a march on Washington, D.C., similar to the Women's March on Washington that occurred the day after inauguration. The "People's March for Climate" will be held April 29.
The Sierra Club, one of the organizers of the climate march, has also been sending Freedom of Information Act requests to the EPA in an attempt to save science the group believes could be removed from public view. The group has requested EPA's entire climate science archive in an expansive request that was submitted on inauguration day.
Appearing on a panel at the American Enterprise Institute discussing carbon taxes Jan. 26, Trump transition adviser David Kreutzer, who has been working at the EPA since the inauguration, sought to downplay concerns that the team in place at the agency is intent on denying that the climate is changing. Kreutzer stressed that he was speaking in his own capacity, not on behalf of the EPA. He previously worked for the Heritage Foundation.
"I believe [carbon dioxide] is a greenhouse gas. I believe human emissions of CO2 ... it's a slam dunk that they are going to do something to increase warming of the atmosphere," Kreutzer said.
From denial to skepticism
But Kreutzer added the caveat that science is unclear about just how much human activity is contributing to climate change. He said a carbon tax is simply a cash grab and said he does not believe that much needs to be done to address climate change anyway. He likened the potential for climate change to destroy the world to far-off possibilities such as robots overthrowing the Earth.
"It doesn't look like we're heading to a catastrophe in climate anyway," Kreutzer said. "Is there a possibility? Of course. There's a possibility that we're going to have a catastrophe from a pandemic. It's possible we're going to have a catastrophe from artificial intelligence being weaponized and wiping out humans."
Still, Kreutzer's acknowledgment that humans are contributing to climate change is a shift from his previous comments. He has previously referred to the movement to address climate change as "climate hysteria" and said humans are well equipped to handle "a couple feet of sea level rise" should that occur.
His comments are in line with what one expert sees as an attempt by Republicans to reframe the climate debate.
"What we're seeing is a very obvious reframing and repackaging of a story," said Michael Burger, executive director of Columbia University's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, in a Jan. 19 interview. "The story before was climate denial, and now it's climate skepticism."