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'21st-century book burning': Scientists race to copy climate data ahead of Trump

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'21st-century book burning': Scientists race to copy climate data ahead of Trump

People all around the nation are burning the midnight oil trying to prepare for potential fallout from the incoming Trump administration's pledge to do away with "politicized" research related to climate change. In an effort to preserve existing information in that area, a community of scientists has begun backing up public databases to ensure they remain available for years to come.

Dubbed the "climate mirror" or the "data refuge," the data replication initiative was spearheaded by the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Toronto and meteorologist Eric Holthaus, among others. The effort has been supported by a social media campaign seeking the help of private individuals. Once the data has been collected, it will be displayed for the public on a single webpage. So far, the collection includes information on climate disasters, carbon and other greenhouse gas pollution, storms, weather and much more. The information is coming from agencies such as the U.S. EPA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and the Department of Energy.

In an op-ed in the Dec. 13 Washington Post, Holthaus said more than 50 key datasets had been identified in just two days, and six already have been archived on publicly available, non-government servers.

"I've received offers of support from computer scientists, private data storage companies, investors and lawyers. On Twitter, the most common response to the project was, 'I can't believe it's come to this.' It's an extraordinary step to have to take, but we live in an extraordinary moment," Holthaus said.

He criticized President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet picks, calling secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, who is the CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., the "least extreme" of all the nominees so far. Trump also has nominated Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to head the DOE, while U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana is rumored to be the president-elect's choice for interior secretary.

The Trump administration's transition efforts have worried climate scientists in recent weeks. A questionnaire that was sent to the DOE seeking a list of the employees involved in negotiating a global climate change mitigation agreement reportedly sent chills through staff at the agency. Environmental groups called the request a "witch hunt" designed to single out employees who worked on programs and policies with which the new administration does not agree. DOE officials refused to provide the information, with current Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz backing them up. Moniz told media Dec. 13 that his agency is cooperating with the transition team but would not provide individual employees' names.

Trump transition team official Anthony Scaramucci told CNN in a Dec. 14 report that the request for information was not an attempt to "purge" employees. "I think this is an intellectual curiosity expedition. We're really trying to come up with the best solutions for the American people and the best solutions for the world," Scaramucci said. He also said the Trump administration intends to eliminate the tax burden on fossil fuel companies.

"We can generate a tremendous amount of energy revenues as a result of new taxes coming off of the energy that's underneath the ground here in the United States," Scaramucci said. Pressed further on the questionnaire, Scaramucci insisted that no consensus on climate science exists and that common knowledge once was that the Earth was flat. "We get a lot of things wrong in the scientific community," he added.

But Scaramucci said the questionnaire was not authorized by the transition team and is not part of the team's "standard protocol."

The climate change community also has been concerned about suggestions from a Trump adviser that the new administration would redirect funding at NASA away from earth sciences research and toward deep space exploration.

"By surrounding himself with outspoken allies of the fossil fuel industry, promising cuts to NASA's earth science research and sending a threatening questionnaire to energy department staff, there is no remaining doubt that Trump is serious about overtly declaring war on science," Holthaus said. "This isn't a presidential transition. It's an Inquisition. It's a 21st-century book burning."

Holthaus said that although the information replication efforts certainly are helpful, the U.S. must ensure that it continues to add to existing data sets and spur new research.

"Preserving existing data is only the first step. Ensuring the continuous collection of data requires scientists to keep their jobs — something a bunch of volunteers with a Google Doc and a few hundred terabytes of hard drive space in Iceland can't control," Holthaus said.