Responding to reports of censorship at federal agencies, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) filed four Freedom of Information Act requests on Thursday with the Trump administration's Department of Energy (DOE), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of the Interior, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), seeking "all directives or communications barring or removing climate-related words or phrases from any formal agency communications."
CBD's Taylor McKinnon referenced Politico's reporting from Wednesday, which suggested staff in the DOE's international climate office had been instructed not to use phrases including "climate change," "emissions reductions," and "Paris agreement" in written memos or briefings.
"This is like telling government scientists not to mention gravity or the fact that the Earth revolves around the sun," McKinnon said. "The Trump administration can deny the reality of the climate crisis, but it can't make it go away by simply telling government employees not to mention it anymore. This kind of anti-science meddling leads us straight back to the dark ages."
The organization said it planned to file additional requests with other federal agencies in coming days.
Employees at the U.S. Energy Department's (DOE) Office of International Climate and Clean Energy have reportedly been barred from using key phrases in written communication, including "climate change," "emissions reductions," and "Paris agreement."
Politico reported the order Wednesday, citing anonymous sources inside the department.
To use these phrases "would cause a 'visceral reaction' with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, his immediate staff, and the cadre of White House advisers at the top of the department," senior officials reportedly told staff at a meeting on Tuesday.
As Salon points out:
Perry, the former Texas governor who until recently served as a board director of the two energy companies trying to build the Dakota Access Pipeline, is a noted climate-change denier. While he was chief executive of the Lone Star State, Perry's administration censored scientific research by deleting references to climate change from a paper it commissioned about environmental changes in Galveston Bay. In 2011, Perry claimed that "there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects."
However, as Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' (UCS) Center for Science and Democracy wrote Thursday in response to Politico's report:
During his confirmation hearing, [when] Secretary Perry was asked by Washington Senator Maria Cantwell if he would "protect the science research at DOE related to climate," he responded as follows:
I'm going to protect all of the science, whether it's related to the climate, or to the other aspects of what we’re going to be doing…I am going to protect the men and women of the scientific community from anyone that would attack them, no matter what their reason may be, at the Department of Energy.
Now would be a great time for the secretary to double down on those words and clear up any confusion by publicly affirming that DOE experts are encouraged to collaborate with each other and communicate with the public.
While other sources, including a DOE spokeswoman, denied and downplayed to Politico the idea that certain words and phrases had been banned, a State Department official reported a similar mood at that agency:
"We have definitively not received anything on banned words, not even orally," the State official said. "But people are doing a lot of reading into tea leaves. People are taking their own initiatives to not use certain words based on hints from transition people. Everyone is encouraged to finding different ways of talking about things. There's a sense that you'd better find a way to delink" from the previous administration's talking points.
Indeed, if true, the ban would be in keeping with the administration's track record. President Donald Trump this week signed an executive order dismantling key pieces of former President Barack Obama's climate policy—furthering his so-called war on science. On day one of Trump's presidency, the White House website scrubbed every mention of combating climate change from its pages.
The skepticism of science is also on display in the Republican-controlled Congress, where on Wednesday the U.S. House passed (roll call here) the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act, or HONEST Act—decried by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) as "a Trojan-horse transparency bill that, among other things, would make it harder for the [Environmental Protection Agency] to use public health studies to finalize science-based public health protections."
Also Wednesday, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing on the state of climate science described by UCS chief scientist on climate change Peter Frumhoff as "a tired sideshow of familiar actors on the climate denial stage going through their well-rehearsed paces—the science hearing equivalent of a World Wrestling Entertainment match."
But as Liz Perera, climate policy director at Sierra Club, said in a statement to Politico on Wednesday: "Ignoring the climate crisis will not make it go away, will not create jobs in the booming clean energy economy, and will not make our country great."
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) tweeted similarly, "Just because you ban the phrase doesn't mean it doesn't exist."