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Less than a week after President Donald Trump took office, officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture began instructing staffers that climate change was not a priority for the administration and they should adjust their terminology. (Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr)

Emails Show USDA Staff Told to 'Avoid' Term 'Climate Change' Under Trump

"These records reveal Trump's active censorship of science in the name of his political agenda."

Jessica Corbett

Staffers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) service responsible for helping American farmers with conservation efforts were instructed by top officials to avoid the term "climate change" shortly after President Donald Trump took office, according to emails (pdf) obtained by the Guardian.

"To think that federal agency staff who report about the air, water, and soil that sustains the health of our nation must conform their reporting with the Trump administration's anti-science rhetoric is appalling and dangerous."
—Meg Townsend, Center for Biological Diversity

Four days into the Trump presidency, Jimmy Bramblett, deputy chief of science and technology at the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)—which "provides America's farmers and ranchers with financial and technical assistance to put conservation on the ground, not only helping the environment but agricultural operations, too," according to its website—sent out an email offering guidance with regard to the "priorities of our new administration."

"It has become clear one of the previous administration's priorities is not consistent with that of the incoming administration. Namely, that priority is climate change," Bramblett wrote.

Less than a month after Bramblett's email, NRCS staffer Tim Hafner sent him a report draft, and said: "I would like to know the correct terms I should use instead of Climate Changes and anything to do with Carbon….I want to ensure to incorporate correct terminology that the agency has approved to use."

Later that same day, Hafner sent an updated version, asking Bramblett to "please review this and make sure there is no problems with any wording," and noting that he "utilized the report that Bianca previously provided."

Bianca Moebius-Clune, director of the NRCS's Soil Health Division, had sent Hafner "a list of what to avoid, and what to replace it with, as well as concepts/messages that will be neutral or positively seen."

In the guide provided by Moebius-Clune, employees are instructed:

  • Rather than "climate change," use the term "weather extremes";
  • Rather than "climate change adaption," use "resilience to weather extremes/intense weather events: drought, heavy rain, spring ponding";
  • Rather than "reduce greenhouse gases," use "build soil organic matter, increase nutrient use efficiency";
  • Rather than "sequester carbon," use "build soil organic matter."

The NRCS said in a statement that the guidance shared with staffers was "similar to procedures issued by previous administrations," and "was misinterpreted by some to cover data and scientific publications. This was never the case and USDA interim procedures will allow complete, objective information for the new policy staff reviewing policy decisions."

A spokesperson also claimed the NRCS "has not received direction from USDA or the administration to modify its communications on climate change or any other topic."

However, the guidance sent to USDA employees seems to reflect a broader policy shift on climate change across multiple agencies, and the Trump administration's war on science is hardly a secret.

"These records reveal Trump's active censorship of science in the name of his political agenda," Meg Townsend, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), told the Guardian. "To think that federal agency staff who report about the air, water, and soil that sustains the health of our nation must conform their reporting with the Trump administration's anti-science rhetoric is appalling and dangerous for America and the greater global community."

In May, CBD launched a lawsuit against the administration "to uncover public records showing that federal employees have been censored from using words or phrases related to climate change in formal agency communications." Rather than the USDA, that suit focuses on alleged censorship at four other agencies: The Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of the Interior, and Department of State.

The president continues to appoint former industry lobbyists and climate deniers to top posts in government agencies, including the USDA's chief scientist position. Just after Trump took office, he issued a media blackout at multiple federal agencies, it was reported that scientists at the USDA could no longer publicly share taxpayer-funded research.

Since Trump took office, a number of federal scientists have resigned from the EPA in protest, claiming they are being pressured to support polluters' demands and the president's anti-climate deregulatory agenda. The climate section of the Interior Department's website was significantly edited, and the EPA removed pages about climate change from its website in April.

As the Guardian report noted, "While some of the changes to government websites may have occurred anyway, the emails from within the USDA are the clearest indication yet that staff have been instructed to steer clear of acknowledging climate change or its myriad consequences."

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