August 7, 2019 – On Friday, Lewis Ziska, a climate scientist who specializes in plant physiology, left his job at the US Department of Agriculture after more than 20 years. On Monday, Helena Bottemiller Evich, a food and agriculture reporter at Politico, explained why. Ziska had worked on a groundbreaking study that found rising atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are causing rice to lose nutrients—a potential disaster for the 600 million people worldwide who rely on rice as a staple. Science Advances, the journal that published the study, expected that it would attract widespread interest, and advised its authors to prepare resources for the media. The Department of Agriculture refused. Officials spiked a press release promoting Ziska’s work, and asked the University of Washington, a collaborator on the paper, not to promote it either. CNN requested an interview with Ziska. Agriculture’s press office said no. That was a first, Ziska said.
Frustrated, Ziska decided to quit. Speaking with Politico, he “painted a picture of a department in constant fear of the president and Secretary Sonny Perdue’s open skepticism about broadly accepted climate science, leading officials to go to extremes to obscure their work to avoid political blowback,” Evich writes. “You get the sense,” Ziska told her, “that things have changed, that this is not a place for you to be exploring things that don’t agree with someone’s political views.” The situation “feels like something out of a bad sci-fi movie.”
The Department of Agriculture denied Ziska’s account; it declined to promote his findings due to scientific concerns raised by career staffers, it said. But the department previously cleared the study, and it was externally peer reviewed, too. And Ziska’s case fits a worrying broader trend. As Evich previously reported, Agriculture has declined to publicize dozens of climate-related studies since 2017; a sweeping climate-change response plan was never published at all. It’s not just Agriculture. Across the administration, departments and agencies have strived to keep climate science out of the public eye since Donald Trump took office.
In some quarters, even the words “climate change” have been banned. In 2017, officials at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a unit of the Department of Agriculture, told staff that they should instead say “weather extremes” in their work; according to emails obtained by The Guardian, the phrase “reduce greenhouse gases” was also blacklisted. The same year, references to the dangers of climate change were scrubbed from the websites of the White House and the Interior Department. The Environmental Protection Agency removed a whole section of its website containing climate-change information, citing a need to “update” its language; more than two years later, the page does not appear to have been reinstated. As I reported for CJR last year, the EPA also moved to cut its funding of the Bay Journal, a newspaper established under the Clean Water Act to report on environmental issues in the Chesapeake Bay. (The Bay Journal sued under the First Amendment; the EPA backed down.) In November, the White House tried to bury a dire climate report—that drew on the work of 13 federal agencies—by releasing it over Thanksgiving. (The attempt backfired.) According to E&E News, the US Geological Survey, too, has removed climate references from press releases.
Nor is Ziska the only government official to lose his job over this administration’s climate stance. In 2017, Joel Clement, who was studying the impact of climate change on Alaska at the Interior Department, was reassigned to an accounting job collecting royalties from oil and gas companies; he spoke out, then resigned. In February, Maria Caffrey, who was modelling sea level and storm surge projections for the National Park Service, was effectively forced out after refusing to let officials excise references to man-made climate change from her report. Just last week, Rod Schoonover wrote, in a New York Times op-ed, that he decided to quit his job at the State Department after his bosses blocked written testimony from his office to the House Intelligence Committee on the national-security implications of the climate crisis. “I believe such acts weaken our nation,” Schoonover said.
The Trump White House is an informational water cannon; the endless noise of the president’s tweets and rallies disorients reporters, leads our coverage, and—all too often—distracts attention from the stories officials don’t want us to cover. As Evich notes, agency intransigence “means research from scores of government scientists receives less public attention” than it should; “Climate-related studies are still being published without fanfare in scientific journals, but they can be very difficult to find.” We need to work harder to find them, and to noisily promote them where the government will not. Let’s not be complicit in the state’s suppression of science.
Below, more on climate science:
- The big picture: In May, the Times’s Coral Davenport and Mark Landler outlined the Trump administration’s latest assaults on climate science. “Parts of the federal government will no longer fulfill what scientists say is one of the most urgent jobs of climate science studies: reporting on the future effects of a rapidly warming planet.”
- The bigger picture: Somini Sengupta and Weiyi Cai reported yesterday, also for the Times, that a quarter of humanity could run out of water in the near future. According to newly published data, “From India to Iran to Botswana, 17 countries around the world are currently under extremely high water stress… Climate change heightens the risk.”