Scientists In Last-Minute Scramble To Save Environmental Data Before Trump Takes Over

Sierra Club files major request for records to buy some time.
Climate change scientists steel for expected Trump administration storm.
Climate change scientists steel for expected Trump administration storm.

Scientists across the nation are in a frantic push to save as much environmental data as possible before a feared government information purge orchestrated by climate-change denier Donald Trump.

The Sierra Club on Thursday filed Freedom of Information Act requests, seeking information held by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, Bloomberg reports. The organization is asking those agencies to turn over a multitude of documents, including data on greenhouse gas emissions and power plants. Even if the requests are ultimately denied, the move buys valuable extra time for a mounting effort to gather and preserve data before anything is lost.

“We’re interested in trying to download and preserve the information, but it’s going to take some time,” senior Sierra Club attorney Andrea Issod told Bloomberg. “We hope our request will be a counterweight to the coming assault on this critical pollution and climate data.”

Researchers fear that the incoming administration could wipe out important information on a broad range of environmental factors.

“There is no reason to think its efforts would be restricted to climate data alone,” Gretchen Goldman, a research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the Pacific Standard. She’s concerned about data on animals, particularly research by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on endangered or threatened species.

“There are a lot more eyes on climate, whereas with federal endangered species science, there are a smaller number of people looking at it and there are fewer data,” making it more vulnerable, she added.

Fears about data purges were sparked when Trump’s transition team reached out to the U.S. Energy Department in December demanding the names of employees and contract experts working on environmental and climate change issues. Observers worried that was the first step in a political witch hunt against those scientists. Trump has called climate change a “hoax” by the Chinese to “make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus more recently said his boss believes it’s a “bunch of bunk.” Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who have been picked by Trump to lead the EPA, has expressed doubts that human-caused pollution is responsible for what’s happening in the environment. 

While the Sierra Club presses its request for data, other organized efforts are continuing to save what can be preserved from government databases and post the information on independent websites. A major part of that effort, DataRefuge, is headquartered at the University of Pennsylvania’s Program in the Environmental Humanities. Other efforts include Guerrilla Archiving and Climate Mirror to save environmental information, and the End of Term Web Archive, which attempts to save as many records as possible from outgoing presidential administrations.

Data purges and manipulation have been carried out by other administrations. Under President George W. Bush, the EPA moved to shut down some of its research libraries, reducing access to important information. The administration was also accused by the Union of Concerned Scientists of suppressing or distorting research by government scientists or contractors at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Canada’s former conservative government was responsible for purging significant fishery and ocean data.

Trump and his supporters have been “salivating at the possibility of dismantling federal climate research programs for years. It’s not unreasonable to think they would want to take down the very data that they dispute,” Michael Halpern of the Union for Concerned Scientists told The Washington Post in a recent email. “Scientists are right to preserve data and archive websites before those who want to dismantle federal climate change research programs storm the castle.”