How to fight Trump’s climate science censorship

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Farmers are on the front lines of climate change. The people who grow the food we eat deserve clear, candid scientific advice on coping with global warming and the growing threat drought and extreme weather pose to American agriculture.

But such honest counsel, it turns out, won’t come from the Trump administration. A recently revealed series of emails shows that U.S. Department of Agriculture experts who help farmers deal with manmade warming were told after President Trump took office to stop using terms like “climate change” and “reduce greenhouse gases.” 

{mosads}This alarming act of scientific censorship might have stayed a bureaucratic secret but for one thing: America’s powerful public records law, which has become a truly vital tool in revealing the grim details of Trump’s war on climate science and the environment.


My organization, the Center for Biological Diversity, used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain these remarkable emails sent to staff at the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a component of the USDA that provides land-conservation assistance to farmers. 

The USDA emails have ignited a firestorm of controversy because they reveal the Trump administration’s stark impact on language used by agency staff. NRCS leadership instructed employees to describe their work without any reference to climate change, instead describing “weather extremes” and eliminating any reference to human causes.

But obtaining those incriminating communications — which are clearly public records — was no easy task.

As an attorney specializing in public records law, I am profoundly grateful for the Freedom of Information Act, a landmark law that provides Americans with the right to know what their government is up to. 

Yet in just the first six months of Trump’s presidency, I’ve been flabbergasted by his administration’s dogged determination to avoid complying with this critically important law.

After the center submitted its FOIA request to the USDA in early April, the agency blocked the release of records under an exemption so abused by the government that some have labeled it the “withhold it because you want to” exemption. 

The center was forced to appeal the NRCS’s withholdings of information. We pointed out that officials failed to conduct an adequate search for responsive records and improperly redacted information. 

As a result of the center’s appeal the NRCS finally released 65 pages of records without redaction. 

In other public records cases, we’ve actually had to sue. Indeed, we’ve filed 10 lawsuits to force the Trump administration to comply with its legal duty to make public records available to the public.

For example, the center sued the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to provide public records of closed-door meetings between the agency, states and industry groups regarding Trump’s weakened wetlands regulations under the Clean Water Act. Those changes could potentially eliminate protections for millions of acres of wetlands, which are critical to water purification and provide habitat for hundreds of endangered species. 

We’ve also had to sue the EPA, Department of Energy, Department of the Interior and Department of State for failing to provide records addressing the censorship of words or phrases related to climate change in formal agency communications, violating deadlines established under the law.

We don’t yet have the full picture of Trump’s scientific censorship, since we’re still waiting for many federal agencies to release public records.

Yet one thing seems clear: The administration’s opposition to transparency is closely connected to its desire to censor climate scientists and other federal experts. An administration that favors alternative facts over the truth is naturally determined to operate under the cover of darkness.

Thankfully, we have an open records law that can reveal disturbing realities — like the fact that the climate-deniers now running our federal government are so determined to ignore science that they’ll avoid telling farmers about climate change’s increasingly potent threats to our food supply. 

That’s not a pleasant thing to know, but it’s critical for Americans to have the full facts about the Trump administration’s alarming attacks on truth. 

Meg Townsend is an open government attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, a non-profit advocacy organization focused on protecting at-risk species and protecting the lands, waters and climate those species need to survive.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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