The White House website no longer has a section on climate change. An EPA page that answered “common questions” about global warming is gone. And reports on greenhouse gas emissions have vanished from the State Department’s Internet site.
But, six days into the administration of President Donald Trump, most references to climate change and carbon emissions remain on government web pages. And, after a backlash from federal bureaucrats and outside scientists, the administration has softened initial attempts to curtail communications from scientific departments.
“It’s natural for new political leadership to want to review anything before it goes out the door,” said Chris Lu, the director of the Obama administration’s transition and now a senior fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center. “But what seems to be happening here may be more pernicious.”
Trump was elected vowing to rescind his predecessor’s climate change policies and refocus the Environmental Protection Agency on what the new president described as its core mission of protecting the air and water.
Read more: Fearing Trump Data Purge, Environmentalists Push For Records
His political staff moved quickly to make changes, both at the EPA and elsewhere: They put a temporary freeze on grant and contract activity at the EPA and clamped down on communications between employees and the press. Post-election climate tweets and posts by federal bureaucrats — which were widely shared on social media — were subsequently removed from the web. Despite reports it would be axed, Trump administration officials have so far maintained a climate change page on the EPA website, while removing other documents, such as the Q&A describing the scientific consensus that humans are contributing to the phenomenon.
The Federal Records Act requires government employees to preserve documents on agency’s functions, policies and decisions, but administration officials have wide latitude in how they build and maintain their websites.
Doug Ericksen, a spokesman for Trump’s EPA, said the decision to temporarily halt the agency’s use of blogs, Twitter and other media was routine.
“We are simply trying to get a handle on everything that is out there,” he said in an interview, noting that the agency has nine blogs, 34 Facebook pages and 37 Twitter accounts. The agency is still putting out press releases in the meantime, but “they are coming out of this office first,” he said.
To some degree, the Trump changes reflect the changing of the guard in Washington — and illustrate that a new sheriff is in town. The minute Trump was sworn in on Jan. 20, a lean new White House website went up, replacing the Obama-era site built up over eight years. Gone were pages dedicated to climate; in their place came a new “America First Energy Plan.”
Climate change wasn’t deleted from the websites, as some claimed; the administration of Barack Obama was. Or, more accurately, moved to ObamaWhiteHouse.archives.gov.
After that, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus issued a halt to pending regulations, and federal employees were counseled to keep quiet.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the EPA and Interior Department are taking steps “to address inappropriate use of social media.” But he denied there was any broader mandate from the White House muzzling federal agencies. “There’s nothing that’s come from the White House — absolutely not,” he said.
The clampdown may reflect that just a few of Trump’s cabinet-level appointees have been confirmed and installed at the agencies where they can closely control messaging and strategy. By contrast, seven of Obama’s cabinet nominees had been confirmed by the time he was sworn in eight years ago.
It also reflects the changing use of social media over the past eight years. Twitter was launched in 2006.
“There’s a vacuum at these agencies,” said Frank Maisano, a veteran public relations operative at Bracewell in Washington. “And all the new Twitter accounts are a factor we’ve never dealt with before.”
This is the third digital transition. Former President Bill Clinton launched the first White House website in 1994, and the extent of government information shared online and through social media has exploded since then.
And it can’t always be controlled. The Twitter account of Badlands National Park in South Dakota went rogue Tuesday, publishing a series of climate-related messages that have since been deleted. “Today, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years,” said one.
A National Park Service spokesman said the posts were made by a former employee who still had access to the account.
NOAA published a “Wisdom Wednesday” post on its Facebook page, complete with facts about climate change. Later that day, it was deleted.
Some EPA staff members spent the days before Trump’s inauguration downloading information from the EPA’s climate change pages so that it would be preserved no matter what happened, an agency employee told the Washington Post.
There are statutory limits on what the Trump administration can do — and how quickly it can do it. For instance, regulations compel companies to send data on carbon dioxide emissions to the government’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program. The EPA can change those mandates, but that could take years. And the U.S. is obligated to report national emissions under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Researchers have been spooked by the president’s past description of climate change as a “hoax” and the environmental views of his cabinet nominees. Even before Trump was sworn in, scientists fearing a massive data purge were frantically copying climate data to private servers, in a bid to preserve it. The Sierra Club filed Freedom of Information Act requests seeking a slew of records as a way to protect them.
Researchers are planning to take to the streets, with a “March for Science” in the nation’s capital and other U.S. cities to protest Trump. “It is time for scientists, science enthusiasts, and concerned citizens to come together to make ourselves heard!,” according to the march’s Facebook page, which has over 115,000 members.
Ultimately, “science will prevail,” said Antonio Busalacchi, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and a veteran of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
It “is a very slippery slope,” Busalacchi said in an interview at the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting in Seattle. “Is it temporary? Is it policy? It is too soon to say.”