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Climate Science Isn’t Being Silenced Everywhere In Washington

As Trump tweets, government acts. Welcome to Meanwhile, our recurring look at what federal agencies are up to and how their work affects people’s lives.

The deletion of references to climate change from government websites has become a perennial headline under the Trump administration — but one that doesn’t tell the whole story.

The websites that seem to have undergone the most changes to climate-related content are the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, according to the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative — a network of academics and nonprofits formed in the wake of President Trump’s election to protect federal data and monitor changes in the way the government talks about politically sensitive science — which has been monitoring 25,000 web pages across multiple agencies since January.

Those agencies are headed by Trump appointees who were confirmed in their roles early in the president’s term. In contrast, a handful of agencies without politically appointed heads, or whose political appointees have yet to enter office, haven’t taken such steps — and in at least one case, an organization is expanding its climate science work.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine is in the process of creating a new Climate Communications Initiative, with the goal of enhancing its climate science outreach to both the public and politicians. The National Academies receives most of its funding from the feds and mainly functions as an adviser to government, but it is an independent organization.

Meanwhile, EDGI’s monitoring shows that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — both of which are heavily involved in climate change research and communication — haven’t made any significant changes to their large, online repositories of climate change information.

It’s impossible to say why some agencies have made many changes and others none. Toly Rinberg, media coordinator for EDGI’s website monitoring committee, told me that the pattern of changing language on public-facing climate science websites within the federal government appears to be a hit-and-miss affair. Even at agencies like the EPA and Department of Energy, where such changes appear to be more systematic, it’s not always clear that the changes were directed from the top down. A Washington Post story from May, for instance, quoted a DOE insider who said career staffers were toning down climate change language on their own initiative to avoid attention and keep budgets intact.

Outside observers, however, are concerned that newly tapped Trump administrators could change the climate at NASA and NOAA. On Sept. 1, Trump nominated Oklahoma representative Jim Bridenstine, who has no scientific experience, to lead NASA. Bridenstine narrowly passed a committee vote on Nov. 8 but has yet to be approved by the full Senate. And only on Oct. 11 did the president nominate Barry Myers, the CEO of the private weather forecasting company AccuWeather, to head up NOAA.

In emailed statements, representatives from both NASA and NOAA said that they had not experienced any pressure to change the way they approached climate change in their programs or public communication and had no intention of altering their websites. Will new leadership change that? “Speculation is not something we get into,” said Stephen Cole, NASA’s lead public affairs staffer for earth science-related questions.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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