In his poem "The Hollow Men," T. S. Eliot famously wrote: "This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper." It seems the Trump administration may be taking a cue from this prose, potentially killing off climate change programs not with the flourish of announcements and speeches but with behind-the-scenes tinkering instead.
This is becoming clear thanks to scientists' careful tracking of the administration's websites and data centers. A report from the nonprofit Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), which is closely tracking federal climate science websites under Trump, and first reported by Climate Central on Thursday, shows that there have already been many changes to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) websites related to climate change.
The EDGI report is the product of a grassroots effort of scientists, data researchers and activists to catalogue climate data and track federal climate websites out of the belief that some of it will disappear or be radically altered under Trump.
The most significant change that EDGI highlighted is the deletion of a paragraph affirming the United States' commitment to international climate talks and the specific goals of a 1992 U.N. treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avert "dangerous" human-made climate change.
On Jan. 16, a portion of the EPA's website dealing with international climate partnerships contained the following language:
When EDGI's software crawled the same website on Jan. 22, that language was gone, with a shortened reference to the framework convention, also known as the UNFCCC, that no longer refers to the greenhouse gas stabilization goal, EDGI found.
This change is noteworthy since President Donald Trump has said he intends to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, which entered into force in Nov. 2016 and was negotiated under the auspices of the UNFCCC.
If the U.S. were to withdraw from the treaty, it would cede leadership on climate and clean energy issues to China, which is working to reduce its emissions in part to lessen its deadly air pollution problem. In addition, U.S. withdrawal could make it more difficult for the world to meet the Paris Agreement's goal of limiting global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels through 2100.
The UNFCCC language change, plus other changes made to pages referencing partnerships with other federal agencies as well as state, local and tribal governments show that, under the Trump administration, the EPA may be shifting away from its focus on preventing climate change and toward a posture where it deals much more with helping the country adapt to its impacts.
It also may be retreating from directly linking emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, to global warming, despite the vast body of scientific evidence showing this is the case.
Such policy shifts would have consequences for every American and citizen of the world, since the EPA is the agency on the front lines of U.S. efforts to rein in its carbon and methane emissions. These changes would also go against the advice of the EPA's own scientists, who have found that emissions of greenhouse gases endanger human health and the environment, and therefore can be regulated under the Clean Air Act.
Scientists have said that taking action on global warming requires both climate mitigation, which refers to actions that prevent further global warming, as well as adaptation. The possibility that the EPA will get out of the mitigation game strikes some environmental policy experts as a major change.
“Focusing on adaptation means taking the focus off doing things that would mitigate or stop climate change," said Paul Edwards, a professor at the University of Michigan who works with EDGI.
Edwards said the website changes that EDGI has observed so far, which mainly affect subpages of the EPA's vast climate change website, are not as significant as what is still expected to take place once the Senate confirms Trump's nominee for EPA administrator, Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt.
But these changes are important and worrisome nonetheless.
Taken together, they show the EPA may become an entity that could more fittingly be renamed the environmental adaptation agency.
“This is not environmental protection, this is just a signal that we recognize this is happening and you better get used to it.”
Taken as a whole, the changes amount to a warning, Edwards says, that the agency "... Is planning to get out of that business of responding to climate change as a threat.”
The report found that "there were several potentially significant changes" to the EPA's climate change section on a portion of the agency's website that focuses on federal partner collaborations. Most telling is a title change, from "Federal Partner Collaboration" to "EPA Adaptation Collaboration."
In addition, new text added to the page highlights adaptation research as the core function of federal agencies including the EPA. The text also redefines the main role played by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), which is a multiagency group that provides scientific research on climate change.
The new EPA website says the USGCRP "convenes federal agencies and resources to focus on adaptation science and effective actions to address global change." Gone are references to climate change mitigation.
This stands in contrast to the page as reviewed on Jan. 16, when the site still contained references to former president Barack Obama's Climate Action Plan, calling on the U.S. to "cut carbon pollution, prepare for the impacts of climate change, and lead international efforts to combat climate change and prepare for its impacts."
The new webpages also remove various federal plans and task forces that Obama created, such as the Interagency Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, which was aimed at preparing federal agencies as well as state and local leaders for climate change impacts.
The EPA says the website changes are routine. "As part of EPA’s standard process and our continuous efforts to review and refresh the our website, EPA updated the International Climate Partnerships page to reduce redundant text and to make the page easier for the public to read," the agency said in a statement.
"[The] EPA also updated the Adaptation Collaboration page to remove broken links from pages that were impacted by the Presidential transition (the links went to the previous Administration’s White House webpage, which has been archived)," the agency said.
"Each of these updates is routine and in line with the Agency’s web guidelines."
Expect more of this
The website changes are not surprising given the new administration's skeptical stance about the science of global warming compared to the Obama administration, which viewed it as an urgent global threat.
Trump has said that global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese for economic gain, and Pruitt is also an unabashed climate denier.
Image: Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP/REX/Shutterstock
In fact, Pruitt is still involved in a lawsuit against the EPA over its Clean Power Plan, which seeks to reduce planet-warming carbon emissions from the nation's power plants.
In reality, there is virtually no debate in the scientific community about whether greenhouse gas emissions are the main cause of global warming in recent decades.
During his confirmation hearings, Pruitt downplayed humans' role in causing global warming.
"I do not believe that climate change is a hoax," Pruitt said. Here's part of an exchange Pruitt had with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont that illustrates Pruitt's view that human emissions of greenhouse gases may not be the main cause of global warming.
Pruitt's views are contradicted by the website of the very agency he is likely to lead (at least for now), which states: "Research indicates that natural causes do not explain most observed warming, especially warming since the mid-20th century. Rather, it is extremely likely that human activities have been the dominant cause of that warming."
Pruitt is not the only Trump appointee to have doubts about the robustness of climate science, though. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is the former CEO of ExxonMobil, also questions whether greenhouse gas emissions are the main cause of global warming.
Tillerson's State Department has scrubbed several websites related to international climate change programs, including the agency's Climate Action Report and America's contribution to the U.N. Green Climate Fund.
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