The incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump made headlines last week when it attempted to identify, through a 74-point questionnaire distributed to the Department of Energy and the country’s national laboratories, federal employees who work in the area of climate science and research.
The ultimate purpose of the survey was not stated, but given frequent public dismissals of climate science by Trump and many of his cabinet nominees, policy experts and scientists within the Energy Department were unnerved — and the agency pushed back.
“Some of the questions asked left many in our workforce unsettled,” said DOE spokesman Eben Burnham-Snyder in a statement Tuesday. “Our career workforce, including our contractors and employees at our labs, comprise the backbone of DOE and the important work our department does to benefit the American people. We are going to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department.”
As a result, the spokesman said, “We will not be providing any individual names to the transition team.”
Earlier this week, I asked Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks if she had any comment about the DOE’s decision. “No we don’t, but thank you for calling,” she said, and then hung up. On Wednesday, news outlets were reporting that the Trump transition team was disavowing the questionnaire entirely, and attributing it to a single person who had breached “protocol.”
Climate experts welcomed the DOE response, but the episode comes at a time when scientists already fear that the ascendant Trump administration could hinder progress on addressing and studying an ever-warming planet. That’s in part because Trump railed against climate change during his campaign, calling it “a hoax” and a “money-making industry.” On Sunday, he said “nobody really knows” if climate change is real. He’s also pledged to withdraw from the global climate treaty negotiated in Paris last year, and to dismantle President Obama’s signature Clean Power Plan.
Policymakers and climate activists have long argued that failure to take action on climate change now will only lead to greater political and economic insecurity across the globe. And scientists have told me for years — in my work both as a journalist and as a communications specialist — that the hard work of climate researchers requires sustained support across administrations.
Despite this, Trump has selected outspoken critics of environmental protection and climate science to head the very agencies tasked with protecting the planet. Earlier this week, he chose Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, to head up the Department of Energy — an agency that Perry once said he’d eliminate.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the Energy Department questionnaire has further rattled the environmental and climate science communities.
“We cannot expect anyone in the Department to take [the survey] completely out of context,” Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told me in a phone call. “And the context is that the president-elect and many people around him have been skeptical to the point of antagonistic to climate science. So if an employee gets a question like this, I think we would say on the face of it, it’s wholly inappropriate and it could easily be seen as leading to intimidation of employees.”
Michael Gerrard, a professor at Columbia Law School, teaches courses on environmental law, climate change law and energy regulation. He said the DOE’s decision not to provide the information won’t keep Trump’s team from obtaining the data. “Once the inauguration happens and the Trump administration is in charge, it will have the ability to search the records of the agency without having to ask for permission,” said Gerrard, who also is director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. “The real question is about the actual stance of the administration,” he told me. “Will it be aggressively anti-climate scientist, which would be horrible on many different levels?”
While the president-elect’s ultimate goals remain unknown, the influence of the fossil fuel industry on the incoming administration is clear, scientists say. Trump’s choice for Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, sought to block federal investigations of the oil giant Exxon Mobil’s alleged role in downplaying or hiding emerging climate science. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to head up the Environmental Protection Agency, is a climate skeptic who publicly castigated other states for investigating oil and gas companies. And Texas businessman Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick as the nation’s next Secretary of State, is the CEO of Exxon Mobil.
Gerrard suggested that many of the people who might have been identified through the DOE survey would have protection as civil service employees. But the scope of the questionnaire goes beyond staff to contractors and others, he said. “I think that if they do take the kind of action people fear, there will be a tremendous uproar from the United States and from the international scientific community — and many other people who respect genuine science,” he said. “It would not be without political cost.”
Maya Ajmera, President and CEO of the Society for Science & the Public and publisher of Science News, said now is no time to back down. “We need to focus on science,” she said in a prepared statement. “Science gives us real data that helps policymakers to make informed decisions that can affect all of our lives for the better.”
Scientists say that the stakes have never been higher, and Holt — a physicist himself and former Democratic Congressman from New Jersey before heading up AAAS — holds out hope that Trump and his team will ultimately see the value in collecting climate data, the type of work scientists around the country are now trying to preserve.
“It is much better to make policy with evidence and understanding than simple assertion and ideology,” he said. “We have already irreparably harmed future generations. Some of this is too late and can’t be rolled back. It is unwise to say, ‘Well, let’s let this play out.’
“Climate change is real, humans are behind it, it’s costly and deadly,” he said, describing scientists’ collective findings, “and we have to do something about it.”
Jo Napolitano is a Spencer Education Fellow at Columbia University. She is a former staff reporter for The Chicago Tribune and Newsday, where she wrote on matters of climate science and infrastructure. She has done communications work on a contract basis for the national labs, but she does not speak on their behalf.