Reports of climate science being scrubbed from U.S. government websites arrived early in President Donald Trump’s tenure. And the hits keep coming. From the Environmental Protection Agency, to the Energy Department, to the State Department and beyond, references to climate change, greenhouse gases and clean energy keep disappearing.
But even as some corners of the Trump administration sow a cyber garden fertile for the fossil fuel industry, a pair of websites funded by the federal government have proclaimed an unvarnished view of the dangers of carbon-driven climate change.
The two sites, Climate.gov and CLEANet.org, have expanded to more than 700 entries and collectively drew more than 68,000 page views in May, a more than 50 percent increase from the year before. And the lessons delivered by the two sites — about the threat posed by a planet warmed by human actions — extends well beyond that core audience. That’s because both sites are aimed at teachers, who say they use the taxpayer-supported websites to create lessons on everything from increasing CO2 levels to threatened biodiversity to the potential of solar power.
The mere existence of the sites might be a surprise to some in hyper-partisan Washington, where news outlets have been reporting for months about federal departments eliminating or toning down reports on the global warming threat. The durability of Climate.gov and CLEANet.org websites shows that — even under the administration of a president who once denied climate change as a “hoax” — mainstream views of global warming can survive and even thrive.
"In a lot of the federal government, scientists are continuing to do their jobs and to be heard."
“I think these sites show that in a lot of the federal government, scientists are continuing to do their jobs and to be heard,” said Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy. “They are publishing data and sharing information with the American public, until they are told to do otherwise.”
Experts said the two websites have succeeded because they are administered outside of the Trump administration’s most politicized agencies, they post heavily vetted scientific information and they offer a ready resource to teachers, who increasingly are being ordered by state and local officials to expand global warming education. The sites’ views represent the federal government’s primary public message on climate change to educators across America.
The administration’s divided views on climate
CLEANet.org grew out of a public-private consortium of education and government organizations that came together in 2010 to form the Climate Literacy & Energy Awareness Network (CLEAN). The organization does not mince words on the reality of climate change and humans' role in it. “The overwhelming consensus of scientific studies on climate indicates that most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the latter part of the 20th century is very likely due to human activities,” the site declares. And those changes are “primarily from increases in greenhouse gas concentrations resulting from the burning of fossil fuels.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate.gov (subtitle: “Science & Information for a Climate Smart Nation”) takes a similar tack. The site, launched in 2012, adopted CLEANet’s education materials, which can be found under a “Teaching Climate” tab. Among the partners are the University of Colorado, Boulder; Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota; and the Science Education Resource Center, a center at the college that helps teachers create educational materials.
One teacher trainer in the Los Angeles-area called Climate.gov and CLEANet.org “a really valuable resource” for teachers to fight false and misleading information from anti-science groups. Brad Hoge, director of teacher support at the nonprofit National Center for Science Education, which works to ensure that evidence-based science is taught in public schools, recently wrote on his blog that the websites’ focus on data and information make them a “vast teacher-focused repository of information” and “a national treasure.”
But such popular and institutional support has not protected other government-funded programs on global warming from scrutiny. Following an NBC News report in June about a National Science Foundation-funded program to teach TV weathercasters about climate change, four Republican senators called for an investigation into what they called “propagandizing” about global warming.
And the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is caused by human activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, has not stopped federal agencies in the Trump era — particularly the EPA — from aggressively editing around that finding. Under Scott Pruitt, who recently resigned as the agency’s administrator under a cloud of ethics allegations, the environmental agency killed scores of links to information designed to help local governments prepare for climate change. Pruitt himself ordered some information removed from the EPA’s homepage.
Among the items now missing from the agency’s homepage is "A Student's Guide to Global Climate Change," a change first detailed by an advocacy group, the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, that has been tracking website revisions in the Trump era. By one estimate, the EPA has removed or modified 2,000 pages of information about climate.
At the Department of Energy’s website, an emphasis on renewable fuels was watered down, while talk about the importance of economic growth increased. The “Energy Investor Center” replaced the “Clean Energy Investment Center” and links to clean energy tools disappeared.
The Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration dropped some references to “climate change” and “greenhouse gases.” The definition of "sustainable transportation" shifted from helping “reduce greenhouse gas pollution and improve resilience to climate change impacts” to helping “enhance sustainability, improve resilience, and reduce energy use and emissions on our highway system.”
But Climate.gov and CLEANet.org have been safe from that type of politically-tinged revision, at least in part because they’re administered largely by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Though news outlets reported in June that NOAA’s interim leader proposed eliminating the word “climate” from the agency’s mission, the action was quickly reversed. The agency is viewed as being in the control of nonpartisan career employees, said Halpern, of the Union of Concerned Scientists. And Barry Myers, Trump’s nominee to permanently lead the science agency, acknowledged during a confirmation hearing last year that humans are the primary driver of recent global warming.
Trump hasn’t publicly given his position on the topic since taking office, but he last year withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, designed to rein in greenhouse gasses. And, before taking office, he called the concept of human-caused warming “a con job” and a “hoax.” Many of his appointees, including the EPA’s Pruitt, have expressed skepticism about mainstream climate science, particularly the idea that humans are the main force driving epochal changes.
That has not stopped all federal support for the scientific norm. CLEANet.org has received $2.7 million in grants, mostly from the taxpayer-funded National Science Foundation. That’s just a small slice of the $110 million that the foundation, NOAA and NASA have spent since 2009 on about 125 climate-change education projects, said Frank Niepold, climate education coordinator for NOAA.
The importance of teaching teachers
An array of science and education advocates say that teachers are sorely in need of outlets that provide sound information about climate change.
Most teachers now in classrooms learned little or nothing about global warming when they were in school. But they are responsible for presenting students with up-to-date science materials, including on Earth’s climate. Lessons about the underlying science of warming, and the changes that have been wrought, should occupy about 30 percent of science and engineering class time in middle and high schools, based on the latest national standards, Niepold said.
That’s where CLEANet.org and Climate.gov come in. Teachers turn to CLEANet.org to search for lessons, broken out by grade level, subject, class activity and specific national science standards. A search of “biodiversity,” for instance, turns up materials including “Coral Reefs in Hot Water,” and “Arctic Tundra May Contribute to Warmer World.”
Scott Boylen, a middle school teacher in northeast Iowa, called the resources “fact based and well researched.” He likes the way CLEANet.org provides charts that track carbon dioxide and temperature increases in unison. “It makes a clear point that students understand,” Boylen said.
Kelley Le, who coaches educators in a Los Angeles-area district, said the government-backed sites give teachers solid information that can help them combat climate science deniers. “Without good, sound information, I feel like teachers are susceptible to false information and they are not able to push back enough,” said Le, who is finishing doctoral studies at UCLA on how to improve global warming education.
The operators of the websites had no criticism of other government sites that had climate information altered or removed. But they said they thought Climate.gov and CLEANet.org staved off attacks, at least in part, because of their rigorous approach to their subject. Roughly 30,000 resources — like data sets, charts and lesson outlines — have been reviewed for posting on the two sites, but only 700 have been deemed appropriate, Niepold said.
“You really have to raise the bar on quality very high. You just can’t make a mistake,” said Niepold, noting that every entry on the sites has been vetted by both teachers and independent scientists. “We just have to have impeccable work.”