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Fearing Trump Data Purge, Environmentalists Push to Get Records

  • Researchers are scrambling to copy U.S. government databases
  • Sierra Club turns to public records requests to protect info

U.S. government scientists frantically copying climate data they fear will disappear under the Trump administration may get extra time to safeguard the information, courtesy of a novel legal bid by the Sierra Club.

The environmental group is turning to open records requests to protect the resources and keep them from being deleted or made inaccessible, beginning with information housed at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. On Thursday, the organization filed Freedom of Information Act requests asking those agencies to turn over a slew of records, including data on greenhouse gas emissions, traditional air pollution and power plants.

The rationale is simple: Federal laws and regulations generally block government agencies from destroying files that are being considered for release. Even if the Sierra Club’s FOIA requests are later rejected, the record-seeking alone could prevent files from being zapped quickly. And if the records are released, they could be stored independently on non-government computer servers, accessible even if other versions go offline.

“There’s a lot of concern about environmental data writ large,” said Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. The federal government is a repository for reams of information used widely by city planners, local governments, businesses and researchers to guide decisions about the location of new facilities, considerations of new infrastructure and conclusions about how quickly coastlines are changing.

Fears Stoked

To be sure, President-elect Donald Trump hasn’t described plans to pull the plugs on government databases containing information on everything from Arctic ice to ocean temperatures. But fears were stoked by a questionnaire Trump transition advisers sent to the Energy Department in December, asking about the resources officials there use to do their jobs. Trump officials later said the memo wasn’t authorized.

Concerns also have been raised because of Trump’s past description of climate change as a hoax: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” Trump said in a 2012 tweet.

Some of Trump’s transition advisers and nominees to fill key cabinet roles, notably Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, tapped to lead the EPA, have questioned the role of humans in the phenomenon.

Canada’s Purge

“When you have people leading transition teams who have built careers out of questioning climate change science and questioning if there’s some kind of grand conspiracy to defraud the public, there’s no guarantee they will be terribly sympathetic to keep that information,” said Halpern, of the union, a science advocacy group.

Scientists say there’s reason to worry. Under former President George W. Bush, the EPA moved to close some of its research libraries -- an effort the Government Accountability Office later concluded hurt access to its materials. A similar effort in Canada by the conservative government voted out of office in 2015 saw several regional government libraries purged of fishery and ocean records as part of a consolidation effort.

“We’re interested in trying to download and preserve the information, but it’s going to take some time,” said Andrea Issod, a senior attorney with the Sierra Club. “We hope our request will be a counterweight to the coming assault on this critical pollution and climate data.”

Accessibility Key

The Sierra Club’s effort is a novel complement to work being done across North America, as scientists in Canada and the U.S. coordinate in identifying records that they say need to be preserved -- and then set about copying them using best practices that ensure usability for decades to come.

One of the biggest projects is DataRefuge, which is being coordinated by the University of Pennsylvania’s Program in the Environmental Humanities.

“Policymakers work in a political context and their decisions affect accessibility to science,” said Bethany Wiggin, director of the program. But, she said, concerns about safeguarding research transcend any one political administration. “More copies in more places is always a good idea.”

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