Last Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency’s climate change pages were shuttered for revisions. A week later, they’re still not back.
In their place is a page explaining that they’re being updated to “reflect EPA's priorities” under President Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and that users can check out a snapshot of the entire EPA site from the day before Trump took office.
There’s one major issue with the Jan. 19 snapshot. It’s not complete, with the entire student site redirecting to the message about the climate page being updated rather than the original student content. This is the first documented instance of pages disappearing from archives, and it leaves teachers and students without a scientifically accurate climate change resource.
Failing to post the pages could violate the Freedom of Information Act and other federal statutes designed to keep federal records accessible to the public. It also raises questions about how the Trump administration is handling climate science information that contradicts statements made by the president and his cabinet members, including Pruitt.
In February, the EPA posted the Jan. 19 mirror of what the EPA’s website looked like on the last day of the Obama administration. The snapshot was posted online as the result of at least three FOIA requests for the site.
But the Environmental and Data Governance Initiative has uncovered discrepancies in the mirrored site, including the missing student site, which includes dozens of pages with information on the causes and impacts of climate change as well as the solutions. Those pages are still available through slightly different web addresses that don’t match the original (for example, the main page includes a double slash), but the snapshot itself remains incomplete.
“I don’t think it’s malicious or about intentionally hiding information,” Sarah Lamdan, a lawyer at the CUNY School of Law and a FOIA expert who works with EDGI, said. “However, I do think the slapdash way it was done and incomplete nature of the result is indicative of record management and preservation issues that are serious. It’s a serious thing if the new administration comes in and doesn’t take care to preserve the records of the previous administration.”
If the Jan. 19 site were a book, it would be a book with pages ripped out. Those pages would in turn be crammed into other volumes, only accessible to a handful of librarians skilled at navigating the stacks.
“The overriding story is this is a huge transparency issue,” Lamdan said. “A lot of people have specifically requested that climate change records should be posted online. If those aren’t there in snapshot, that may be a FOIA violation.”
The EPA did not return a request for comment.
Beyond a FOIA violation, the student site shift could violate the Information Quality Act, according to Michael Burger, the executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. Citizens would have little recourse through the act if the EPA refused to restore the links, though. If the agency refused to do so, an appeal would be heard in front of a panel of three political appointees who would likely be sympathetic to the administration.
That all this is happening with the EPA’s site only raises the stakes for an administration that has struggled with transparency as well as climate science. While some changes are expected with any changing of the guard, the move to take down and edit the climate pages is disconcerting to climate and open government advocates.
“We always need the complete historical record available to us, so it can be referred to (whether it's now or in 100 years) to see what was happening at the time,” said Russ Kick, a writer who runs the Memory Hole, a site that tracks the disappearance of government information. “The more specific reason (to keep records) is that we need to maintain our access to facts and ideas, even if they fall out of political favor.”
Both Pruitt and Trump have made comments denying the science of climate change. Taking the pages down for edits to better reflect their views raises concerns that science could be misrepresented.
Reports have swirled that the EPA climate change pages could be removed for months, fed by EPA transition team members. The fact that the pages were taken down for edits rather just being updated immediately has raised a red flag that they may not come back at all.
“If any errors were present, they could have been fixed with minor editing,” atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science told the Washington Post. “There was no cause for a wholesale review of the site’s materials.”
The removal of the climate change pages comes after a series of other changes to the site and an executive order aimed at curtailing the EPA’s ability to limit carbon pollution, all signs that the agency’s approach to climate is undergoing a drastic shift.