Unplug graphic

It’s been more than four months since news first surfaced on April 28 that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s climate change website for all practical purposes had gone dark.

It was by no means “fake news,” though the frequent messages that the entire site had been flat-out “killed” appear overstated, at least in limited ways.

Eager to not attract so much coverage, the agency announced that dark development in the early Friday evening of April 28. Friday afternoons and evenings are times federal agencies routinely release “news” they hope will attract scant coverage. In this case, the EPA action came the day before the nationally scheduled People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C., and cities across the country and the world.

Since then, visitors to the page have been greeted with the large-font banner headline that “This page is being updated.” to reflect changing agency priorities under President Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. While the Trump/Pruitt EPA maintained an archival version of the website as it existed on January 19, 2017, the final day of the Obama administration, the agency provided scant insight into future directions. The agency’s office of public affairs did say the “update” would scrap “out of date” language and information concerning the then-proposed Clean Power Plan, which Trump and Pruitt say they want to deep-six.

Screenshot of EPA webpage

It’s clear that the agency was quicker to turn off the lights on the old site than it has been to shed light on its new areas of emphasis. Visitors to the EPA site today still are greeted with the same “This page is being updated” welcome line … and with little more.

EPA’s climate site unique among federal websites

EPA’s site, of course, isn’t the only federal website to undergo changes in the new administration, and website overhauls are expected and are common practice in Washington whenever leadership of the executive branch changes hands and political parties.

Several other respected federal agency climate change websites – for instance those associated with NASA and with NOAA – for now at least continue pretty much in a business-as-usual mode. But it’s far from clear how long that status will continue. (Neither NASA nor NOAA, unlike EPA, is headed by a confirmed official Trump appointee: Each is still headed by an “acting” hold-over from the previous administration, though widespread reports in early September indicate the administration will nominate third-term Congressman Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla) to be NASA administrator. Those vacancies may or may not explain the relative stasis at their websites.)

On the other hand, the Washington Post reported in late August that the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Environmental Health Science, NIEHS, recently did some eyebrow-raising editing of its website. NIEHS changed some “climate change” references to “climate,” an act an official spokesperson defended as representing merely a broader focus, for instance to include severe weather and emergency responder safety resources. Post health and medicine reporter Lenny Bernstein in that article reported other examples of such edits at the NIEHS site:

“A headline that read ‘Climate Change and Human Health,’ for example, was altered to ‘Climate and Human Health,’ Bernstein wrote. “A menu title that read ‘Climate Change and Children’s Health’ in June now appears as ‘Climate and Children’s Health.’ Links to a fact sheet on ‘Climate Change and Human Health’ also were removed.”

Bernstein added in that article that “The phrase ‘climate change’ still can be found several times in the text below the headline that now reads ‘Climate and Human Health’. Also still available is a ‘Climate Change and Human Health Literature Portal.’”

Some references to serious risks posed by climate change still exist on the NIEHS site. For instance, the site in early September includes the line that “the major public health organizations of the world have said that climate change is a critical public health problem.” While deleting the word “change” from the “Climate and Human Health” section, the site still noted that “changes in the greenhouse gas concentrations and other drivers alter the global climate and bring about myriad human health consequences.”

Bernstein in his report also pointed to “similar wording changes” at Transportation and Interior Department sites.

The changes to pages at the EPA climate change site clearly go well beyond those at other federal agency websites, at least so far. What’s not entirely clear is just how much it matters, from a strict perspective, that EPA’s site – albeit once one of the federal government’s key climate change websites – has been shuttered. There’s no one-stop alternative site filling the gap left as a result of the agency’s decision to stifle its climate change site. But there’s also been no discernible public outcry over the action that anyone can point to, notwithstanding concerns expressed by some environmental activists. And the “snapshot” website left by the Obama administration, whatever one thinks of it, remains available both through the current EPA website and elsewhere.

In addition, other federal agency websites continue to provide valuable and – unlike at EPA – updated information and materials. In addition, scores of other websites, from universities, NGOs, states, respected think tanks, and international and foreign interests, continue providing key climate information, many of them presenting the science in an apolitical way.

All of which is not to minimize the loss associated with the demise of what generally had been seen as a largely science-based and regularly updated EPA climate change website.  Data show the EPA site, after all, had been among those receiving the most hits on popular browser searches.

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Director of the Climate and Clean Air Program, veteran lawyer and environmental activist David Doniger, says the dilution of the EPA site deprives the public of access to ongoing agency information involving research and would-be regulatory initiatives, climate change causes and impacts, and economic impacts. He says too that the agency’s actions in effect have erased a valuable website “road map” for helping the public find climate information, such as “nuts and bolts” regulatory information on issues ranging from the Clean Power Plan to the Supreme Court’s “endangerment” decision on carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

Doniger sees the Trump/Pruitt actions on the EPA website as part of “the broad effort to hide data, cleanse the site, make it much more difficult for people to find things, to support the ‘party line’ that climate change isn’t real.” He finds irony in the EPA site’s continuing to express concerns over “bed bugs,” apparently seeing that as a more serious issue than climate change.

Under the Trump administration …

The Trump administration had wasted no time putting the newly inaugurated president’s imprimatur on federal websites addressing climate change. It all started with the White House’s own website.

“Within moments of the inauguration,” The New York Times reported the day after the Friday, January 20 inauguration, “nearly all mentions of climate change” on the White House website were gone. The one exception: Mr. Trump’s vow to eliminate the Obama administration’s climate change policies.”

The Times noted that “the purge was not unexpected” and that federal website pages related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues also had gone dark.

It wasn’t so much the speed with which the changes were accomplished, as other incoming administrations also have moved quickly. Rather, it was the scope of the deletions as they applied to climate science. They “immediately placed into sharp relief some of the starkest differences between the old president and the new,” the Times’s Coral Davenport wrote in that article. The changes didn’t sit well with climate activists nor with veteran climate scientists who saw the action as a sign of worse things still to come.

An EPA farewell to concerns over carbon dioxide?

Pundits not averse to clichés might say that the remake of the White House’s own site was just the first climate website shoe to drop. It was just two weeks later, on Friday, February 3, that Climate Central’s Brian Kahn reported that the EPA website had begun to undergo what he characterized as a transformation:

A mention of carbon pollution as a cause of climate change has also been removed and adaptation has been emphasized, indicating an attempt to separate the cause of climate change from the response.

“Climate change is being disassociated from carbon pollution,” Kahn’s article reported (bold face emphasis in original), a change clearly running counter to a vast body of scientific research.

But the next big “shoe” at that point was still 12 weeks off.

It was at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 28 that the axe fell on EPA’s climate website.

With newly confirmed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt then about 10 weeks past his 52-46 Senate confirmation vote, the agency put out its “update” to “reflect the approach of new leadership,” the agency’s press release advised.

CNN the next day reported that “most climate change information” had been deleted, and the cable station also noted the “snapshot” of the Obama administration climate website as of January 19. The City of Chicago on its own by then had posted the Obama EPA climate change site, as it existed on that date.

What’s unclear at this point is just how much it all matters – the dissolution of the more substantive EPA website – to climate watchers. Requests for data and analytics on past usage of the site – for instance allowing comparisons of March or May 2017 traffic to the EPA site with those same months two or three years earlier – have so far gone unanswered. So too have requests for information concerning the broad profile of EPA climate website most frequent visitors: Are they scholars, climate scientists, policy makers and regulators, NGO or regulated industry representatives, the public more generally? And what level of EPA staff resources, or of clients’ work assignments, are now being dedicated to posting the promised “updates” to the site? What is their deadline for at least beginning to re-post new materials?

Perhaps most importantly what are the new most valuable alternative websites for those however-many who deeply miss having access to the pre-Trump website, with regular updates? (Will all those in that category raise your hands, carry a poster, e-mail your concerns, etc.? How many of you are there actually?)

In considering these and other related issues relative to the EPA and other federal climate change websites, still-serving career civil servants caution that not every website addition, deletion, or edit be seen as being purely politically motivated: some of those changes, they say, were in the works before Trump took office. At some agencies, beyond those changes at EPA’s site, edits and additions and even tweaks may simply reflect ongoing and entirely appropriate and necessary revisions.

The NGO, private sector response

Even before Donald Trump was inaugurated, some climate scientists and NGO interests had feverishly begun efforts to preserve sensitive federal website data from what they feared might be political shenanigans.

Among those taking such steps on climate change materials was, and is, the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (ed-gee), with its attention focused in particular on the EPA, NASA, and NOAA sites. Forerunners to the group have been involved with rescuing and preserving online data for years, working with archivists and data scientists to help ensure public access to federal data sites, says Justin Schell an EDGI archivist with the Shapiro Design Lab at the library of the University of Michigan.

Participants in the data recovery efforts say their pace picked up substantially with the results of the December 8 election of Trump. They say volunteers, including those lacking prior data archiving experience, became involved in Data Rescue events December and January in the U.S. and also in Canada.

According to EDGI developer, designer, and organizer Brendan O’Brien, what they were calling the “End of Term Harvest,” the third of its kind since 2008, initially involved teams of disparate volunteers working independently to salvage whatever climate data they could.

“We made a scaffold or framework so that people would be approaching downloading the data in the same way, but spread across all of these volunteer events,” says Dawn Walker, a leader of the EDGI archiving working group.

Between the fall of 2016 and spring of 2017, the group amassed more than 200 terabytes of government website data, for preservation in the Internet Archive. Now past their initial push, the work continues for sites deemed most valuable and vulnerable. “We’re only trying to download part of the internet,” Schell jokes.

Beyond simply preserving the online data, participants say it is important also to expand public awareness of the importance of that data and of using it effectively.

“Data dies in obscurity,” says O’Brien. “If we don’t highlight to people the importance” of the research and resulting data, “it’s much easier to make the case for, ‘Well, we shouldn’t fund this.’”

O’Brien expresses optimism about the data recovery efforts. “No, we do not have the resources to replace the United States Government,” he allows. “But, yes, we do have a lot of methods to document how things were done … and we could hopefully be in the position to at least see what we’re missing.

“This data, being public data, it belongs to everybody and everyone has some level of investment in this, even though they may not think it directly affects them,” says Schell. “And sometimes people’s lives are at stake.”

So, where should people look for online climate change information in the absence of a current and in-depth EPA site? There’s of course no simple or single go-to site in that case, though the NOAA sites for the time being at least might be the best option among the federal sites.

Any single list of strong climate-related websites of course runs the risk of inevitably being incomplete. Our listing available here is admittedly no exception on that score, and it will need to be continuously updated and expanded independent of what happens over the next several years with the EPA site. We welcome readers’ cooperation in that effort, so send website suggestions to editor@yaleclimateconnections.org.

Editor’s Note: Regular contributor Samantha Harrington provided extensive research and reporting assistance for this article.

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...