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Science is in ‘crisis’ under Trump, new reports show

Acceptance of the root cause of climate change — human beings — is growing among the American public. But among policymakers, acceptance is on the decline.

That’s the dismal conclusion of a new peer-reviewed study in Environmental Research Communications published on Thursday. Between 2010 and 2017, Washington policymakers became less supportive of the science behind climate change. What’s more, Washington elites have formed ideological echo chambers — metaphorical hidey-holes for people who have the same views on stuff — and become increasingly polarized.

The researchers who wrote the study surveyed dozens of Washington elites, not just in the government but at think tanks, environmental groups, and other policy-related institutions, in 2010, 2016, and again in 2017. The researchers asked about the respondents’ attitudes on climate change and also where they go for “expert scientific information about climate change.”

In 2010, “the science of climate change was considered settled among policy actors,” the researchers found. But “respondents changed their views to be less supportive of the science that climate change is anthropogenic” between 2010 to 2017. And in 2017 — after President Trump had taken office — the experts formed multiple echo chambers according to whether they agreed that climate change is caused by humans.

Think that’s bad? There’s more.

Another alarming study out Thursday from the Brennan Center for Justice says federal science has reached a “crisis point.” Government science and research are becoming increasingly politicized, and the process that ensures that federal positions are occupied by qualified people is crumbling. The report looks at recent and historical examples of the politicization of government research. The task force members, which include former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, U.S. attorney Preet Bharara, and former U.S. defense secretary Chuck Hagle, make a number of proposals that could counteract the trend.

Here are a few examples from the Brennan Center report that show how the government has led by example when it comes to politicizing climate research:

The EPA approved new regulations that stop experts from serving on congressional science boards and stocked those boards with industry researchers.
The Department of the Interior reassigned its head climate scientist after he raised the alarm about the effects of climate change.
When Trump made a false statement about Hurricane Dorian reaching Alabama, his Chief of Staff threatened to fire officials at the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration in order to pressure them into releasing a statement that supported Trump’s false assertion.

The study warns that, if Trump’s efforts continue unchecked, it could create a “vicious cycle” and encourage future administrations to take similar steps to undermine science and research in the government. That’s particularly disturbing considering that government science and research has delivered smash hits like, oh, I don’t know, putting a man on the moon, lifesaving medicines, the internet, and more.

It’s just a coincidence that these two studies came out on the same day, but taken together they paint a bleak picture of the state of climate science under President Trump. The Trump administration has made efforts “to undermine the value of objective facts themselves,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice. And the Environmental Research Communications seems to suggest that those efforts have worked: The objective fact that humans are the main driver behind climate change no longer holds as much sway among policy elites. Will the Trump era deal a fatal blow to objective truth? Only time will tell.

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Science is in ‘crisis’ under Trump, new reports show

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Julián Castro’s Trump-defying plan to save endangered species

Hold your horses, because presidential candidate Julián Castro just came out with an animal welfare plan on Tuesday. The former housing secretary’s proposal may be the first policy proposed by a presidential candidate to highlight the connection between animals, climate change, and extinction (if only because we just learned how bad the extinction situation is about to get). And it arrived on the heels of the Trump administration’s attempt to weaken the Endangered Species Act.

As the effects of the climate crisis — more severe wildfires, floods, and hurricanes — have become clearer, politicians on the left have generally stopped talking about animals under threat and started talking about people at risk. Research indicates that that’s a good thing: Earlier this year, the author of a Yale University study on effective climate change imagery told Grist that the picture of a starving polar bear is pretty much tapped out. After all, most Americans have never even seen a polar bear up close.

But it’s not just charismatic megafauna under threat. A United Nations assessment this spring found that climate change could wipe out 1 million species if left unchecked. Evolution, you see, is hardly a fair match for our fast-warming planet. A new study out on Tuesday from Cornell University shows the climate is changing more speedily than animals can adapt to it. By studying 10,000 climate change papers, a team of international scientists found that normal functions like hibernation, reproduction, and migration are under threat due to shifting seasons and warming temperatures.

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“The climate crisis is accelerating an unprecedented decline in biodiversity, threatening not only the future of animals but human life,” Castro writes in a Medium post detailing his new proposal. “Public policy must also confront the consequences of the climate crisis, including the threat of animal extinctions.”

He notes that much progress has been made on the animal welfare front in recent years: California recently established new standards for farming chickens, pigs, and cows. Delaware became the first “no-kill” state this month, meaning that its shelters save at least 90 percent of the cats and dogs that enter their doors (San Antonio, Castro’s hometown, achieved no-kill status a few years ago). But climate change, he posits, threatens to undermine that progress.

In order to make public policy match the scale of the crisis, Castro suggests establishing a $2 billion National Wildlife Recovery Fund aimed at protecting animals from imminent extinction. He also wants to preserve 30 percent of America’s lands and oceans, a first step toward an ambitious 50 percent goal by 2050. How does he aim to accomplish this? The proposal doesn’t say. But Castro does write that he’d appoint a conservation scientist to head up the Department of the Interior to clean up “Trump’s environmental disaster.” He would also double the Multinational Species Conservation Fund — an act approved by Congress that gives grants to projects that benefit elephants, great apes, rhinos, and sea turtles around the world.

One of the Cornell study’s coauthors, André Dhondt at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said Castro’s plan seemed like a good idea. Creating a fund to address the crisis, as Castro proposed, “would help everybody,” he said — people and animals included.

Castro’s plan could be interpreted as a return to old school conservation — using wildlife to hook mainstream audiences, or in this case, voters. But it could also be understood as a foray into new territory. By marrying the climate crisis to the extinction crisis, Castro is paving the way for a more enlightened conversation about conservation among the 2020 Democratic hopefuls, two of whom happen to already be vegan (Senator Cory Booker and Representative Tulsi Gabbard). And not a moment too soon.

“Animals have been going extinct forever,” Dhondt said. “The problem is now its happening faster, or will happen faster, than ever before.”

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Julián Castro’s Trump-defying plan to save endangered species

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Oil and gas leasing rejected in Wyoming because, well, climate change

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A federal judge has blocked drilling on roughly 300,000 acres of public land in Wyoming because the Department of Interior failed to take climate change into account when auctioning off the land for oil and gas leasing.

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras ruled that officials from the Interior’s Bureau of Land and Management (BLM) should have considered climate change risks such as greenhouse gas emissions linked to the drilling before making the decision.

“By asserting that these crucial environmental analyses are overly speculative at the leasing stage and more appropriate for later, site-specific assessments, BLM risks relegating the analyses to the ‘tyranny of small decisions,’” Contreras wrote in his memorandum opinion.

In other words: Putting off decisions about climate impacts is no longer an option.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, federal agencies must identify and understand the environmental effects of proposed actions, and inform the public of those effects so that its opinion could be involved in the decision-making process.

Failing to consider both environmental degradation and climate change in government policy has been a trend since the first day of the Trump administration. In just the past two years, we’ve seen shortsighted plans to boost the coal industry, withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, and attempts to roll back a slew of federal regulations on extraction of coal, oil and gas, and most recently mercury.

Just Wednesday morning, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler told CBS This Morning that climate change’s effects were decades away, despite the fact that numerous scientific reports — including from his own government — contradict that assertion.

“Climate change is an important issue that we have to be addressing, and we are — but most of the threats from climate change are 50 to 75 years out,” Wheeler said. In fact, the impacts of climate change have been much more immediately evident in air quality in Texas, record-breaking flooding in Nebraska, and out-of-season wildfires in Oregon.

The judge’s decision is overdue pushback on the Trump administration’s policy of ignoring the climate impacts of its agenda. Now, BLM has to redo the environmental assessment with a more realistic view of our climate situation. Until then, Contreras will continue to block any leases.

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Oil and gas leasing rejected in Wyoming because, well, climate change

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Shell to Trump administration: Regulate us already

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When the EPA and the Department of Interior announced plans to scrap Obama-era regulations to curb methane leaks last year, they were transparent about their rationale — they wanted to help the oil and gas industry. The EPA estimated that its revised regulation for new wells would save companies $380 million every year. The Department of Interior touted that its updated rule would “reduce unnecessary burdens on the private sector.”

Now at least one member of the Big Oil club is balking at the Trump administration’s efforts.

At a conference in Houston earlier this week, Gretchen Watkins, president of Shell’s U.S. division, told Reuters that methane leaks are “a big part of the climate problem” and that she wants the EPA to establish more aggressive regulations that plug leaks. Methane, the primary component in natural gas, packs more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide. (And leaks mean Shell “has less product to sell,” Watkins wrote in a LinkedIn post).

“We don’t usually tell governments how to do their job,” Watkins reportedly said, “but we’re ready to break with that and say, ‘Actually, we want to tell you how to do your job.’”

Watkins’ comments reflect shifting attitudes in the oil and gas industry. Shell, for instance, has fracking and refining operations in more than 70 countries. But Shell wants to invest up to $2 billion in “New Energies”, and it announced plans to become the world’s biggest power company by 2030 as part of a move, away from its core oil and gas business. An executive at ExxonMobil also said this week that methane regulation has “an important role to play” in “helping industry as a whole rise to the challenge” of producing energy while minimizing the effect on the planet.

“The big oil and gas companies see the writing on the wall in terms of climate change,” said Lauren Pagel, interim executive director at the environmental nonprofit Earthworks. “They spent so many years denying climate change is happening, denying that they caused climate change, they spent a lot of years in denial, and this is their new tactic — that they can be part of the solution.”

The two regulations in the Trump administration’s crosshairs are aimed at curbing methane leaks from wells on public lands and new oil and gas sites on private land. The Department of Interior published the final rule rescinding methane leaks on public lands in September, and the EPA is in the process of rolling back regulations for new drilling.

Methane leaks from well sites and pipelines undermine the industry’s argument that natural gas can help the country shift to a cleaner economy. A recent study estimated that 13 million metric tons of natural gas — enough to fuel 10 million homes — is lost through leaks each year. That’s roughly 2 percent of all natural gas produced in the country.

Leaking natural gas also poses numerous health risks. It contains benzene and a slew of other hazardous pollutants and volatile organic compounds, which have been linked to increased cancer risk and respiratory illnesses. An Earthworks report found that some 750,000 asthma attacks in children are attributable to smog from oil and gas pollution nationally. It estimated that 12.6 million people live within a half mile of an oil and gas facility.

Pagel said that as long as oil and gas companies are in business, strict regulations, such as those to decrease methane emissions, are required to protect public health and the environment.

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Shell to Trump administration: Regulate us already

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Scientist who resisted censorship of climate report lost her job

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This story was originally published by Reveal and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

For several years, climate change scientist Maria Caffrey led a trailblazing study outlining the risks of rising seas at national parks. After Friday, she’ll be out of a job.

Caffrey, who worked under a contract with the National Park Service, resisted efforts by federal officials to remove all references to human causes of climate change in her scientific report. After Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting reported the attempts at censorship, Democratic members of Congress called for an investigation, and last May, the park service released the report with all the references reinstated.

Caffrey’s contract expires on Friday. Park service officials told her last year that they would hire her for a new project. But they notified her today that no funding is available for the work.

Caffrey said she asked her supervisor at the park service, “Is this because of the climate change stuff?” She said he told her, “I don’t want to answer that.” Park service officials did not respond to questions from Reveal about why Caffrey wasn’t rehired. But spokesperson Jeremy Barnum said it was not because she spoke out against the editing of the climate report.

Caffrey’s career boom and bust exemplifies the difficult situation many scientists face as President Donald Trump’s administration tries to suppress research on topics that he doesn’t consider a priority. Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law has reported 194 examples of the federal government censoring, hindering or sidelining climate change science since Trump was elected.

All federal scientists are vulnerable, but scientists like Caffrey who work under federal contracts face particular risk because they can be fired easily and their funding can be pulled, said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which represents federal and state scientists in complaints against agencies.

In a January episode of Reveal, Caffrey spoke about the pressure she experienced during the editing of the parks report. She said supervisors at the park service yelled at her and threatened to kill the report or remove her name if she would not agree to the changes. Some told her they could lose their jobs or be transferred if she didn’t capitulate.

“It’s different kinds of bullying and pressure from different people,” Caffrey said. “If one person says one thing and then another person says another thing, after awhile it really starts to build up and it becomes an absolute mountain.”

The report projects the effects of sea level rise at 118 coastal parks in 2030, 2050 and 2100. It includes four scenarios of global greenhouse gases — which come mostly from the burning of fossil fuels — based on whether and how much people reduce greenhouse gases.

The research started under President Barack Obama’s administration, but then was held up for more than a year after Trump took office.

Reveal obtained 18 drafts of the report. In one draft, a park service official crossed out five uses of the word “anthropogenic,” the term for people’s impact on nature, along with three references to “human activities” causing climate change. Trump questions that humans are causing climate change, but climate scientists around the globe have concluded that greenhouse gases from human activities are causing the planet to warm.

As part of her research, Caffrey developed an idea for an interactive website to enable the public and park staff to visualize the threat rising seas pose to individual parks. She led the website project, but was removed from it in May, before it was completed and published in December.

“Essentially, I feel I’ve been shut out from my project. It certainly feels like there could be some retribution playing a role in this,” Caffrey said at the time.

Last spring, Caffrey accepted a temporary contract at the park service that was unrelated to climate change. She was paid $25,000 a year, about a third of the salary that she had earned for several years. Her supervisors at the park service’s water resources division tried to secure funding for a better position, paying $76,000 a year, to assess wetlands at national parks, according to Caffrey and park service emails. But they emailed her on Thursday that the funding isn’t available.

After the report was published, the Interior Department’s Inspector General and the park service’s scientific integrity officer closed their investigations into whether the agency violated its scientific integrity policies.

Congressional Democrats requested a broader investigation. Nancy DiPaolo, spokesperson for Interior’s Office of Inspector General, told Reveal that it has launched no new investigation.

Ruch said federal agencies’ scientific integrity policies have little teeth, and, while scientists’ careers often suffer when they stand up for research that doesn’t fit agencies’ priorities, the career staff that sideline it often thrive.

Caffrey, 37, doesn’t regret her decision to stand up for her science.

“I wouldn’t do anything different, but Jesus, this is stressful,” she said. She’s pulling her toddler out of day care and has set a goal of applying for a new job every day.

Caffrey’s career may have taken a hit, but her science is publicly available to show how much climate change threatens parks with permanent flooding and storm damage, and how reducing greenhouse gas emissions could reduce the damage.

“Maria is a smart, dedicated, and accomplished scientist. If these were normal times, she would continue to make valuable contributions within the park service and for the future of our globe,” said William Manley, a University of Colorado research scientist who worked with Caffrey on her sea level research for the park service. “We should all be grateful for her efforts.”

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Scientist who resisted censorship of climate report lost her job

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Trump’s swap of ‘irreplaceable’ wilderness allows millions of dollars in seafood transport

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This story was originally published by Reveal and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Cold Bay, Alaska — At the spot where a rugged chain of islands breaks away from the Alaska Peninsula, a secluded national refuge protects millions of seabirds, grizzly bears, and caribou.

Framed by snow-capped mountains and smoky volcanoes, the refuge holds an irreplaceable underwater grass forest, where the world’s population of a tuxedo-colored sea goose — 150,000 of them — fattens up before a nonstop 60-hour migration to Mexico.

For six decades, the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, tucked along the coast of the Bering Sea, has been protected as one of the wildest nature spots on Earth, remote enough to escape development.

But that isolation has been shattered. Seven noisy helicopters swooped down 80 times over two days in July to land on the narrow isthmus where animals nest, feed, and migrate.

Then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, prodded by President Donald Trump, ordered the surprise helicopter survey to prepare to bulldoze a 12-mile road through the refuge’s federally protected wilderness.

Almost a year ago, on a day that the federal government was briefly shut down, Zinke quietly signed a land swap, evading Congress, which has wrestled with the issue for decades. The Interior Department is trading the swath of Izembek’s wilderness to Aleut Natives so their cannery town of King Cove can build the final 12 miles of a 37-mile gravel road to the Cold Bay Airport. In exchange, the federal government gets an equal amount of Aleut land.

In crafting the deal, Zinke rejected the warnings of his department’s scientists. After a four-year study, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the refuge, concluded that allowing a road through the refuge would “lead to significant degradation of irreplaceable ecological resources.” It also would jeopardize the global survival of a migratory sea goose, called the Pacific black brant, as well as the emperor goose and other waterfowl, the agency said.

Trump and Zinke have worked behind the scenes to deliver the road to the rural Aleut government of King Cove, which has spent almost 50 years lobbying Congress and the Interior Department. The Aleut say the road is essential to transport patients with medical emergencies to the Cold Bay Airport, where they could then fly to an Anchorage hospital.

Zinke, who left office last week amid multiple ethics investigations, billed his action as allowing a “lifesaving road” for the roughly 1,000 residents of King Cove.

But a close examination of the agreement and the history of the road deal suggests that it is more about selling seafood than saving lives.

The black-and-white line shows the proposed route for the road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. It would run through habitat for brown bears, caribou, and dozens of bird species.

A document dating back two decades shows that hauling fish, not patients, was the Aleuts’ original motive for building a road through the national refuge. When that strategy failed, they and Alaska Republican leaders switched to focus on medical necessity.

Now the new land swap deal includes a little-known provision forged by the Interior Department that would allow King Cove fishermen to transport tens of millions of dollars of salmon, crab, cod, and other seafood on their way to lucrative Asian markets.

The economy of King Cove is almost totally dependent on commercial fishing. It’s home to the Peter Pan Seafoods cannery, owned by the world’s largest fish processor, Maruha Nichiro Corp. of Japan.

Under the agreement signed by Zinke, the road will be “generally for noncommercial purposes.” But the deal also contains this provision: “The commercial transport of fish and seafood products, except by an individual or a small business, on any portion of the Road shall be prohibited.”

The term “small business” can leave the wrong impression, though. A fishing business is defined as small when it has annual revenue no higher than $20.5 million for finfish, $5.5 million for shellfish or $7.5 million for other marine fish, according to federal codes.

The wording would prevent giant Peter Pan Seafoods, which reports about $225 million in annual sales, from driving fresh seafood to the airport to fly it to Asia and elsewhere. But King Cove’s commercial fishermen — including all of its Aleut leaders — would qualify under those income restrictions to use the road for transporting their fish and seafood, according to state data on seafood earnings. And Peter Pan could use it to transport its workers, up to 500 in peak salmon season.

Zinke and Aleut leaders never mentioned or explained the loophole when discussing the land swap in public.

King Cove’s economy is almost totally dependent on commercial fishing. It’s home to the Peter Pan Seafoods cannery, owned by the world’s largest fish processor, Maruha Nichiro Corp. of Japan.Ash Adams / Reveal

The provision “could easily be exploited” for business purposes, said Deborah Williams, a former Interior Department attorney. The agreement between Zinke and King Cove “could — but does not — restrict the use of the road to health and safety issues,” she said.

A road would disturb more than just its immediate path. It would bring traffic and noise and give King Cove subsistence hunters and visitors easy access to animals in dense, undisturbed parts of the wilderness. It also would bisect the land bridge for bear and caribou, which are sensitive to disturbance, according to wildlife biologists.

The deal will decimate the “most important wildlife refuge in all of Alaska,” said Bruce Babbitt, who rejected the road when he served as interior secretary during the Clinton administration. “Izembek is a convergent point where seabirds migrating out of the Arctic feed. If that link is broken, we’re at risk of extinction of all those bird species.”

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Leaders in King Cove say road opponents are valuing birds and other wildlife more than residents’ medical needs. Lillian Sager is a member of the large Aleut commercial fishing family that has tried to get the road built for decades.

“When I’m stuck in King Cove and the wind is blowing 100 miles an hour and I’m sick, you want to get out of that town. All that is more important than if there is garbage on the road or if (hunters) are going to shoot animals,” said Sager, whose brother is King Cove Mayor Henry Mack.

However, a medical expert disputes that a road through the refuge is a safe way to transport patients. And a federal report has outlined other reliable alternatives.

Peter Mjos oversaw medical evacuations in King Cove for 15 years as the Eastern Aleutian Tribes’ medical director. “Should the road happen, I foresee all sorts of calamity,” he says.Ash Adams / Reveal

A doctor who oversaw medical evacuations in King Cove for 15 years said traveling almost 40 miles on the gravel road during 60 mph winds and blinding snowstorms would be “suicidal” for patients and rescue teams.

“Should the road happen, I foresee all sorts of calamity,” said Peter Mjos, who was the Eastern Aleutian Tribes’ medical director until 2002. He retired from practicing medicine in 2015.

The road is the centerpiece of a campaign by Trump and Alaska’s Republican congressional delegation to monetize the state’s public lands by approving private development, oil drilling, mining, and logging.

Also on Trump’s wish list are oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean, logging in the Tongass National Forest, and two mines, one in Bristol Bay and one in mountains west of Fairbanks.

Trump personally promised Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski that he’d get the road built. He scribbled a note to her on a copy of an October 16, 2017, Washington Post story about the land swap.

“Lisa — We will get it done,” Trump wrote in a note Murkowski shared at a press conference.

Eight months later, a month before the helicopter land survey, Trump asked her, “How’s our beautiful little road doing in Alaska?”

Messaging behind the road shifts

King Cove’s harbors are filled with fishing vessels, battered from weeks at sea. Like their ancestors for the past 9,000 years, the Aleut depend on the ocean for their food, livelihood, and transportation. The town is relatively well off — its median income of almost $73,000 is about 23 percent higher than the national median, though one out of every seven residents lives in poverty.

In these remote parts of Alaska, villages are isolated; roads connecting them are rare. Many of King Cove’s Aleut are prosperous commercial fishing families with cars and trucks but few roads on which to drive.

Currently, people who need more care than a medical clinic can provide are evacuated to the Cold Bay Airport by helicopter or small plane, then flown to Anchorage. Such air transport, however, is hampered by high winds. On average, one or two patients are evacuated from King Cove per month.

Mjos, the retired doctor in King Cove, called the road “a folly.” The area has the highest average wind speeds of anywhere in the United States, and in winter, the road could be buried under several feet of snow and ice. He said it would be safer to transport patients across the bay by ferry.

The federal Army Corps of Engineers, which reviewed marine options for transporting patients, determined in 2015 that the cheapest, most effective solution would be to provide a terminal and ferry in King Cove capable of withstanding waves and ice, along with an improved Cold Bay dock, at an estimated capital cost of $30 million.

More than 30 other rural communities in Alaska that do not have roads use ferries, according to the report. In comparison, building the road would cost the state the same, an estimated $30 million, with unknown annual maintenance costs.

Pacific black brant fly over the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and land on its eelgrass beds. The world’s population of the sea goose – 150,000 of them – fattens up here before a nonstop 60-hour migration to Mexico.Ash Adams / Reveal

In 1994, King Cove passed a resolution saying the road would “link together two communities having one of the State’s premier fishing ports/harbors (including North America’s largest salmon cannery) in King Cove with one of the State’s premier airports at Cold Bay.”

There was not a single mention of the road being needed to transport sick or injured people.

About 20 years ago, that messaging changed.

According to a review of their public stances, Alaska politicians and the Aleutians East Borough and city of King Cove dropped references to commercial fishing and Peter Pan Seafoods and switched their focus to health and safety in their efforts to secure the road.

Rarely in recent years have Alaska politicians deviated from their public health message. However, in a 2011 visit, Murkowski, the senator, called the road a “critical ingredient in (our) thriving economic future.” And in May, then-Governor Bill Walker reported to the Trump administration that it is for “enabling access to health services and movement of goods and people.”

Commercial uses “have always been the main reasons for the road,” said Deborah Williams, the former Interior Department attorney who is now a lecturer on public lands at the University of California, Santa Barbara. When she visited King Cove in the mid-1990s, “they told me, ‘We want that road to take fresh fish to Cold Bay to maximize the value of our fish.’”

President Barack Obama’s interior secretary, Sally Jewell, recalled that on a 2013 tour, she repeatedly asked King Cove leaders why they had extended the road right up to the wilderness, leading to nowhere.

“I was finally told, ‘Because we wanted to put pressure on you to build the road through the refuge.’ They actually said that,” she said.

Months later, she rejected the road, citing scientists’ concerns about the impacts on wildlife and concluding that “reasonable and viable transportation alternatives exist.”

The existing 17-mile part of the road leading out of King Cove, Alaska, ends right at the refuge’s wilderness boundary.Ash Adams / Reveal

Documents show that the local leaders pushing for the road own commercial fishing boats. The Mack family has 25 vessels, one of the largest fleets in King Cove. Five of the six members of the City Council own commercial vessels, and the sixth is in the Mack family.

Dean Gould, who is president of King Cove’s Aleut government and whose name is on the land agreement with Zinke, said he owns a 49-foot vessel; his large family owns seven other commercial fishing boats. Gould said he personally would not use the road to transport his salmon and other fish because he now delivers it to Peter Pan by tender, a vessel that services his boat while he’s at sea for weeks at a time.

So why was the small business provision put in the agreement? Gould said it’s because it “leaves a little bit of door open” if someone hauls “a couple cases … or a pound or two” or if anyone wants to commercially transport fish in the future.

Peter Pan Seafoods, which has been publicly silent on the road project, declined to comment. Henry Mack, the mayor, said the land swap is “still in the court, and I won’t be making a comment on anything to do with the road or commercial fishing.”

Little information has been released about the physical challenges, safety issues, and costs that the state and Aleuts would face building and maintaining the road.

“Today, the road costs, maintenance, reliability due to avalanches and storms, and travel time under these conditions are remaining questions that have yet to be given to the public,” said Tony Knowles, Alaska’s governor from 1994 to 2002.

David Bernhardt, who is now Trump’s acting interior secretary, worked with King Cove to arrange the land swap. Shortly after he was confirmed as the department’s second in command in July 2017, Bernhardt held a video meeting with a King Cove group, before the idea became public, according to his calendar record. Bernhardt previously was a lobbyist for the state of Alaska and the oil industry in efforts to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development.

‘Extraordinary wildlife and wilderness’

Overhead on a September day at the Izembek refuge, clouds of Pacific black brant are flying in by the tens of thousands from the Yukon Delta, Canadian Arctic, and eastern Russia. They feed in North America’s largest eelgrass bed, the first to be designated as internationally critical to wildlife.

Nearly the entire emperor goose population and thousands of threatened Steller’s eiders also forage in the eelgrass at Izembek Lagoon. Tributaries run rife with salmon and host grizzly bears. Sea otters in the lagoon pop up with pups on their bellies. On the spits of land that form the estuary’s gate to the sea, hundreds of walruses and harbor seals grunt, roll, and rest.

The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge has North America’s largest eelgrass bed, the first to be designated as internationally critical to wildlife, including the black brant.Ash Adams / Reveal

The existing 17-mile stretch of road ends right at the refuge’s wilderness boundary. It’s from this spot that Zinke’s deal would push another 12 miles through the wilderness to the airport.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that “extraordinary wildlife and wilderness resources … recognized for their national and international significance” would be harmed and that the swapped land “would not compensate for the adverse effects.” The road poses major risks to the survival of brant, tundra swan, emperor goose, bear, caribou, and fish populations and moderate risks to many others, according to the agency’s data.

Brant travel almost 3,000 miles every spring and fall to feed on the refuge’s eelgrass. They are elegant-looking birds, mostly jet black with bands of bright white, somewhat like a tuxedo. Small for a goose, they must stay strong to survive their nonstop transcontinental journey.

Their survival rate already is dropping, largely due to degraded winter habitat in Mexico and California. And global warming is altering their behavior, which makes the refuge’s role in protecting them even more critical because they are spending more time there. About one-third of the 150,000 arriving at Izembek now stay for the winter, increasing every year by about 7 percent, according to research.

“Any threats to the Alaska wintering population have implications for the entire Pacific Flyway population,” the 2009 study says, adding that “this species is experiencing a long-term decline and is of conservation concern across its range.”

Christian Dau, a now-retired Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who was based at the refuge in the 1980s and ’90s and co-wrote the paper, said the road would shatter the remoteness that protects the birds.

“I go back to the farsighted founding fathers of the refuge. They always took the conservative approach,” he said. “When your options are narrow, you should act conservatively. You don’t open the floodgates and allow lots of development. In 20/20 hindsight, you might look back and say we made a mistake.”

Christian Dau, a former federal biologist at the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge who now lives in Wasilla, Alaska, says building a road through the refuge would shatter the remoteness that protects birds and other wildlife.Ash Adams / Reveal

A few hundred miles to the north, in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where the brant breed and nest, Myron P. Naneng Sr. is a Yup’ik lifelong subsistence hunter and former president of a Native association of leaders representing 56 villages.

Beginning 35 years ago, the Yup’ik, Aleut, and other Alaska Natives agreed to protect geese from subsistence hunting so they could recover from low numbers.

“Building a damaging road now, right through some of the most important and sensitive habitat for brant and emperor geese, would be contrary to the years of conservation work,” Naneng said at a hearing before a House subcommittee in 2017.

“All of us contend with weather delays, expensive travel and long trips to the city for medical care. … But it is not realistic to build roads to all of the Alaska communities,” he added.

The land deal with Zinke is not yet final, pending completion of the surveying and an appraisal. Nine environmental groups have filed suit to stop it.

A battle over its legality centers on two laws: the National Environmental Policy Act and Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The laws require a study of projects’ environmental effects and consideration of alternatives.

The environmental groups allege that the swap of refuge land is illegal because it does not have conservation purposes and needs a full review and congressional approval. The Trump administration argues that the Alaska act exempts conveying land to Native communities and that provisions don’t apply because it already traded away the land and, therefore, the road would not be built in officially designated wilderness.

A company town

It’s a Sunday morning in September in King Cove, and the Peter Pan Seafoods plant is operating 24 hours a day. Some 300 workers are packing pollock for fish sticks, Pacific cod and crab for restaurants, and black cod for the most fortunate. In summer sockeye season, the workforce reaches 500 in one of North America’s biggest salmon canneries, which sells salmon under the labels Deming’s or Double “Q.”

Commercial fishing boats — as small as 30 feet and as big as 300 feet — operating in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska are pulling up to the plant with their fresh catch. The fish and shellfish are processed and sent frozen atop 400-foot barges to markets in the Lower 48, Europe, and Asia. The previous day, Peter Pan processed 800,000 pounds of seafood.

Wearing hairnets, smocks, and earplugs, the workers tend to conveyor belts, freezer rooms, and chopping tables. They sleep in dormitories in King Cove. Their long shifts, minimum-wage jobs, and foreign languages separate them from the town’s more comfortable residents in fishing families.

On this Sunday morning, Irene “Koochie” Christiansen, 83, is carefully making her way from her home near the cannery to the Russian Orthodox church, where she gives weekly readings. As she lights candles, her soft prayers in Aleut and English fill the church adorned with icons and bells from another church in the nearby village of Belkofski, where she grew up.

Irene Christiansen, 83, lights candles in the Russian Orthodox church in King Cove, Alaska. A respected elder and one of only two in King Cove who speak Aleut, Christiansen is among the few in the town who speaks against the planned road through the wildlife refuge.Ash Adams / Reveal

In the Aleut way, she invites some visitors back to her place for flaky salmon pie. Christiansen grew up trapping animals in Belkofski, which was settled by Russian fur traders. She worked 16-hour shifts at the cannery and is grateful for the wages that paid for her cozy house and the help she gets from prosperous Aleut fishing families.

Christiansen said that if she had a medical emergency, she wouldn’t want to travel over a winding 37-mile, windswept route. Only a respected elder such as Christiansen, one of only two in King Cove who speak Aleut, would feel confident speaking out against the road so popular with King Cove’s fishing families and political leaders.

One day, her son Cal took her berry-picking on the road that now ends at the refuge’s wilderness boundary. The road makes no sense to her.

“Let’s go home,” she told her son.

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Trump’s swap of ‘irreplaceable’ wilderness allows millions of dollars in seafood transport

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Quiz: Which 2018 climate trend is here to stay?

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You know what’s really hot right now? Yeah, it’s the entire world.

We kid, we kid. OK, the world is still hurtling toward an apocalyptic level of global warming, but we also made some interesting environmental headway this year. Climate was, dare we say it, trendy in 2018. From high-profile politicians championing a “Green New Deal” to dockless e-scooters invading car-loving cities across the country, green awareness seemed to hit the mainstream in a big way.

So are we at a turning point in our climate conversation? Or is burgeoning awareness just another flash-in-the-pan fad we’ll all laugh/cry about in 2019?

We asked a few Gristers to look back at the year that was and come up with a list of all the green trends that may or may not last the test of time. Don’t be shy about adding your own hot take on each issue by answering our — wait for it — POLLS below. Yes, power to the people in 2018, y’all (another trend!).

But first, a reminder of all the crazy shiz that happened in 2018

A LOT of things went down this year (but not the global average temperature … because that went up), and it’s tough to keep them all straight.

Remember Scott Pruitt? How could you not? Yeah, that guy was around for the first half of the year in a BIG way. The first-class upgrades, $43,000 soundproof phone booth, and systematic dismantling of the Environmental Protection Agency he was in charge of kept our newsroom humming (and also in a constant state of low-grade shock.) Pruitt bounced from scandal to scandal to unemployed when he resigned in early July. He was replaced by Pruitt 2.0, the former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler.

Not to be outdone by the EPA, the U.S. Department of the Interior (responsible for the management and conservation of most federal lands) had its own drama. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke quickly took the reins from Pruitt as the most scandal-plagued member of President Donald Trump’s cabinet. Zinke was both the face of Trump’s environmental rollbacks and the subject of several federal inquiries. He seemed to like his ethics the same way Alex Trebek likes his Jeopardy responses: questionable. Was anyone genuinely surprised when he announced his resignation this December? Don’t let those $139,000 office doors hit you on the way out.

2018 also gut-punched us with the scary reality of climate change-related disasters. We saw catastrophic flooding in the Midwest, a hurricane the size of North Carolina hit North Carolina, and another hurricane pummel the Florida panhandle just before the swing state’s midterm election. Not to mention that the world was boiling hot, and that California experienced the Camp Fire, the worst wildfire in state history, killing 86 people.

It was just plain bonkers. We can basically hum 2018’s throwbacks to the tune of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”: MeToo telling truth to power, kids take charge with Zero Hour, campaign ads with climate change, toxic algae getting strange; carbon taxes still a no, Brazil elects Bolsonaro, big reports make things seem scary, Meghan Markle wed Prince Harry; refugees and separation, U.S. is a holdout nation, U.N. probably broke your heart, Trump tweets something not that smart, wildfire, deer ticks, this Swedish teen could have the fix, AG Xavier Becerra, the Colorado’s running dry.

Is it stuck in your head yet?

We’d give this year a solid 6 out of 10 and are setting our sights on the new year, which, with any luck, will be the year climate change gets a massive kick in the pants. But fear not! We’ll be here to help you out and hold your hand through the whole goddamn thing.

Take Our Poll

Are we all caught up now? Oh good. On to the trends vs. turning points of the past year.

The year people actually cared about big climate reports

It was a landmark year for climate reports. In the fall, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s dire special report downward revised its “oh shit” global warming threshold to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), and the Trump administration’s 4th National Climate Assessment predicted catastrophic costs to Americans. Unlike other times that scientists have warned us about climate change, people seemed to actually pay attention.

Newly elected U.S. House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez led a sit-in in Representative Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand Dems prioritize climate action. Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan said the media should cover climate change like it’s “the only story that matters.” CNN released a video debunking climate denier claims (using clips of climate deniers denying on their own network).

I’ve got not-so-great news folks: If you thought the IPCC report was daunting, those same scientists are gearing up for three more reports in 2019: one on oceans, one on ice, and one on land — which pretty much covers all the parts of the world in the process of breaking because of our addiction to fossil fuels.

On the bright side (no, really), that gives plenty of opportunity for activists and political leaders to use those reports’ messages to push for rapid societal changes. But as 2019 brings us one year closer to the future we fear — will people care enough to do something? Or are our attention spans (and our time on Earth) simply limited?

Take Our Poll

Cities were invaded by dockless scooters

2018 was the year everyone ditched their dockless bikes for … dockless scooters. This summer, the Grist video team explained the dockless bikeshare boom and hinted at the scooter-shaped glimmer we noticed in all the bikeshare executives’ eyes. (The scooter section starts at the 3:52 mark.)

Over the past year, Ford bought the now-former bikeshare company Spin, which  completely pivoted to scooters. Uber and Lyft now both own scooter spinoffs. And the scooter company Bird hit 10 million rides in its first year of operation.

Many of these companies think scooters are more appealing than bikes. You don’t get sweaty, you can ride no matter what you’re wearing, and they might be less intimidating for non-cyclists, said Isaac Gross, a general manager at Lime, in an interview this summer. In cities where they’ve deployed scooters, Lime said it’s seeing higher bike ridership too.

Meanwhile, many cities — including Grist’s hometown of Seattle — still aren’t convinced that scooters are a good idea. Some residents in scooter-riddled cities have complained about the vehicles being left all over the place and view the scooters as vehicles of gentrification. In SoCal, people have reportedly tossed scooters into the ocean, burned them, and buried them.

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Vegan options got so big, the meat industry got scared

It feels like 2018 was the year vegan protein substitutes kind of blew up. All of a sudden, plant-based faux-beef patties cropped up on the menus of fast food chains like McDonald’s, White Castle, and TGI Friday’s. Oat milk became the stealth seed juice du jour (mmmm seed juice), and dairy farms across the Northeast anxiously noted the shrinking cow’s-milk market.

Because this is America, some lawsuits were bound to break out. Both Big Meat and Big Milk — a most unholy union in any kosher household — showed up in court this year to challenge the viability of their newly threatening vegan competitors. (Watch our video below to find out more.)

We can’t wait to see what kind of vegan courtroom drama 2019 brings.

Take Our Poll

Everyone decided to sue fossil fuel companies

To reverse climate change, we have tried all kinds of techniques: protests, monkeywrenching, inventing new technologies, recycling, multinational conferences, more multinational conferences, and, of course, lawsuits. And in 2018, Americans took a slightly different approach — targeting the energy industry directly.

Ideally, you’d wanna sue the problem itself, but climate change doesn’t care if some judge holds it in contempt. In the past (and some of the present), suing over climate change has been about suing the government.

This year, however, the states of New York and Rhode Island, eight cities, and six counties sued fossil fuel firms for creating and hiding a problem that’s forcing local and state governments to build seawalls and fight forest fires. Even the crabbing industry joined in, suing more than 30 oil companies for contributing to seafood-depleting ocean temperatures.

But 2018 was also the year judges started throwing out these lawsuits. The reasons one judge gave go back to that initial problem of not being able to sue climate change itself. These lawsuits take aim at companies that have profited from fossil fuels, but they are hardly the only villains.

If everything goes the plaintiffs’ way in the appeals process, these lawsuits could bankrupt some of the biggest corporations in the world, but the history of oil suggests that dozens more would rise to meet the demand from the rest of us climate change profiteers.

Take Our Poll

We started taking the Green New Deal seriously

The hottest deal of 2018 is new and green. Get it? The Green New Deal is a comprehensive economic and environmental plan that would create thousands of jobs in clean energy, a big ol’ 100 percent renewable target, and a greener banking system. The Green New Deal basically gives a giant middle finger to people who say you can’t have both economic growth and environmental regulation, and it’s being championed by the pied piper of climate activists, Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Some advocates of this moon-shot plan say the Green New Deal represents the “civil rights movement” of our generation. Since it started circulating a few months ago, the deal has quickly amassed political fans. So far, 36 members of Congress want the House to create a select committee charged with writing a bill, and activists say more are sure to join when the 116th Congress starts up in January. Watch out, world: 2019 may just be the year of the deal.

Take Our Poll

Teens took charge of the climate movement

If existential crises were ever in vogue, teens have taken the experience to a whole new level. In 2018, teen activists increasingly took the lead on issues like gun violence, sexual harassment, and — you guessed it — climate change. From 15-year-old Swedish badass Greta Thunberg, who just made waves at the U.N. climate talks in Poland, to Zero Hour founder Jamie Margolin, who helped lead a teen march on Washington, D.C., young people are fighting for the future.

It might seem like these kids are too young to be taking over, but admit it: climate change poses a pretty big roadblock to basking in the fun and purity of childhood. It’s gotten to the point where some teen activists are even skipping school to fight the good fight.

Sure, it’s not the first time kids have stepped up on climate change and other big issues, but the stakes are certainly higher than ever. The teens of today also have a unique vantage point: They’ve lived with the reality of climate change and its increasingly obvious effects for their whole lives, and they’re going to shoulder the worst of the consequences.

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Quiz: Which 2018 climate trend is here to stay?

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What the Trump administration got wrong on its own climate report (pretty much everything)

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This story was originally published by the Bulletin and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The federal government’s new National Climate Assessment is the latest scientific report to confirm the devastating effects of climate change: Extreme hot weather is getting more common, wildfires are becoming more devastating, rising sea levels are forcing people from their homes, and so forth. “Climate change is transforming where and how we live and presents growing challenges to human health and quality of life, the economy, and the natural systems that support us,” the report says. And without rapid action to reduce carbon emissions, these problems are going to get worse. A lot worse.

The Trump administration has responded to the climate crisis by rolling back regulations and policies intended to reduce carbon emissions — exactly the opposite of what experts say is required to slow global warming. So it was no surprise when the Trump administration tried to bury the inconvenient report by releasing it on the afternoon of Black Friday. It didn’t work, though.

On Monday, when asked about the report’s conclusion that climate change will wreak havoc on the U.S. economy, President Trump said, “I don’t believe it.” Tuesday, the White House doubled down on its climate denial, with Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders questioning the methodology and conclusions of the climate report and saying it was “not based on facts.” That phrase is a fitting description for the talking points offered up by the White House. With one exception, none of these points is factually accurate:

Climate change won’t affect the economy. The president may not “believe” it, but economists do. The report released a few days ago says that if climate change is left unchecked, “annual losses in some sectors are estimated to grow to hundreds of billions of dollars per year by the end of the century.”

It’s worth noting that the 1,656-page report was issued by Trump’s own government. It is backed by NASA, NOAA, the Pentagon, and 10 other federal scientific agencies. It represents decades of work by more than 300 authors.

Trump is leading on clean air and water. The president and his spokespeople have repeatedly tried to divert attention from climate change by claiming that what really matters is clean air and water. “The president is certainly leading on what matters most in this process, and that’s on having clean air, clean water. In fact, the United States continues to be a leader on that front,” Sanders said at the White House press conference. In case anyone missed it, she said it three times.

First off, the president is not leading on clean air and water. In fact, he has been working steadily to overturn or relax rules and programs designed to protect air and water, everything from the Clean Power Plan to fuel efficiency standards. The only reason America’s air and water are relatively clean today is because of policies and legislation adopted before Trump took office. The level of particulate matter in the air actually increased last year, after a long period of steady decline.

More important, the continued burning of fossil fuels is expected to make both the air and the water more polluted. The National Climate Assessment estimates with “high confidence” that global warming will increase ozone levels across the nation’s central region, and that it will lead to increased smoke from wildfires.

What the Trump administration fails to understand is that climate change is air pollution. Human activities are polluting the air with heat-trapping gases that are raising the planet’s temperature to feverish levels. Reducing climate change is simply a matter of reducing the air pollutants that are causing it.

America’s air is the cleanest ever. In an interview with the Washington Post on Monday, Trump asserted that the nation’s air and water is “right now at a record clean.” Um, no.

The United States has relatively clean air, but not the world’s best. Canada, Australia, and four other countries have cleaner air by at least one metric. And thanks to wildfires exacerbated by climate change, Northern California literally had the world’s worst air quality earlier this month, dirtier even than the air above smoggy mega-cities in China and India.

The new report relies on extreme climate models, not facts. At the press conference, Sanders claimed that the latest climate assessment “is based on the most extreme model scenario, which contradicts long-established trends … It’s not data-driven.”

Not true, say authors of the report. In a Twitter thread, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University said Sanders actually made two false statements, because Hayhoe and other authors of the report “considered many scenarios” including ones in which carbon emissions would be very low, and the observed increase in carbon emissions over the past 10 to 15 years has been consistent with the scenarios modeled in the report.

The report is based on decades of federal data, not just models — data that show carbon dioxide levels and global temperatures rising in tandem. As Axios reported last week, the Earth has been warmer than average for 406 months in a row: “This means that no one under the age of 32 has ever experienced a cooler-than-average month on this planet.” That’s an entire generation.

Climate modeling is difficult and imprecise. As Sanders said at the press conference, “Modeling the climate is an extremely complicated science that is never exact.” OK, score one true statement for Sarah.

What Sanders didn’t say, though, is that computer models have done a good job of predicting what has already happened to the climate, and they are constantly improving. Also, climate models are more likely to underestimate than overestimate the amount of long-term future change.

Obama’s science adviser agrees with Trump. One of Sanders’ talking points seemed to suggest that skepticism about the climate report was bipartisan: “Even Obama’s undersecretary for science didn’t believe the radical conclusions of the report that was released.” Sanders neglected to mention a few key facts about Steven E. Koonin, the former undersecretary who has frequently argued that climate science is not “settled.”

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Koonin is a theoretical physicist, not a climate scientist. During the Obama administration, he served within the Energy Department for only 18 months, with limited budget authority and responsibilities. Sanders could just as easily have called Koonin “the former chief scientist for the multinational oil and gas company BP,” a position he held for five years. Or she could have called Koonin “the former Obama official that Trump’s EPA administrator wanted to use special authority to hire.” Either of those identifications would have made it clear that Koonin has far more in common with Trump than Obama.

The fact that one of Obama’s high-level employees doesn’t agree with the latest climate report is meaningless. But it’s a classic climate-denier strategy: Lean heavily on the few scientists who don’t agree with the mainstream consensus on climate change, and hope that the public will be fooled into thinking that scientists are evenly divided on the issue.

Based on facts. During its live broadcast of the press conference, CNN took the unusual step of displaying a “Facts First” sidebar next to Sanders. As the press secretary criticized the report, CNN posted a graphic with bullet points about the report: “Climate Change report involved 300 scientists, 13 federal agencies; Co-Author: Not paid for report; Open for review & transparency before publishing.”

It almost seemed as though CNN was trying to “inoculate” its viewers against what Sanders might say, a communications strategy that may be more effective than debunking false statements that have already been made. If that’s true, perhaps it would be better for me to focus on what the Trump administration isn’t talking about, than on the climate claptrap that came out of the White House over the past few days.

Here’s what Trump and Sanders are mum on: the other climate report published by the federal government on Black Friday. In that report, the Interior Department and the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the extraction and burning of fossil fuels produced on federal lands, including offshore areas, was responsible for about one-fourth of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 to 2014. The Trump administration wants to lease even more public land to drillers, at bargain-basement prices, which will make global warming worse. That’s not just a bad deal for taxpayers; it’s a bad deal for everyone on Earth.

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What the Trump administration got wrong on its own climate report (pretty much everything)

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National park officials were told climate change was ‘sensitive.’ So they removed it from a key planning report.

This story was originally published by Reveal and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Park officials scrubbed all mentions of climate change from a key planning document for a New England national park after they were warned to avoid “sensitive language that may raise eyebrows” with the Trump administration.

The superintendent of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park in Massachusetts had signed off a year ago on a 50-page document that outlines the park’s importance to American history and its future challenges. But then the National Park Service’s regional office sent an email in January suggesting edits: References to climate change and its increasing role in threats to the famous whaling port, such as flooding, were noted in the draft, then omitted from the final report, signed in June.

The draft and the emails were obtained by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The documents provide a rare peek behind the usually closed curtains of the Trump administration. They illustrate how President Donald Trump’s approach to climate change impacts the way that park managers research and plan for future threats to the nation’s historic and natural treasures.

The editing of the report reflects a pattern of the Trump administration sidelining research and censoring Interior Department documents that contain references to climate science.

The New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, located on the shore of southeast Massachusetts, preserves the nation’s whaling history.New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park

Earlier this year, Reveal exposed an effort by park service managers to remove references to human-induced climate change in a scientific report about sea-level rise and storm surge at 118 national parks. The Guardian recently reported on the Trump administration’s efforts to stall funding for climate change research in the Interior Department by subjecting research projects to unprecedented political review by an appointee who has no scientific qualifications.

In a survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists, government scientists reported being asked to stop working on climate change and connecting their science to industry actions. These are just a few of the examples of science under siege compiled by Columbia University in its “silencing science” tracker.

The email suggesting changes in the New Bedford park report was sent in January by Amanda Jones, a community planner with the park service’s northeast region.

“You’ll see that anything to do with ‘climate change’ has been highlighted in these documents. In a nutshell, we’re being told that we can talk about climate change in terms of facts — if we have data to back our claim, that is OK. We should, however, avoid any speculative language — like what ‘may’ happen in the future,” she wrote to Meghan Kish, the New Bedford park’s superintendent.

Scientists say telling park managers to avoid references to “what may happen in the future” is worrisome.


Steven Beissinger, a professor of conservation biology at University of California, Berkeley who reviewed the emails and edits in the New Bedford report, called it “irresponsible to future generations of Americans” for the park service to direct managers to ignore research on the future risks of rising sea levels, risks to endangered species, worsening wildfires, and other effects.

“We should have confidence in scientists’ projections and prepare for those kinds of scenarios,” Beissinger said. “We can hope they won’t happen, but we surely want to be prepared for them. We have to be looking at the future because places are going to be changing.”

A comparison of the draft and final documents shows all 16 references to “climate change” were removed.

Park service officials involved in editing the New Bedford report did not respond to repeated requests for interviews. But a park service spokesperson said parks are told to “address issues like climate change … using the best available scientific information.”

“Sound management requires that we rely on specific, measurable data when making management and planning decisions,” Jeremy Barnum, chief park service spokesperson, said in an email response to Reveal. “Climate change is one factor that affects park ecosystems, resources, and infrastructure.”

Barnum did not answer questions about the deletions from the New Bedford park report, which is known as a “foundation document.” But he said such documents are reviewed “to ensure that they are consistent with current policy and directives.”

The New Bedford park was created by Congress in 1996 to preserve 13 city blocks of a Massachusetts seaport that was home to the world’s largest whaling fleet in the 19th century. The park tells the broader history of American whaling.

Flooding from rising seas, increased snow melt and stormwater, larger storm surges and extreme heatwaves are among the threats from human-caused climate change to the park’s historic structures. A 1960s hurricane barrier that protects New Bedford is vulnerable to widespread failure in a 100-year storm if sea levels rise by 4 feet. A Category 3 hurricane could breach the barrier at current sea levels.

The original draft obtained by Reveal was dated Sepember 29, 2017, and signed by Kish. The final version, signed by Kish and Gay Vietzke, regional director of the park service’s northeast region, is dated June 2018. It is not yet available online, but the park sent Reveal a printed version of the 50-page booklet.

Among the sections highlighted for review and then deleted were references to climate change in charts outlining threats to New Bedford’s historic structures, port, and natural resources.

This sentence was removed: “Climate change and sea-level rise may increase the frequency of large storms and storm surge, rising groundwater tables, flooding, and extreme heat events, all of which havepotential to threaten structures.” In its place, the final document says: “Large storms and storm surge, rising groundwater tables, flooding, and extreme heat events all of have the potential to threaten structures.”

Also, in a section about research needs, the original draft called for a “climate change vulnerability assessment.” That’s missing from the final version, which instead calls for an “assessment of park resilience to weather extremes.”

In several places, the phrase “changing environmental conditions” is substituted for the deleted term “climate change.”

Also deleted is a mention of how development near the park “could impact character and ambiance of historic district.” Elsewhere, a reference to “gentrification” is replaced with “urban renewal.” Mentions of declining park service funding and the limited control that managers have over privately owned buildings in the park are also removed. The museum in the park, which contains ships, skeletons, and whaling artifacts, is privately owned.

Skeletons of sperm, humpback, right, and blue whales on display.New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park

The January email suggests that the edits are part of a broader review of foundation documents that Vietzke assigned a park service official named Ed Clark to conduct for the northeast region, which includes 83 national parks in 13 states.

“This late review came at Gay’s (Vietzke) request when she began her role as (regional director). Ed Clark was asked to review all foundation documents for sensitive language that may raise eyebrows especially with the current administration,” the email from Jones says. She wrote that the edits are “for your consideration, but not mandatory.”

Jonathan Jarvis, who headed the National Park Service under President Barack Obama, said that the direction to scrub the foundation documents must have originated from Trump administration officials, because he knows regional director Vietzke well.

“She would not be doing this of her own accord. This would have come down from on high, verbally,” he said.

Jarvis said career park service officials told him that their supervisors verbally directed them to make changes in a sea-level rise report so that they did not leave anything in writing.

Scientists say climate change already is affecting parks and that the threats will increase if people continue to release greenhouse gases, which come largely from burning fossil fuels.

Jarvis was director of the agency in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy brought devastation to the northeastern coast, including several national parks. The parks incorporated climate change projections into rebuilding efforts, including moving utilities out of the basements in the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, both of which were flooded by the storm.

“Without considering climate change, we would have put them back in the basement. That’s why it has to be in a planning document,” Jarvis said.

In many national parks, flowers are blooming sooner and birds are nesting earlier, temperatures and seas are rising, and glaciers are disappearing.

Mary Foley retired in 2015 after 24 years as the chief scientist for the park service’s northeast region. She said she was frustrated during the Bush administration because the park service lacked permission and funding to solicit key research about climate change. But she said the Trump administration’s policy of sidelining climate science is much more concerning. Now much of the science has been done, but the unwritten policy seems to be to order park managers to ignore it, she said.

“Managing a park is a difficult and expensive task,” Foley said. “It’s pretty shortsighted to ignore future climate change. If you are going to plan for construction of a visitor center you wouldn’t want to put it where sea-level rise is going to challenge that structure.”

But Foley and other former park service leaders said they hope that park managers will incorporate science into the planning for parks even if they scrub documents to please Trump’s team.

“Current managers are pretty knowledgeable of the implications of climate change. Whether or not that is written into formal documents, I don’t think that they will ignore it,” Foley said.

“The bottom line is, this is just paper,” Jarvis added. “You can’t erase in the superintendents’ minds the role of climate change. They’re going to do the right thing even if it’s not in the policy document.”

Original source:

National park officials were told climate change was ‘sensitive.’ So they removed it from a key planning report.

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Zinke says the Interior isn’t censoring science. The evidence begs to differ.

This story was originally published by Reveal and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

National Park Service officials have deleted every mention of humans’ role in causing climate change in drafts of a long-awaited report on sea-level rise and storm surge, contradicting Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s vow to Congress that his department is not censoring science.

The research for the first time projects the risks from rising seas and flooding at 118 coastal national park sites, including the National Mall, the original Jamestown settlement, and the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Originally drafted in the summer of 2016, yet still not released to the public, the National Park Service report is intended to inform officials and the public about how to protect park resources and visitors from climate change.

Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting obtained and analyzed 18 versions of the scientific report. In changes dated Feb. 6, a park service official crossed out the word “anthropogenic,” the term for people’s impact on nature, in five places. Three references to “human activities” causing climate change also were removed.

The 87-page report, which was written by a University of Colorado Boulder scientist, has been held up for at least 10 months, according to documents obtained by Reveal. The delay has prevented park managers from having access to the best data in situations such as reacting to hurricane forecasts, safeguarding artifacts from floodwaters or deciding where to locate new buildings.

The omissions reflect a broader crackdown on climate science at federal agencies, including removal of references to human impacts, since President Donald Trump took office. Trump previously called climate change a Chinese hoax, took steps to withdraw from an international agreement to cut greenhouse gases and moved toward reversing former President Obama’s policies to regulate power plant emissions.

The word “anthropogenic,” the term for people’s impact on nature, was removed from the executive summary of the sea-level rise report for the National Park Service.

Reveal News

Critics say the National Park Service’s editing of the report reflects unprecedented political interference in government science at the Interior Department, which oversees the park service.

Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist and dean of the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, said the deletions are “shocking from a scientific point of view, but also from a policy point of view.”

“To remove a very critical part of the scientific understanding is nothing short of political censorship and has no place in science,” he said. “Censorship of this kind is something you’d see in Russia or some totalitarian regime. It has no place in America.”

Several scientists said the editing appears to violate a National Park Service policy designed to protect science from political influence.

“It looks like a pretty clear-cut, blatant violation of what we generally would consider to be scientific integrity,” said Jane Lubchenco, who led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under Obama.

National Park Service spokesperson Jeffrey Olson said the agency would not comment on the editing of a report that had not yet been released. He said that it was premature to report on it and that it would be released soon.

A reference to “human activities” causing climate change was deleted from the report.

Reveal News

Zinke testified at a Senate committee hearing last month that the Interior Department has not changed any scientific documents.

“There is no incident, no incident at all that I know that we ever changed a comma on a document itself. Now we may have on a press release,” Zinke told the senators. “And I challenge you, any member, to find a document that we’ve actually changed on a report.”

Zinke’s press secretary said no one at the Interior Department was available to comment about the report.

A hallmark of the Trump administration is equivocation about climate change to downplay the scientific consensus that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels are warming the planet.

Columbia University’s Silencing Science Tracker documents more than 100 instances of government trying to restrict research or public information about climate change. Among them are reports on climate change that have been stripped from government websites. Climate change was removed from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s strategic plan. Environmental Protection Agency employees were issued talking points that promote an inaccurate message about gaps in climate science and downplay the role of human activities in global warming.

The edited national parks report “is probably the biggest scientific integrity violation at the Department of Interior, by far … because this is an actual scientific report,” said Joel Clement, who was the Interior Department’s top climate change official in the Obama administration. He resigned in October after Zinke reassigned him to an oil and gas accounting office and now is a senior fellow for the Union of Concerned Scientists working on scientific integrity issues.

“By taking the words out, they are depowering the (climate change) issue,” Clement said. “It’s a horrible thing for reports to be suppressed and for the words to be changed.”

The report, titled “Sea Level Rise and Storm Surge Projections for the National Park Service,” reveals that national treasures will face severe flooding if global greenhouse gases keep increasing. Some of its projections, according to the drafts, include:

In North Carolina, the Wright Brothers National Memorial has the highest projected increase in sea level among parks nationwide — 2.69 feet by 2100 under a scenario of high growth of greenhouse gases. Along with Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras national seashores, the memorial could face significant permanent flooding. “Future storm surges will be exacerbated by future sea-level rise nationwide; this could be especially dangerous for the Southeast Region where they already experience hurricane-strength storms,” the report says.
In Virginia, three parks — Colonial National Historical Park, home of Historic Jamestowne; Fort Monroe National Monument; and Petersburg National Battlefield — face the biggest potential sea level increases in the park service’s Northeast region — 2.66 feet by 2100.
Parks in the Washington, D.C., region could experience some of the greatest sea level increases — 2.62 feet by 2100. “Storm surge flooding on top of this sea-level rise would have widespread impacts,” the report says.
If a Category 2 hurricane hit Florida’s Everglades National Park, the entire park could be flooded, with most of it under several feet of water.

Reveal obtained almost 2,000 pages of drafts of the report showing tracked changes and dating back to August 2016 — along with dozens of pages of other documents about the report and preparations to release it — in response to a public records request to the state of Colorado.

The lead author, University of Colorado geological sciences research associate Maria Caffrey, worked full-time on the report on contract with the park service from 2013 through 2017.

Caffrey declined to discuss the editing and long delay in releasing her report, instead referring questions to the park service. Asked whether she has been pressured to delete the terms “anthropogenic” and “human activities,” she replied, “I don’t really want to get into that today.”

“I would be very disappointed if there were words being attributed to me that I didn’t write,” she said. “I don’t think politics should come into this in any way.”

Although references to human-induced change were deleted, data and maps showing the severity of impacts on the parks were unchanged.

In drafts dated January 2017 to May 2017, the executive summary starts: “Changing relative sea levels and the potential for increasing storm surges due to anthropogenic climate change present challenges to national park managers.”

But editing dated Feb. 6, 2018, changed that to: “Ongoing changes in relative sea levels and the potential for increasing storm surges present challenges to national park managers.”

In a section about 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, one of the costliest storms to hit the U.S., this sentence was deleted: “This single storm cannot be attributed to anthropogenic climate change, but the storm surge occurred over a sea whose level had risen due to climate change.”

An entire sentence was removed from the report’s section on Hurricane Sandy.

Reveal News

The introduction also was substantially altered in February. These two sentences were deleted: “While sea levels have been gradually rising since the last glacial maximum approximately 21,000 years ago, anthropogenic climate change has significantly increased the rate of global sea-level rise. Human activities continue to release carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, causing the Earth’s atmosphere to warm.”

Other scientists who reviewed the draft reports said the deletions about the cause of climate change were alarming.

“It’s hiding from the public the reality of the causes and the possible options to choose or influence what scenario plays out,” Lubchenco said.

Some of the editing apparently remained in play. Caffrey has pushed back on at least some of the deletions, according to a March draft.

Editing notes in a draft obtained by Reveal indicate that many of the deletions were made by Larry Perez, a career public information officer who coordinates the park service’s climate change response program.

Perez declined to comment on why the changes were made. Watchdog groups say that in some cases, career officials within the administration may be self-censoring to avoid angering Trump appointees. In others cases, they may be responding to verbal orders from superiors who have been told to avoid creating records that eventually could be made public.

The National Park Service’s scientific integrity policy prohibits managers from engaging in “dishonesty, fraud, misrepresentation, coercive manipulation, censorship, or other misconduct that alters the content, veracity, or meaning or that may affect the planning, conduct, reporting, or application of scientific and scholarly activities.” It also requires employees to differentiate between their opinions or assumptions and solid science.

Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, said “the edits are glaringly in violation” of the science cited in the report and “such alterations violate” the policy.

“The individual who edited the document is making a personal opinion/assumption that runs counter to the scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions responsible for sea-level rise are of anthropogenic origin and that the threat to the National Park Service assets arises primarily from human activities,” said McNutt, who led the U.S. Geological Survey, the Interior Department’s main scientific agency, from 2009 to 2013.

Clement, who worked for seven years as a high-ranking director in the Interior Department, said it would be unusual for such editing to occur without an order from a top supervisor.

“I can’t imagine a career man or woman would take those steps without some sort of direction,” he said.

The editing seemed to cross a line that Zinke drew during last month’s hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, pressed Zinke about censoring science. She asked him about department officials deleting this line from a press release about a newly published scientific article: “Global climate change drives sea-level rise, increasing the frequency of coastal flooding.”

In his testimony, Zinke differentiated editing press releases from altering scientific reports. He also rebuffed suggestions that he considers references to climate change unacceptable, saying “man has been an influencer” on the warming climate.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska and the committee’s chairperson, summarized Zinke’s comments: “I think you were pretty clear … that within the department, you’re not altering the reports that are coming out from the agencies.”

Caffrey, the park service report’s lead author, said it’s crucial that the report address the human role in climate change. One of her key findings is that decisions about reducing greenhouse gases will determine how much peril the coastal national parks face from sea-level rise and storm surge.

The report calculates projected sea-level rise in 2030, 2050, and 2100 under four scenarios for global emissions. For instance, projections for the National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington in 2100 range from 1.74 feet to 2.62 feet. The low end envisions a future in which people burn significantly less coal and other fossil fuels, while the upper number reflects increases in use.

“What scenario we choose to follow in the future will have a significant impact on how we protect our resources, like the National Park Service resources,” Caffrey said. “I feel it’s an important part to include in the report because it’s an essential part of those findings.”

In an October 2016 webinar for park staff about her research, Caffrey showed an aerial photo that depicts Washington in 2100 if global emissions rise and a Category 3 hurricane hits the city. The National Mall and Constitution Avenue are flooded. Water surrounds museums.

“We can see the results could potentially be quite catastrophic,” Caffrey said in an interview.

The report is intended to be released with an interactive website that would allow the public and park managers to visualize rising waters in their favorite parks.

“You can zoom in and move around and see the underlying infrastructure and see what’s at risk,” said William Manley, a University of Colorado Boulder research scientist who worked on data, maps, and the online viewer.

“The data and the viewer, if released, would help park decision-makers to see more clearly what decisions they should make to avoid costly mistakes,” he said. In addition, “the maps and information would be helpful to resource managers in preparation for any storms that were forecasted.”

For instance, if the report had been released by late last summer, park managers could have consulted it when hurricanes Irma and Maria, both Category 5 storms, headed toward the U.S. Virgin Islands in September. The storm surge maps for Virgin Islands National Park could have shown managers which areas were likely to flood. The interactive viewer possibly could have helped evacuation planning.

“It’s becoming clearer and clearer to most Americans that weather patterns are changing, climate change is a real phenomenon, and it’s affecting things they care about, people they love, and places that they love,” said Lubchenco, the former NOAA administrator.

“I think what we are seeing is an effort to undermine that realization in a very subtle way. And it’s very dangerous. It’s counter to the best interests of a fully democratic society.”

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Zinke says the Interior isn’t censoring science. The evidence begs to differ.

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