By Eric Nost, Gretchen Gehrke, and the EDGI Website Monitoring Team
(Lead image: Screenshot of comparisons of the EPA’s climate change website redirect page on October 17, 2018 and on October 18, 2018.)
We are now nearly two years into the Trump administration, but we have not seen the kind of wholesale removal of scientific data that many of us once feared. Instead, we have witnessed disinvestment in those data infrastructures and significant changes in how issues are discussed and how web resources are accessed. This can perhaps best be seen in how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has altered its climate change pages.
After nearly 18 months with the EPA’s climate change website “being updated” behind closed doors, two weeks ago, the agency apparently decided to change course. Its “redirect page” – where links to epa.gov/climatechange/*** pages are currently pointed – no longer acknowledges the website that used to house substantial portions of EPA’s most significant public information regarding climate change and its causes and impacts. The webpage modification came just ten days after a landmark study from the IPCC reported that significant impacts could occur sooner than expected, even under the current though tenuous 2°C goal enshrined in the Paris Agreement. It is another example of the current administration: 1) ignoring the pressing need for climate action; 2) dismissing climate science; 3) obfuscating the climate issue by hindering public access to public resources.
What happened? On April 28th, 2017 – on the eve of the People’s Climate March – EPA removed an entire series of pages under its climate change domain, epa.gov/climatechange, including pages:
- Outlining the basic scientific facts behind climate change and its predicted impacts
- Educating kids about climate change
- Informing individuals about what they can do to mitigate and adapt at home
- Describing the agency’s climate-related rules, like the legal basis for its finding that greenhouse gases threaten public health and its determination of the social cost of carbon
- (a more complete list is available here)
At the time, EPA contextualized its removal of the climate change domain in the “redirect page” to which all of these URLs were forwarded. The redirect page was similar to a 404 error page, the kind you come across when a website is not up or you typed the wrong address; instead of getting epa.gov/climatechange or epa.gov/climatechange/kids/index.html, web surfers got https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/signpost/cc.html. This page in turn pointed users to a press release explaining that the Pruitt EPA would be updating the climate change content to reflect the Trump administration’s priorities. The redirect page also linked to a snapshot of epa.gov/climatechange taken on January 19, 2017, the day before Trump took office.
A year and a half flew by and the EPA was still “updating” its climate content. Sometime around October 17, 2018, those updates ended. But rather than restoring the original material, perhaps with some discussion of how the Trump administration was prepared to deal with climate change, the Wheeler EPA has simply – and unhelpfully – said, “We want to help you find what you’re looking for.” EPA is (presumably) no longer updating this set of climate change pages. The agency, in this update, has also removed the direct link to the Obama-era snapshot of the main climate change page, and removed a link to another EPA web archive.
These changes are significant because they further reduce users’ awareness of and access to climate information via the EPA. Currently, if a user typed “epa.gov/climatechange” or clicked on an existing climate change domain link anywhere on the web, they would have no reason to believe the EPA has anything to say – or has ever said anything – about climate change. The current redirect makes no mention that anything about climate change was ever there. It’s like a Jedi mind trick – “this is not the climate information you’re looking for.” Users would not be led to a snapshot or archive where they could at least understand what previous administrations had presented to the public regarding climate change. In other words, the “censure” is even more complete (see our EDGI report, Changing the Digital Climate: How Climate Change Web Content is Being Censored Under the Trump Administration). In this update, EPA continues to shift the climate awareness baseline; it creates a new normal where EPA doesn’t acknowledge the existence of the vast knowledge base it had developed for taxpayers over many years. In this new normal, EPA can’t help you learn about climate change; apparently that “hoax” is not something our premier environmental agency should spend time researching or regulating.
So what would a user potentially do? Search the EPA website, for sure. But today, while searches on epa.gov for “climate change” return information related to climate change, they are not in an orderly pattern of increasing specificity or relevance. Rather, the results are scattershot topics and types of media in no recognizable order. A user might imagine the EPA has an archive and search within that, but since EPA removed the link to the archive on the redirect page, users might not be aware of its existence. A user might think to search the January 19, 2017 (pre-inauguration) snapshot of the EPA page. A link to this exists on the redirect page, though it no longer directly points to the snapshot of the climate change main page , just the snapshot of the EPA home page. Luckily, if you search in the main January 19, 2017 snapshot homepage for “climate change” the top two hits are both the climate change website main page (though after that, it is again somewhat scattershot). In other words, a user would have to know exactly what they were looking for and be adept at navigating the EPA’s website, jumping through hoops in order to find it.
Perhaps most strikingly, it is on the heels of a landmark report from climate scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that this most recent set of EPA’s removals comes. To help offset the EPA’s constantly shifting baseline on climate change information, we at EDGI are working to document all the changes the agency – and other federal environmental bodies – have made over the past two years. Check out the timeline below detailing important actions related to the U.S. federal government’s approach to climate change, and note that all events after April 28, 2017 occur with the public’s access to relevant information about climate change science, regulations, and impacts severely reduced due to the EPA’s removal of its climate change website.
Timeline of events:
- January 20, 2017: Donald Trump is sworn-in.
- February 17, 2017: Scott Pruitt is confirmed administrator of the U.S. EPA.
- March 28, 2017: President Trump signs the Executive Order on Energy Independence (E.O. 13783), requesting a review of the Clean Power Plan.
- April 28, 2017: EPA removes its main climate change website, directing viewers to a page stating the EPA is updating the website to “reflect EPA’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt.”
- April 29, 2017: More than 200,000 people march in Washington DC, and tens of thousands more march at 300+ events around the world, for the People’s Climate March.
- June 1, 2017: President Trump announces he intends to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord.
- October 16, 2017: EPA publishes its proposal in the Federal Register to formally repeal the Clean Power Plan.
- December 28, 2017: EPA publishes an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) to solicit input about the respective roles of states and the federal government for regulating greenhouse gas emissions from existing electric utility generating units (aka power plants).
- February 26, 2018: Public comment period for the ANPRM closes.
- April 26, 2018: The second public comment period regarding the proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan closes. See EDGI’s comment here.
- August 31, 2018: EPA publishes proposed replacement of the Clean Power Plan
- September 21-22, 2018: EPA removes the link to its web archive and technical assistance from the redirect splash page for all www.epa.gov/climatechange/*** inquiries.
- October 8, 2018: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases a report demonstrating the ecological and infrastructural importance of limiting mean global temperature rise to 1.5°C instead of 2.0°C, and the “rapid and far-reaching” efforts that are necessary to stave off further global mean temperature increases by reducing human-caused carbon dioxide emissions by 45% by 2030 and to net-zero by 2050.
- October 16-18, 2018: EPA apparently discontinues updates to its climate change websites, replaces the climate change website redirect page (that had implied a future update) with a generic error message, and removes the direct link to the January 19th 2017 snapshot of epa.gov/climatechange.
- October 30, 2018: Public comment period for the proposed replacement of the CPP closes.
Stay tuned for an upcoming EDGI report synthesizing changes in the way climate, conservation, and other issues have been presented across the entire .gov domain over the last two years.
EDGI’s website monitoring work would not be possible without the web archival infrastructure developed by the Wayback Machine project.