By Paul N. Edwards, University of Michigan
President-elect Trump has called global warming “bullshit” and a “Chinese hoax.” He has promised to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate treaty and to “bring back coal,” the world’s dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fuel. The incoming administration has paraded a roster of climate change deniers for top jobs. On Dec. 13, Trump named former Texas Governor Rick Perry, another climate change denier, to lead the Department of Energy (DoE), an agency Perry said he would eliminate altogether during his 2011 presidential campaign.
Just days earlier, the Trump transition team presented the DoE with a 74-point questionnaire that has raised alarm among employees because the questions appear to target people whose work is related to climate change.
For me, as a historian of science and technology, the questionnaire – bluntly characterized by one DoE official as a “hit list” – is starkly reminiscent of the worst excesses of ideology-driven science, seen everywhere from the U.S. Red Scare of the 1950s to the Soviet and Nazi regimes of the 1930s.
The questionnaire asks for a list of “all DoE employees or contractors” who attended the annual Conferences of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – a binding treaty commitment of the U.S., signed by George H. W. Bush in 1992. Another question seeks the names of all employees involved in meetings of the Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Carbon, responsible for technical guidance quantifying the economic benefits of avoided climate change.
It also targets the scientific staff of DoE’s national laboratories. It requests lists of all professional societies scientists belong to, all their publications, all websites they maintain or contribute to, and “all other positions… paid and unpaid,” which they may hold. These requests, too, are likely aimed at climate scientists, since most of the national labs conduct research related to climate change, including climate modeling, data analysis and data storage.
On Dec. 13, a DoE spokesperson told the Washington Post the agency will not provide individual names to the transition team, saying “We are going to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department.”
Energy’s interest in climate
Why does the Department of Energy conduct research on climate change? A better question might be: How could any Department of Energy fail to address climate change?
Established in the 1940s under the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the US national labs’ original assignment was simple: Design, build and test nuclear weapons and atomic energy. Since nuclear bombs create deadly fallout and reactor accidents can release radiation into the air, weather forecasting and climate knowledge were integral to that mission. Therefore, some labs immediately began building internal expertise in “nuclear meteorology.”
When high-flying supersonic transport aircraft were proposed in the late 1960s, the labs used climate models to analyze how their exhaust gases might affect the stratosphere. In the 1970s, the labs applied weather and climate simulations developed for nuclear weapons work to analyze urban smog and the global effects of volcanic eruptions. Later, the labs investigated whether nuclear war might cause dangerous climatic effects, such as catastrophic ozone depletion or “nuclear winter.”
The newly formed Department of Energy took over the labs in 1977. Its broadened mission included research on all forms of energy production, efficiency, pollution and waste. In the late 1970s, for example, Pacific Northwest Lab sampled aerosol pollution with research aircraft, using instruments of its own design.
By the 1980s, when man-made climate change became a major scientific concern, the labs were ready for the challenge. For example, Oak Ridge National Laboratory has run the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center since 1982, one of many DoE efforts that contribute crucially to human knowledge about global climate change.
An ideologically driven purge?
The Trump questionnaire harks back to the McCarthyist “red scare” of the early 1950s, when congressional committees and the FBI hounded eminent scientists accused of communist leanings.
A principal target of suspicion then was J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who led the Los Alamos atomic bomb project, but later opposed nuclear proliferation. Oppenheimer chaired the General Advisory Committee to the AEC, direct ancestor to the DoE – and saw his security clearance unjustly revoked following humiliating hearings by that same AEC in 1954.
Many other physicists were also “repeatedly subjected to illegal surveillance by the FBI, paraded in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, charged time and again… with being the ‘weakest links’ in national security, and widely considered to be more inherently susceptible to communist propaganda than any other group of scientists or academics,” according to a history by author David Kaiser, on suspicions of atomic scientists in the early days of the Cold War.
Another Red Scare target was John Mauchly, a chief designer of the first American electronic digital computers and a founder of the computer company UNIVAC. Mauchly was investigated by the FBI and denied a security clearance for several years.
A much broader ideology-based attack on learning occurred in 1930s Germany, when the Nazis purged universities of Jewish and left-leaning scholars. Many German Jewish scientists emigrated to the United States. Ironically, the work of those immigrants in this country led to a massive increase in patent filings in their primary fields of science.
The Soviet Union had one of the worst histories of purging scientists whose work was considered ideologically impure. In the 1930s, the agrobiologist Trofim Lysenko rejected Mendelian genetics, including the very existence of genes and DNA. He propounded, instead, the erroneous theory that an organism could pass on to its descendants characteristics acquired during its lifetime. Under this theory, Stalin and other Communist Party leaders believed, people who studiously practiced communist ideology could pass on their “improved” traits to their sons and daughters. They condemned mainstream genetics as metaphysical, reactionary and idealist.
Soviet ideologues also distorted quantum mechanics, cybernetics, sociology, statistics, psychology and physiology, often by violent means. From the 1930s well into the 1980s, tens of thousands of Soviet scientists and engineers were harassed, arrested, sent to the gulags, executed or assassinated when their conclusions did not align with official communist beliefs.
Climate science in the U.S. has already been targeted by government administrators. The George W. Bush administration of the 2000s literally rewrote scientific reports to weaken their findings on global warming.
In 2007 testimony, former officials of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) admitted to extensive editing of documents from the EPA and many other agencies “to exaggerate or emphasize scientific uncertainties or to deemphasize or diminish the importance of the human role in global warming.” And when scientists’ views conflicted with the administration’s official line that global warming science remained uncertain, the CEQ often denied them permission to speak with reporters.
Worries over dismissal or intimidation
The highly targeted nature of the Trump questionnaire – especially the requested lists of individual scientists and leaders – suggests preparations for another ideologically driven purge.
On the day it was revealed by Bloomberg, Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) [sent Trump a letter warning him that “an illegal modern-day political witch hunt” would create “a profoundly chilling impact on our dedicated federal workforce.” Thus far, it appears the Trump administration has not responded to media queries on the questionnaire.
Soviet-style government-sponsored violence seems highly improbable (though for years, some high-profile climate scientists have suffered death threats). Instead, the incoming administration might indulge in large-scale summary dismissals, program cancellations and moving entire portfolios, not only at the DoE but also at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Meanwhile, private and corporate-sponsored intimidation campaigns against individual climate scientists – underway since the 1990s, and often backed by the fossil fuel industry – will surely gain momentum and scope. An administration that directly attacks science and scientists will amplify them enormously.
It’s worth noting that despite considerable differences on regulatory policy, every president from Nixon and Carter in the 1970s to Bush and Obama in the 2000s supported the scientific work needed to discover, understand and mitigate climate change.
Basic research on energy, pollution and climate change – much of it carried out at DoE laboratories – is essential to clear-eyed policy, which must be based on solid knowledge of the true costs and benefits of all forms of energy.
The Department of Energy’s response
The Trump questionnaire violates American political norms by targeting individual civil service employees, many of whom have worked for the agency for decades through multiple changes of administration.
It strongly suggests that even if incoming administrators do not target individuals for retribution, these appointees will attempt to delete climate change from the roster of energy-related scientific issues.
The best way to resist this will be to contest the basic premise. Since virtually every energy-related issue has implications for climate change, and vice versa, attempting to separate climate change from energy policy would be completely illogical and counterproductive. To oppose that separation, all DoE researchers – not just climate scientists, but all scientists, lab technicians, staff, everyone involved in any way with research – should insist that their work requires them to consider the causes and consequences of climate change.
An all-hang-together strategy such as this would be brave and risky. Not everyone would join in. Many would fear for their livelihoods and hope to hang on by keeping their heads down. A handful might even sympathize with the incoming administration’s position. In the end, such a strategy might cost even more employees their jobs.
But it would send the vital message that it isn’t just a few scientists, not some tiny cabal, but a vast majority of all scientists who understand that man-made climate change is real, well-understood and exceedingly consequential for human societies. It is among the most urgent political issues facing our nation and the world.
Nightfall for climate science?
In Isaac Asimov’s 1941 short story “Nightfall,” scientists huddle in an astronomical observatory on Lagash, a planet with six suns. For many centuries, one or more of those suns has always been up. The current inhabitants of Lagash, bathed in perpetual daylight, have never seen stars or experienced darkness. As the story opens, the university director addresses a hostile reporter: “You have led a vast newspaper campaign against the efforts of myself and my colleagues to organize the world against the menace which it is now too late to avert.”
The “menace” in question is nightfall, which comes to Lagash just once every 2,049 years. That moment is now upon them. Only one sun remains above the horizon, its last light rapidly fading due to a total eclipse – predicted by the scientists, but ridiculed as unfounded in the press.
In the gathering darkness, a mob bent on ruin marches on the observatory. The scientists do not expect to survive. They hope only to preserve enough knowledge and data that “the next cycle will start off with the truth, and when the next eclipse comes, mankind will at last be ready for it.”
A dark time is coming to American climate science. Trump’s mob of climate change deniers has begun its march on our present-day observatories. Like the scientists in “Nightfall,” we must do our utmost to ensure that after the coming eclipse, “the next cycle will start off with the truth.”