When No News Is Bad News — EPA Uncensors Climate Indicators

May 26, 2021

WatchDog Opinion: When No News Is Bad News — EPA Uncensors Climate Indicators

By Joseph A. Davis

A chart showing emissions of greenhouse gases in the United States, one of numerous indicators on a newly restored government site tracking climate change. Image: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Click to enlarge.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made news May 12 when it un-suppressed the news on climate change. The good news is that EPA is telling more of the whole truth on how climate change is harming Americans. The bad news is that during four years of Trump, it kept it secret.

Truth is trending, it seems. For now. Science is back. Or at least may be coming back. Environmental journalism has a key role to play in this critical — and never-ending — drama.

The May story was that EPA “relaunched” its climate indicators website. Christopher Flavelle, writing for The New York Times, summarized some toplines (may require subscription) from the site: “Wildfires are bigger, and starting earlier in the year. Heat waves are more frequent. Seas are warmer, and flooding is more common. The air is getting hotter. Even ragweed pollen season is beginning sooner.”

Michael S. Regan, newly installed EPA administrator, announced the re-up of the site by saying “There is no small town, big city or rural community that is unaffected by the climate crisis.” The “indicators” on the site included over 50 fact-based, often numerical, peer-reviewed impacts contributed by EPA and agency partners.

The site was not taken down under the Trump administration — but it was suspended, frozen for four years without updates, a story no longer being told. This supported Trump’s false assertions that climate change was a “Chinese hoax” and pleased the coal and oil industries, his campaign donors.

During that time sea levels rose, wildfires raged, hurricanes rampaged, droughts killed and floods grew. Since EPA wasn’t making the connections to climate, the job was left to scientists, advocates, whistleblowers ... and journalists.


A systematic assault on science, truth and information

The suspension of the climate indicators site was just one of many information blackouts, about climate and other topics, during the Trump era. 

And it was just one more example of a far more systematic assault on science, truth and information, the latest chapter in a longer war by harmful industries and ideologies on environmental science that was already going on under Presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.


Before Trump even took office,

a group of scientists and activists

formed an initiative to preserve online data.


The Trump data disappearance was not unexpected. In fact, in November 2016, before he even took office, a group of scientists and activists, many of them past EPA staff, formed the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, or EDGI, which originally focused on preserving EPA’s online data and monitoring its disappearance. 

EDGI’s mission has broadened since, but still focuses on information integrity. It documented the disappearance and censorship of thousands of pages of online information at EPA and other federal agencies under Trump. A main goal was to preserve censored web pages: “data rescue.”

A good many top environmental journalists have spent (may require subscription) four-plus years compiling and telling stories about the many ways the Trump EPA suppressed and censored science. 

Not all of the disappeared data was on climate. An example, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, was the suppression in 2017 of a report on the environmental health risks of formaldehyde, commonly found in wood products. Under Biden, formaldehyde study has resumed


Reporters gain from environmental group sleuthing

Groups like the Environmental Working Group have been prolific in documenting suppression and distortion of EPA science. It is important to acknowledge how many of these advocacy groups have pioneered the probing work that journalists should be doing, then sometimes handed big stories to journalists.

Indeed, some of the biggest scandals reported by news media under the era of Trump and his first EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, actually originated with sleuthing by environmental groups. 

For example, the Sierra Club in 2018 acquired a giant 24,000-page trove of emails, call logs and documents from top EPA officials. They got these not simply by filing Freedom of Information Act requests, but by going to court when EPA denied their requests — something many journalism outlets are too rushed or frugal to do. It is a good thing for environmental journalism that the Sierra Club has paid lawyers on staff.

Nor is it surprising that when both the EPA and the Interior Department, having lost leaders to media-fueled scandals, used rulemakings to try to curtail FOIA access to their documents, groups like Sierra were among the first to object and stand up for transparency. You may have read about this in a previous WatchDog column. The Society of Environmental Journalists stood up too.


A shared value in openness

The story is probably not over. Administrator Regan, as part of his effort to bring science back to EPA, has encouraged the agency’s Office of Inspector General to investigate the suppression of science during the previous administration. It is collecting cases of scientists who experienced reprisals for telling the world about their findings.

The story of climate change needs to be told, by journalists, by federal agencies, by scientists and their organizations, and by all sorts of advocates, pro and con. It needs to be told because it has huge, often harmful impacts on people’s lives. So it is good that EPA’s climate indicators site is no longer a Sleeping Beauty.


Scientists, journalists, the government

and even many activists have a 

profound shared value in openness.


It is also important to realize that scientists, journalists, the government and even many activists have a profound shared value in openness — telling what we know without suppression, inhibition or reservation. We should all value facts and evidence.

Journalists’ concern for fairness should not get in the way of their concern for truth. Both-sides-ism, a false understanding of objectivity, can become a bugaboo that sometimes obscures, rather than illuminates truth. Journalists rarely help their audience by giving truth and falsehood equal time (although you can still see this happening on cable). 

Journalists, scientists and, yes, government agencies should all have a bias toward disclosure. We can thank the Freedom of Information Act for helping make government a source of truth.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 21. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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