Disappearing Data

What Happens When Science Is Censored?


As data-based research disappears, and profit replaces regulation, the world is put at even greater risk.



Toxic, orange-tinted water comes out of the faucets and showers near mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. Pollutants, including iron, sulfur, and arsenic, stain residents’ hands, clothing, and showers. People buy bottled water, or they will use water from nearby wells, springs, or creeks—which are likely also dangerous to drink. “We don’t bathe in the water and we don’t cook with it,” one woman in southern West Virginia told the BBC. “It stains our fingernails, our knuckles, and our clothes. It’s really, really difficult living like this.

There has been relatively little research into the health impacts of water contaminated by mountaintop removal mining, the process by which fossil fuel companies have used explosives on millions of acres of land to cut more than 400 feet deep into the mountains to extract coal. Then, these companies dump waste from the process into waterways, polluting the drinking supply. Though difficult to quantify exactly, it’s abundantly clear in every corner of the planet that many people are forced to live with the deadly consequences of a greedy addiction to fossil fuels.

As global warming endangers our living environment right before our eyes, it’s also getting harder to measure the destruction in its wake. In 2017, the Interior Department ordered the National Academy of Sciences to halt a $1 million study examining the link between mountaintop removal coal mining and health issues in Central Appalachia. They haven’t been able to give a specific reason why, according to the agency’s inspector general.

In communities near mountaintop removal coal mines, the toxic materials in the air and water have devastating public health consequences. West Virginia and Kentucky have more deaths from lung cancer than anywhere else in the country, not only for people working in the mines but for the surrounding communities that have to deal with the constant pollution. Overall, mortality rates are higher in specific mountaintop removal areas than in other parts of Appalachia.

Since Trump stepped into the Oval Office, his administration has worked to censor and erase evidence of climate change. By doing so, they obscure the public understanding of the dangers of global warming, all to the benefit of those who profit from it.

The federal government has defunded studies. The Trump administration has fired and pushed out officials and regulators. They’ve scrubbed mentions of climate change from the record. Through suppression and intimidation, a few profiteers are casually dismantling the building blocks fundamental to understanding the health repercussions of our drastically changing planet.

Paul Locke, the chairman of the canceled coal mining study, said, “I think we were making excellent progress, and I believe if we had been allowed to finish the study we would have come up with some information that would have been valuable to states and the citizens, but, we, of course, weren’t allowed to get that far.”

The canceled coal study was “duplicative,” according to Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift, and drew money away from work “like rebuilding public lands infrastructure and securing public lands along the U.S.-Mexico border,” she said. The next year, the study’s volunteer committee was disbanded, officially ending the project.

The administration’s choice to prioritize profit over the longevity of the planet is hardly original, yet they have managed to monetize the chaos and pollution to a whole new level—all while insisting that everything is a hoax. In 2019, about 32,400 square miles burned in Australia and about 27,265 square miles burned in the Amazon Rainforest. Fires in California, Indonesia, Siberia, and sub-Saharan Africa have also caused major devastation. More than one billion animals have been killed in the fires in Australia, and as many as 100 threatened species have been pushed closer to extinction by losing their habitats. In the past decade, Arctic sea ice reached record lows amid extreme heatwaves. The vast majority, 95 percent, of the thickest and oldest ice in the Arctic is already gone. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is also rapidly melting; if it melts all the way, global sea levels would rise by more than 10 feet, inundating nearly 30,000 square miles of land, home today to 12.3 million people. Trump has called climate change “a big scam,” which is a very convenient delusion to propagate if you wish to keep making money from fossil fuels. This year was the second warmest on record, in the hottest decade on record. The signs of climate change are literally all around us.

And yet, this past September, a study by the Interior Department on drilling in the Arctic concluded that the Bureau of Land Management “does not agree that the proposed development is inconsistent with maintaining a livable planet (i.e., there is not a climate crisis).” The same month, the White House removed the phrase “global climate change is a serious challenge” in a proposal about limiting California’s ability to set tougher vehicle emissions standards.

The Trump administration-led EPA is allowing the oil and gas industry to self-audit violations of the Clean Air Act. In October 2018, the EPA disbanded an expert panel looking at particulate matter air pollution with no explanation. The agency also removed information on climate change from its website. This mass erasure of science-backed data that points to, essentially, the end of the world as we know it if we don’t reverse our fossil-fuel dependence, is almost ensuring that we’ll get there.

The stakes have never been higher to grapple with the influence of fossil fuels. Climate change’s death toll is skyrocketing, yet the fossil-fuel industry remains as lucrative and influential as ever. In June 2019, 90 people were killed in a heatwave in India. In July, more than 160 people were killed in a heatwave in Japan. In March, Cyclone Idai may have killed more than 1,000 people in Mozambique, and you probably didn’t even hear about it.

Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund are tracking both climate deregulations and restrictions and suppression of science taken by the Trump administration. They’ve tracked more than 380 instances where the government has suppressed science with little explanation.

Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center, told DAME that through mechanisms like ignoring the existing science, misrepresenting it, and inhibiting research, the Trump administration has effectively silenced science.

“We rely mostly on news reports, but we try to collect instances where they have suppressed science, they have misrepresented it, they have tried to cut back on budgets, all those kinds of things,” says Gerrard. “When it comes to climate change, the impacts are cumulative, and so a ton of carbon dioxide that goes in the atmosphere today will stay there for decades or centuries, so several years of uninhibited release of carbon dioxide is going to have very long-term consequences.”

Gerrard also said there had been a “forced brain drain” from the federal government. “Many of the most talented scientists who worked for the federal government have fled in horror when other opportunities have arisen,” he continued.

OSHA removed references to “climate change” on a page about heat-related health risks. People who work outdoors, such as agricultural workers, and those who work in unsafe buildings, like factory workers, face enormous risk due to climate change.  Staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture were told to say “weather extremes” instead of “climate change.” The agency also refused to publicize research funded by the government about the dangers of climate change. Victoria Herrmann, an Arctic researcher, said that the Trump administration was deleting data and citations. “Each defunct page is an effort by the Trump administration to deliberately undermine our ability to make good policy decisions by limiting access to scientific evidence,” she wrote.

Despite the rampant deregulation and silencing of facts, some scientists are pushing back. Gerrard said that a climate panel that was disbanded by Trump in 2017 reconvened with support from the Earth Institute at Columbia University, New York State, and the American Meteorological Society. Last year, the committee, the Independent Advisory Committee on Applied Climate Assessment, launched a network to help guide communities use science to address different risks.

“The point is to take what we know, make it usable for the communities, and increase their confidence in weighing the tradeoffs and opportunities that come with different strategies for adaptation and mitigation,” said Richard Moss, a visiting senior research scientist at Columbia’s Earth Institute and chairman of the Independent Advisory Committee.

In December, the government “retired” an interactive map that made it easy to see detailed information about pollution across the U.S. Maintained for 15 years, Toxmap combined a variety of environmental data, including coal plant emissions and locations of nuclear power plants, with information about the population living there such as income figures and mortality rates.

The National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institute of Health, offered little rationale as to why they would remove a resource that helped researchers and the public get a better understanding of public health crises created by toxic chemicals in the air and water.

“It was stunning to me that the National Library of Medicine is actually retiring this pretty essential tool for our environmental right-to-know,” Chris Sellers, an environmental historian at Stony Brook University, told Undark.

The NLM explained to Newsweek, “The decision to retire ToxMap was made by NLM and not the Administration,” but it’s hard not to see a connection, given the Trump administration’s consistent anti-science, pro-business stance—and the fact that Trump has repeatedly tried to slash the NLM’s budget.

The New York Times reported that the Environmental Protection Agency would change its methodology for calculating air pollution, resulting in fewer predicted deaths. This was part of the Affordable Clean Energy rule, which replaced Obama’s climate regulations and allows coal plants to remain open longer. It was written by former EPA air quality chief William L. Wehrum, who as a partner at Hunton & Williams, which represented the American Petroleum Institute, Koch Industries, and Kinder Morgan.

Through a variety of advanced mechanisms, this censorship is separating us from research we badly need. Government agencies are failing to address any kind of reality. At least six whistleblowers have accused the Trump administration of stifling science about climate and pollution.

Joel Clement worked at the Department of the Interior studying the impacts of climate change in the Arctic. “The Trump administration is threatened by evidence, by science, and by expertise,” he said. “These things interfere with their ability to hobble government agencies and reduce oversight. It’s mind-boggling and a profound threat to democracy but it also increases risks to American health and safety. Every American should be concerned, regardless of political stripe.”

This is the first in our three-part series on how the disappearance of fact-based data affects our lives.

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