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The Age of Environmental Censorship

by Wiley Smith

[originally published spring 2020]


Since the Trump administration took power in 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has blacklisted dozens of studies detailing the threats posed by climate change. In May 2019, a monumental study revealed that rice loses vitamins in high emission environments. These findings are crucial for more than half a billion people whose diet consists mainly of rice. Although the study was peer-reviewed and ratified by the Agricultural Research Service, the USDA refused to go public with the results. In emails obtained by Politico, USDA officials even attempted to discourage Jeff Hodson, communications director of the University of Washington School of Public Health, from publishing the study. Although the UW scientists weren’t swayed into silence, many are alarmed that the government is so blatantly trying to muzzle studies that don’t fit their political agenda. Notably, the only two USDA-published studies since 2017 compliment the meat industry. These two examples are only the beginning.

In internal emails obtained by The Guardian, USDA staff were instructed to avoid terms such as “climate change” in their studies, and instead use “weather extremes.” Further, they were told that phrases such as “reduce greenhouse gases” should be substituted for “build organic soil matter.” To ensure scientists did not sway from their assigned rhetoric, a policy team was implemented to review all “policy-related [documents] prior to issuance.”

Days after Trump’s inauguration, the Environmental Protection Agency’s website was purged of any mention of climate change, fossil fuels, and greenhouse gases. More than a year later, the site was partially restored. However, not all information that resurfaced remained unschathed. The section providing resources for local communities to combat climate change was thoroughly redacted, only retaining 175 of its 380 pages.

The government's attempts to suppress climate science are pervasive in all fields, from corporate regulations to agriculture to national security. In June 2019, the White House barred a State Department staffers’s testimony from being submitted to the House Intelligence Committee. The testimony warned that human-driven climate change caused by burning fossil fuels posed “significant ─ possibly catastrophic ─ harm” unless significant emissions reductions were made in the next decade. The testimony identified nine “tipping points” that would radically transform the biosphere, such as the rapid extinction of insects or a massive release of methane frozen in glaciers. The White House disparaged the testimony’s scientific citations, which referenced research conducted by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. After it was banned from appearing before the House Intelligence Committee, the testimony was published by The Washington Post.

This trend of environmental censorship has grave implications. The current administration is prioritizing the interests of fossil fuel corporations at the cost of human lives. Since 2017, multiple government-funded studies were explicitly discontinued or forestalled due to budgetary cuts. For example, the Natural Resources Conservation Service was advised to discontinue its studies on air quality regarding greenhouse gases. Quite literally, stifling climate science has a body count. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that the rapid increase in fine-particle air pollution between 2016 and 2018 caused nearly 10,000 additional deaths in the United States alone. Gina McCarthy, former Administrator of the EPA, underscores the truth: “Censoring scientific data doesn’t make its threats any less real, it hides the problem from the American people”

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