Can Trump Censor Climate Science?

08/31/2017 11:55 pm ET

Global warming embarrasses President Trump’s insular creed of “America First.” Government scientists recently confirmed all-time record-high temperatures and sea levels around the world. Yet President Trump has promised the United States will be virtually alone in refusing to honor the commitments it had made in the Paris climate agreement. Indeed, his administration has systematically deregulated previous efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while dismantling efforts to protect the country’s air, water, and wildlife.

More elusive threats to climate science are lurking behind the scenes. The Trump administration ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to shut down its climate webpage, gagged EPA and Department of Agriculture employees from using terms like “climate change” and “emissions reduction” in any written communications, and forbid scientists there from discussing their research with anyone outside of the agency. The White House has also defunded climate science and terminated ongoing studies into environmental threats ranging from the toxicity levels of Midwestern streams to the health risks of Appalachian mining.

The latest controversy concerns the Climate Science Special Report prepared by top scientists from 13 federal agencies. The next one—due out this month—won’t be released unless and until the Trump administration approves it. This is the President who’s referred to climate change as “bullshit” peddled by “so-called ‘scientists’” and a “total hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese. He’s also appointed staunch climate-change skeptics Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry to lead the EPA and Department of Energy. Little wonder the scientists who prepared the draft report were so worried it’d be edited, rejected, or concealed that they leaked a copy to the New York Times.

That draft report provides the strongest evidence to date that human activity is the main cause of rising global temperatures since the 1950s. It makes clear that continuing to burn coal and oil are likely to bring more severe droughts in the American Southwest, more powerful storms along both coasts, and heavier floods like Hurricane Harvey that’s left much of Texas underwater. It’s true that climate science is complex. And we can’t yet predict whether, when, or why exactly any particular extreme weather will hit. But the draft’s three main takeaways are as certain as anything gets in the physical sciences: (1) human activity is primarily to blame for the planet’s warming, (2) the consequences will become increasingly devastating, and (3) it’s not too late to ameliorate those effects. What if anything can be done if President Trump manipulates or suppresses these conclusions?

The U.S. has long operated under a presumption that government shouldn’t interfere with the content of scientific inquiry. Every administration until now has endorsed the federal policy that President Reagan set forth in a 1984 National Security Directive: “to the maximum extent possible the products of fundamental research [shall] remain unrestricted.” It’s not that the state avoids taking sides on the merits of such research. To the contrary, it weighs in on the relative worthiness of various pursuits anytime it funds some projects over others.

Consider President Bush’s 2001 policy restricting federal funding for stem cell research involving the destruction of live embryos. That policy still allowed the federal government to fund the few existing stem cell lines using embryos that’d already been destroyed, and even permitted state or private funding to create new cell lines. The political right decried the policy as unprincipled—if life has absolute worth, all embryo research should stop! The left lambasted it as sectarian—potential cures can’t be forsaken for organisms smaller than the head of pin!

But neither side could complain that the stem cell policy violated its rights. Government has no obligation to subsidize even the most worthy and promising research; indeed, it has no duty to fund science at all. It must fund only constitutionally-mandated activities and institutions like elections, federal courts, and national defense. All other funding is allotted through political deliberation and deal-making. So citizens have no legal basis to demand that government provide the resources or facilities required to advance any particular line of scientific research—not stem cell research, not climate science—however vital to the public interest.

But might there be First Amendment claims against intruding into scientists’ decisions about what and how to study, teach, and publish, especially for political purposes? Legal scholars have long sought to justify a right to “scientific speech,” whether as an element of academic freedom, as a precondition for free and open expression, or as a form of expressive conduct. What makes science a matter of constitutional concern, they argue, is its distinctive status—like art, philosophy, and a few other enterprises—as one of the principal ways by which citizens produce new knowledge. But federal scientists aren’t entitled in their professional capacity to use the government platform to override commands of the executive branch that employs them.

More promising than any constitutional challenge is a statutory one under the Global Change Research Act. This is the law requiring executive production of the national climate assessment. In 2007, environmental groups claimed that the Bush administration had violated the law by refusing to commission the mandated reports. That delay injured them, they argued, by denying the opportunity to consult and comment on climate research activities. A federal court ordered the Bush Administration to generate and publish the long-overdue scientific assessment within nine months.

It’s hard to predict whether President Trump and his EPA will let the draft become an official government report (or in what form). And the Bush-era order should give pause before sitting on or muting the report. That decision to interfere with research for political purposes would fly in the face of sound policy and democratic norms. Republican inaction on climate change make it improbable that the decision will have immediate policy impact. But the failure of Congress and the courts to check the executive impulse to obstruct climate science is sure to embolden an administration that’s been all too willing to bend the facts to its own political will.

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