In Canada, a move to protect data from Trump

Researchers and citizens are rushing to back-up government data on climate change and other issues, fearing political interference.


On a Saturday morning in December, Henry Warwick trudged through the slushy streets of Toronto, Canada, to attend an event at the University of Toronto’s towering Robarts Library. He took the elevator to a room on the fourth floor where 150 people— mostly IT specialists, hackers, scholars, and activists—had assembled for the auspiciously titled “Guerrilla Archiving Event: Saving Environmental Data From Trump.”

For the rest of the day, the group would comb the Internet for key climate and environmental data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A giant computer program would then copy the information onto an independent server, where it will remain publicly accessible—and safe from potential government interference. Warwick, an American immigrant to Canada who teaches media studies at nearby Ryerson University, had grey hair pulled back in a ponytail and a somewhat disheveled, frenzied look. “Say Trump firewalls the EPA,” pulling reams of information from public access, Warwick said. He glanced up from his laptop, his blue eyes widening. “No one will have access to the data in these papers.”

People work on identifying and archiving datasets with information about climate change at the Guerrilla Archiving Event in Toronto, Canada.
Courtesy Technoscience Research Unit/University of Toronto

President-elect Donald Trump and his team have made no secret of their hostility toward environmental science. Soon after the election, Trump appointed Myron Ebell to lead the EPA’s transition. Ebell has worked for years to stoke doubt about climate science and is one of the most vocal opponents of the EPA’s plan to lower carbon emissions from power plants. Then Trump picked Scott Pruitt to lead the agency, another climate change denier who has frequently sued the EPA. Two of Trump’s advisors also criticized NASA for its “politically correct environmental monitoring” of climate change. They suggested that NASA would prioritize deep-space research rather than “Earth-centric work” under Trump. Trump’s team also asked Department of Energy officials for names of employees who worked on climate issues, raising fears that those employees might somehow be targeted.

These moves worried many scientists. Would the Trump administration suppress or even tamper with decades of government data to serve its political agenda? So an international group of researchers decided to do what they could to protect existing data. They formed the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, to coordinate data-saving efforts. With two colleagues, Michelle Murphy, director of the University of Toronto’s Technoscience research unit, spearheaded the first archiving session, laying the groundwork for similar events in Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles before Trump’s inauguration.

“Unless we have good research and monitoring about our ecosystem,” Murphy said, “we’re going to be blinded about our future.”

Political assaults on scientific data are not unprecedented. Canada’s last prime minister, Stephen Harper, closed entire libraries in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 2013. An almost entirely non-digitized 600,000 volume collection of aquatic research dating to the 1880s was tossed into dumpsters. The George W. Bush administration used similar tactics, shutting down some of the EPA’s research libraries, which triggered a lawsuit. Days after the Toronto event, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources removed all references to rising temperatures and the human activities that cause them from a webpage about the Great Lakes.

By 10:30 am, everyone was working. Some clustered in groups, talking strategy, while others sat alone, staring intently at their screens. Trump may be American, but the information his administration will gain control of— about air and water and the health of the planet—is a global resource. “Personally,” said one volunteer, who asked not to be named, “I’ve always thought that everyone in the world should get a vote in the U.S. election.”

U.S. government websites warehouse a daunting amount of data and information—so much that guerrilla tech geeks probably can't back it all up before Trump takes office. It takes a lot of work to maintain data and to keep it publicly accessible, work that might not get done if agencies are starved of funding. “We’re in a race against time,” explained Murphy.

A list some of the government agencies that could be vulnerable to change or losing climate data under the Trump administration. These spreadsheets help people find important data to archive for safekeeping.
Courtesy Technoscience Research Unit/University of Toronto

Those webpages include data from taxpayer-funded scientific research; interactive tools such as NOAA’s Sea Level Rise viewer, which visualizes future impacts from rising oceans; and EPA maps of the country’s worst polluters. The government relies on this information to make policy — decisions that directly affect everything from a community’s air and water quality to the trajectory of global climate change.

“The idea that someone would just suppress all of that just drives me crazy!” Dorothy Birtalan exclaimed, leaning back in her chair and wringing her hands. Birtalan, an IT consultant with shoulder-length silver hair and dangly earrings, was scrolling through EPA websites looking for research that Murphy and others had identified as vulnerable, including datasets related to programs like the Clean Power Plan that the next administration has explicitly threatened.

For Warwick, potential attacks on environmental data felt personal. He grew up in Edison, New Jersey, playing around abandoned factories and a toxic waste dump that later became one of the state’s largest superfund site: the Kin-Buc Landfill. The EPA discovered that large quantities of PCBs were dumped without proper containment, leaching into a creek that feeds the local water supply. Upon graduating high school, Warwick made good money selling home water filters.

At the archiving event, Warwick decided to focus on researching agencies that are exclusively science-based, like NASA. He worries about the persistence of NASA’s fleet of earth-observing satellites, which are crucial for gathering data on everything from greenhouse gas concentrations, to retreating glaciers, to shifting rainfall patterns around the globe.

“Somebody has to be there to run the computers,” Warwick said. He was heartened somewhat by California Gov. Jerry Brown’s pledge that California would “launch its own damn satellite” in the event that Trump follows through on an advisor’s call to axe NASA’s $2 billion Earth Science Division.

 At one o’clock, Murphy announced that pizzas had arrived and Warwick and others trickled into the hallway. A few mingled, while others grabbed a few slices and headed back to their computers and ate silently, their faces illuminated by the glow of screens. The clock ticked: In exactly 35 days, Donald Trump would be sworn in as president of the United States.

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for HCN.

Harvey H Reading
Harvey H Reading Subscriber
Jan 10, 2017 01:28 PM
Funny how the researchers never thought this under environment-unfriendly, whistleblower-hater Obama ... who was as devoted to the greater corporate good as Trump, not to mention the scary she-monster. People in the U.S. are too stupid to actually vote for their own interests. It's not ignorance, it's just plain stupidity.
Doug Meyer
Doug Meyer Subscriber
Jan 10, 2017 01:36 PM
I’ll bet Warwick, et al will “forget” to archive the following, all of which is in the public domain anyway:

National Academy of Sciences, Advancing the Science of Climate Change, 2010[…]/advancing-the-science-of-climate-change#toc
Chapter 6 "Changes in the Climate System" p. 197
"Finally, aerosol emissions represent an important dilemma facing policy makers trying to limit the magnitude of future climate change. If aerosol emissions are reduced for health reasons, or as a result of actions taken to reduce GHG emissions, the net negative climate forcing associated with aerosols would decline much more rapidly than the positive forcing associated with GHGs due to the much shorter atmospheric lifetime of aerosols, and this could potentially lead to a rapid acceleration of global warming (see, e.g., Arneth et al., 2009). Understanding the many and diverse effects of aerosols is also important for helping policymakers evaluate proposals to artificially increase the amount of aerosols in the stratosphere in an attempt to offset global warming (see Chapter 15)."[…]ecord_id=12782&page=197
Stanford's Energy Modeling Forum (EMF 22) assessment of global emission reductions scenarios:[…]/EMF22OverviewClarke.pdf
page S66, Table 3, Total forcing column:
The increase in total climate forcing despite global carbon emissions reductions is due to the removal of the aerosol masking effect.
page S73:
"[I]n case of very rapid mitigation that is required to stay below 450 ppmv CO2-e in either of the two radiative forcing definitions, the decrease of aerosol emissions as a by-product of GHG mitigation would induce a strong increase of total radiative forcing, because aerosol cooling ceases almost immediately (Smith et al., 2000; Smith and Wigley, 2006; Krey and Riahi, 2009-this issue)."
IPCC AR5, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis, Chapter 8 Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing, Section 8.5.1, pages 694-698[…]/WG1AR5_Chapter08_FINAL.pdf
Almut Arneth, Nadine Unger, Markku Kulmala, Meinrat O. Andreae, 2009, Clean the Air, Heat the Planet?
(subscription reqd)
James Hansen, 2009, Storms of My Grandchildren, Chapter 6 The Faustian Bargain: Humanity's Own Trap, p.98-99
"[A]erosol cooling can continue to offset a large fraction of greenhouse warming only if particulate air pollution continues to increase rapidly. But at some point fossil fuels will run out, or people will get fed up with increasing air pollution and decide to clean up particulate pollution. Then, because greenhouse gases remain in the air for centuries and aerosols fall out within days after aerosol emission stops, the payment -- via rapid increase of global warming -- will come due."
V. Ramanathan and Y. Feng, 2008, On avoiding dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system: Formidable challenges ahead
Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, 2008, Global warming: Stop worrying, start panicking?
Meinrat Andreae, Chris Jones, Peter Cox, 2005, Strong present-day aerosol cooling implies a hot future[…]/nature03671.html
(subscription reqd)
Joe Cosentino
Joe Cosentino
Jan 10, 2017 01:39 PM
Why does this scare me? Could this be anymore like a cult? What if these folks miss some information that questions climate change, think they would go back and archive that?¿ Didn't think so.....
Jon Maaske
Jon Maaske Subscriber
Jan 11, 2017 01:07 PM
Oh, Harvey, give me a rational break! Obama, unlike Trump, believes in science and the public good. And has spent, and will continue to spend, his time serving the country, in contrast to Trump's pathological self-centeredness. Do you have examples of Obama repressing data, monitoring those researching climate change, filling cabinet posts with oil company executives, etc., etc.?
Patrick Shyvers
Patrick Shyvers Subscriber
Jan 11, 2017 05:07 PM
Joe, it sounds like the expect all the information that questions climate change will be quite well-protected by the new administration.

Doug, why would he "forget" those? They are an important part of the picture. Everything you link seems to say that aerosols are temporarily masking more heating- and clearly, continuing to fill the atmosphere with particulate is not a desirable long-term solution.
Craig McDonald
Craig McDonald Subscriber
Jan 12, 2017 05:56 AM
Bizarre they don’t understand the direction of climate change research and decision making is politically influenced now.[…]/
Doug Meyer
Doug Meyer Subscriber
Jan 12, 2017 06:58 AM
Patrick, the key is in our interpretation of “temporarily.” The Stanford link shows that total forcing in the year 2100, after 70-80 years of (modelled) highly effective global GHG emissions reductions, and without any geoengineering, would be in the range 2.3-2.7 W/m2, a substantial increase over today’s estimated 1.6 W/m2. The implication is that long-term (on a human timescale) geoengineering would be an essential component of any global effort against climate change. The NAS link demonstrates that science believes that most likely the geoengineering would be in the form of deliberate sulfate aerosol injections into the upper atmosphere, which would have to continue until carbon was drawn down naturally, i.e., at least a century or two. They know there will never be a carbon sucking technology to match the one-way transfer of carbon out of the ground that our fossil fuel industry represents.

Most progressive climate activists believe they’re firmly linked with environmentalism on the issue of global warming. But those of us who understand the truth know that global warming is clearly NOT an environmental issue because the “solution” involves further deliberate global-scale human manipulation of the planet with likely horrible consequences for the biosphere. This truth has been utterly buried by the progressive and environmental movements, and will obviously continue to be buried for political reasons. As this article, and my comment shows, it is the progressive side that is equally guilty, if not more guilty than Trump and the deniers, of the politicization of climate science.
Dale Lockwood
Dale Lockwood Subscriber
Jan 12, 2017 08:15 PM
I thought this only happen in fiction novels and Nazi Germany and communism countries. I am really naive.
Joe Cosentino
Joe Cosentino
Jan 13, 2017 07:11 AM
So, Climate Change has become a pseudo religion where there are deep believes that must be adhered to or your threatened with becoming an outcast? I say this because of some of the comments here and other places are aimed at demeaning those that are not willing to fall in line. Just saying that the word zealot fits really well here.
Joe Cosentino
Joe Cosentino
Jan 13, 2017 07:15 AM
Should have been beliefs, aaarrr auto-correct
Dale Lockwood
Dale Lockwood Subscriber
Jan 13, 2017 07:39 AM
Many of the comments are in relation to doing away and hiding existing data if they have a different agenda. That is not a democracy.