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(Glenn Beltz/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Report: US Officials Are Actively Censoring Press Statements on Climate Change

PETER DOCKRILL
9 JUL 2019

The ramifications were and are terrifying. A study published in March found the threat of rising seas in California has been vastly underestimated.

By century's end, researchers said, California will be looking at up to US$150 billion of property damage annually, with millions of people at risk along the coast – residents previously assumed to be safe from the dangers of surging, stormy seas.

 

You may have heard about this. But there's a good chance you didn't.

For such thunderous, grave news, the body that led the research, the United States Geological Survey (USGS), made things sound decidedly less dire when they announced the findings.

While the study openly contemplates an "extreme scenario [that] could equate to over 3 million residents at risk across the state by 2100", the USGS's press release on the research makes scant reference to climate change, presenting the findings almost like a valuable opportunity for governmental and commercial entities "planning for future infrastructure" in the world's fifth largest economy.

It wasn't supposed to be this way, according to a damning new report by E&E News journalist Scott Waldman.

In his investigation, Waldman says the USGS's sanitised spin on the findings of its own research was part of a years-long campaign by officials inside President Donald Trump's administration to censor references to climate change in federal agency communications.

"It's been made clear to us that we're not supposed to use climate change in press releases anymore," an anonymous federal researcher told Waldman.

 

"They will not be authorised."

According to the report, the original draft of the press release on the California coastline findings was "significantly altered" by Trump officials, who also delayed the publication of the findings for several months.

The original text of the release – written by the researchers themselves – did ultimately see the light of day, but only on the website of Point Blue Conservation Science, an environmental non-profit that contributed to the study.

Point Blue's release doesn't pull the punches like the taxpayer-funded version does.

"According to the study, even modest sea level rise projections of 10 inches (25 centimetres) by 2040 could flood more than 150,000 residents and affect more than US$30 billion in property value when combined with an extreme 100-year storm along California's coast," the original release states.

"Even a typical winter storm, when combined with elevated sea levels, could threaten US$100 billion of coastal real estate across the Golden State annually."

The E&E News report says the press release went through the office of USGS director James Reilly, who was appointed by the White House in 2018.

 

Reilly, The New York Times reported in May, has ordered his agency to limit the scope of its climate models, not making future projections on the impact of climate change beyond 2040, which scientists say will be misleading.

According to Waldman though, tampering with and censorship of USGS press releases pre-dates Reilly's appointment as director of the agency – but correlates squarely with presidential timelines.

"In the last year of the Obama administration, USGS distributed at least 13 press releases that focused on climate change and highlighted it in the headline," E&E News reports.

"Since then – from 2017 through the first six months of 2019 – none has mentioned climate change in the headline of the press release… Some briefly mentioned climate change in the body of the release, while others did not refer to it at all."

For a body whose motto is 'Science for a changing world', this alleged censorship of press releases – among broader suppression of information on human-caused climate change by the Trump administration – amounts to an incredible disservice to the American people who fund the USGS to conduct scientific research on their behalf.

"It's an insult to the science, of course, but it's also an insult to the people who need this information and whose livelihoods and in some cases their lives depend on this," climate change policy researcher Joel Clement from the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs told E&E News.

"What's shocking about it is that this has been taken to a new level, where information that is essential to economic and health and safety — essentially American well-being — is essentially being shelved and being hidden."

The full USGS-led findings on the projected coastal impacts of climate change in California are reported in Scientific Reports, and you can read Waldman's article in full right here.