I’m a scientist. Under Trump I lost my job for refusing to hide climate crisis facts

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I was a climate scientist in a climate-denying administration – and it cost me my job

The Trump administration’s hostility towards climate science is not new. Interior climate staffer Joel Clement’s reassignment and the blocking of intelligence aide Rod Schoonover’s climate testimony, which forced both federal employees to resign in protest, are just two of the innumerable examples. These attempts to suppress climate science can manifest themselves in many ways. It starts with burying important climate reports and becomes something more insidious like stopping climate scientists from doing their jobs. In February 2019, I lost my job because I was a climate scientist in a climate-denying administration. And yet my story is no longer unique.

This is why on 22 July I filed a whistleblower complaint against the Trump administration. But this is not the only part to my story; I will also speak to Congress on 25 July about my treatment and the need for stronger scientific integrity protections.

I have worked at the National Park Service (NPS) for a total of eight years. I started out as an intern during the Bush administration, where I experienced nothing like this. I returned in 2012 after earning my PhD, when the NPS funded a project I designed to provide future sea level and storm surge estimates for 118 coastal parks under different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. This kind of information is crucial in order for the NPS to adequately protect coastal parks against the future effects of the climate crisis.

I handed in the first draft of my scientific report in the summer of 2016 and, after the standard rigorous scientific peer review process, it was ready for release in early 2017. But once the new administration came into power, publication was repeatedly delayed, with increasingly vague explanations from my supervisors. So for months, I waited. And waited. I was still waiting when I went on maternity leave almost a year later in December 2017.

It was while I was on leave that I received an email from another climate scientist at the NPS who warned me that the senior leadership was ordering changes to my report without my knowledge. They had scrubbed of any mention of the human causes of the climate crisis. This was not normal editorial adjustment. This was climate science denial.

A months-long battle ensued. Senior NPS officials tried repeatedly, often aggressively, to coerce me into deleting references to the human causes of the climate crisis from the report. They threatened to make the deletions without my approval if I would not agree, to release the report without naming me as the primary author, or not release it all. Each option would have been devastating to my career and for scientific integrity. I stood firm.

And I prevailed. Media inquiries and open records requests about my report eventually led to letters from members of Congress, and the NPS was essentially forced to publish my report as I had written it.

The NPS continued to retaliate against me. I was forced to accept pay cuts and demotions while I continued to lead several other projects. By February of this year, the NPS declined to renew my funding, despite common knowledge that my branch at the time had ample surplus funding.

When I received this news, my immediate supervisors, who wished for me to stay, asked me to apply to be a volunteer so that I could continue my work. My volunteer application was denied without explanation. If there was any question about whether my termination had to do with legitimate budget constraints or with punishing me for not altering my report to suit the Trump administration’s agenda, that answered it.

Politics has no place in science. I am an example of the less discussed methods the administration is using to destroy scientific research. I wasn’t fired and immediately told to leave; instead they sought retribution by discretely using governmental bureaucracy to apply pressure and gradually cut funding. I have been cut off from projects that I created and was working on, including one that would have provided the public with a valuable interactive way to see for themselves how sea level rise will impact our parks. This is why we need to support stronger protections for scientists.

Ultimately it will be the taxpayers who will pay the true price for our apathy towards these violations. It will become progressively costlier to alter our infrastructure to accommodate the incoming tides. And we will watch as our historic structures are swallowed by the sea. As these things are happening, remember that there were probably multiple scientists like me who warned of these dangers but were silenced. The current administration may only last a matter of years, but its actions may potentially impact our planet for centuries.

  • Dr Maria Caffrey is a climate scientist who formerly worked in the National Park Service Natural Resource Stewardship and Science Directorate. She currently resides in Denver, Colorado

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