National Park Service Publishes Climate Change Report, But Questions Remain About Censorship

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Originally published on May 22, 2018 9:31 am

The National Park Service has released a report on how sea level rise could impact its sites. The publication was delayed by about a year, and as we’ve reported, there were concerns over possible censorship in earlier drafts.

Maria Caffrey worked for years with the National Park Service researching and writing the report, only to wait for months for its actual release.

“I had been told that it was going to be released in May 2017. Then it was going to be released in September 2017. Then it was going to be released in January 2018,” says Caffrey, a climate scientist with the University of Colorado.

There’s evidence that, during that time, Caffrey’s colleagues with the National Park Service tried to remove mentions that climate change is caused by people. Now, the report is finally out -- and those references are back in it.

“It’s exciting,” says Caffrey. “It appears to all be intact as it was written, so that’s great news.”

But the story isn’t over. There are still questions as to why the delay and possible censorship happened in the first place.

Elizabeth Shogren, a reporter with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, had learned about the research back in 2014. When she noticed that the report was taking a long time to come out, she filed public records requests and got a hold of drafts with those previous edits.

“Every instance of people’s role in climate change was edited out by a career person -- at least, that’s what the tracked changes showed,” says Shogren.

“As soon as it became clear that somebody was taking words out of a scientific document that were crucial, it seemed like the likely reason was for political reasons and not for scientific reasons,” she says.

It seemed a lot like censorship. Scientists like Rick Spinrad agreed.

“This is not an isolated incident,” says Spinrad, who was the chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under Obama. Now, he’s a professor of oceanography at Oregon State University. “There’s been an ongoing assault on the scientific validation for climate change.”

To ignore the role of people in climate change, he says, is as erroneous and unscientific as calculating a household budget without including the mortgage payment. Plus, he says, it’s unfair to taxpayers.

“The scientists are providing a service so that our taxes are used to make the best decisions about resources and about facilities and infrastructure,” he says, “And the National Park Service has a responsibility to make the best-informed decisions about how to manage the parks. That’s going to be done with the best possible science that they can get their hands on.”

The Department of the Interior’s Office of the Inspector General is now working on a preliminary review of the case, after democratic lawmakers called for an investigation.

Shogren says it’s possible many other scientific reports have been delayed, blocked or altered that journalists and politicians aren’t aware of. She originally filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the federal government to get hold of the National Park Service report drafts -- to no avail.

“I still have not gotten one page back from the federal government in response to Freedom of Information Act requests that I put in in early February,” she says. “Not one page.”

Instead, she got the drafts by filing a local request, which was only possible because Caffrey works for a public university.

“If I hadn’t been able to get the responses from the University of Colorado, I don’t think this story would have come out yet and I think the report would still be blocked,” says Shogren.

Jeremy Barnum, a spokesperson for the National Park Service, says the agency held up the report for much more mundane reasons than climate change censorship, like a string of bad hurricanes and data visualization issues.

“The report has undergone several rounds of internal and external scientific peer review to ensure that it is most helpful and relevant to the intended audience of park managers and planners,” he says.

But Caffrey, the main author on the report, isn’t convinced. She’s working with the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund to file a complaint with the Interior Department’s Office of Scientific Integrity. And, she says, she’s been talking to other scientists who say they’ve gone through similar experiences.

“The exact same words were attempted to be removed,” she says, “And so I’ve been sharing that information with the Inspector General.”

The PhD scientist is back to working with the National Park Service, but no longer on sea level rise and with significantly less pay.

“My career has totally been reset back to that first step,” says Caffrey.

Technically, her title is Geoscientist-in-the-Park. In practice, she’s now at the level of an early career intern.

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