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NASA’s Climate Communications Might Not Recover From the Damage of Trump’s Systemic Suppression

12 minute read
Laura Faye Tenenbaum is a writer and public speaker currently working on a memoir about her love of the natural world and her fight for empowerment within the science community.

Before former U.S. President Donald Trump incited a hostile insurrection against the Capitol, he’d already smashed wrecking balls through the ranks of government agencies. Among the many casualties was the truth about climate science, which NASA was routinely prevented from sharing with the public that supports it.

I was the senior science editor for NASA’s Global Climate Change website and witnessed the impact of science suppression firsthand. I’d been at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), one of 10 NASA centers, for a decade when, three weeks into the Trump Administration, on Feb. 16, 2017, the Washington Post published an article noting that while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Park Service were shutting down climate communication, NASA was still writing about climate change. The Post piece shared links to my most recent NASA blog post about the rapid increase of ice-mass loss in Greenland, plus my @NASAClimate tweets and NASA Climate Change Facebook page.

It caused NASA management to panic. Scott Pruitt had been appointed to head the EPA and promptly removed the EPA’s climate-change website. NASA management seemed to fear a similar fate. My manager sent a text late on the evening the Post published the story—it was a Thursday before a three-day weekend (NASA has what’s called a “9/80 work schedule,” meaning every other Friday is a day off)—which was so unusual that I saved a screen capture. It read, “We’ve been asked to stand down on social until we regroup next week.” He followed up with a frantic phone call, warning me not to post anything anywhere. When I checked my email the next morning, there was a message from Facebook: “You’re getting this email to confirm that you’re no longer an admin on NASA Climate Change. You were removed on February 17, 2017 at 9:45am.”

NASA Climate’s social media pages used to be vital mechanisms for keeping the public updated with factual information. During the Obama presidency, I live-tweeted and posted on Facebook in real time from science events, conferences, satellite launches and field campaigns. I posted up-to-date information on global climate events such as cyclones, floods, tornadoes and storms on evenings and weekends, and saw our Facebook page grow to 1.3 million Likes. Newspapers and magazines, documentaries and TV news regularly referenced our NASA Global Climate Change website. Our satellite images showed up in art galleries and museums; our graphs and data were used at science events all over the world. But by the end of Trump’s term, NASA Climate’s social media presence had dwindled to almost nonexistent. I’ve spoken with former co-workers still at NASA, who don’t want to go on the record for fear that doing so would put their jobs and livelihood at risk, but they all say they’ve been forced to work under similar restrictions and acknowledge the diminishment of NASA’s climate website and social media.

After that Post piece came out in February 2017, Veronica McGregor, manager of JPL Media Relations, imposed strict approval requirements on our climate web team. The new editorial policy mandated “both management and Media Relations review all posts.” Every blog, tweet or Facebook post—even something as simple as a photo of a glacier—needed to go back and forth among a manager or more often two managers, a scientist and a team from Media Relations, which meant there were times when a single post had as many as six authors and took hours or even days to publish.

McGregor and the other managers were all career NASA employees and not political appointees acting on Trump’s orders; I have no way to be sure why they chose to take this path, but the impact of the publishing rules was that the Media Relations team was able to insert themselves into the scientific communication approval process, an act in itself antithetical to science, which is supposed to be unbiased and apolitical. The restrictive review process also made science communication less robust and less timely. It impeded my ability to publish photos, videos, articles and social media posts, so less material got out to the public.

Soon after, I was told by higher-ups including JPL’s director of the Office of Communication, also a career employee rather than a political appointee, to stop reporting on and sharing climate-related content from other government agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Weather Service and the Department of Energy—groups I’d been collaborating with for years. I was also banned from working with non-NASA academic climate scientists and educators.

Over the year leading up to February 2017, I’d been reporting on a team of glaciologists digging for ice cores in Antarctica. They would call me on their satellite phone from remote sections of the Antarctic ice sheet to update me on their research, which I would share with the public in near real time. That team of glaciologists was headed to Greenland in March, the same time I was scheduled to be there. It would have been the perfect opportunity to tell the story of ice melt from above and below. But my manager forced me to cancel our ongoing interviews.

By early 2017, large projects I’d been working on—such as a Greenhouse Gas Viewer, which explained the consequences of increased carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere, and an updated Sea Level Viewer, which showed increased sea levels around the globe—were axed.

Government censorship of climate-change information isn’t new. It happened during the Reagan Administration and in both Bush administrations. For years, politicians, as well as coal, oil and gas companies and other moneyed interests, established and then promoted organized disinformation campaigns. These lies about the dangers of climate change, along with science denial, had real repercussions, as Trump’s lies certainly will. But scientists from within government had pushed back.

I felt adamant about pushing back again. Yet NASA managers feared someone from the Trump Administration might discover our climate-change website and, as Pruitt did with the EPA’s climate site, take it down. So the goal became publishing just enough material to keep people from noticing the decline in content, while ensuring any new material be as bland and uncontroversial as possible to avoid attention from the Administration.

But noticing the diminished content didn’t require a degree in rocket science. Anyone could scroll through NASA’s climate website and social media pages to see the abrupt transformation that began after Trump took office. Post-Trump articles either focused on a technical aspect of a NASA science instrument or conveniently left out the term climate change. Many were simply reposts from NASA’s other earth-science pages, such as Earth Observatory or NASA Earth. Nevertheless, whenever journalists questioned the obvious modifications, JPL’s Media Relations and Steve Cole, earth-science public-affairs officer at NASA HQ, another career employee, would say it was par for the course. “We’re doing our jobs, it’s business as usual,” Cole told the Washington Post on Feb. 16, 2017.

In mid-March, I gave a presentation at South by Southwest, the high-profile technology and media conference, where NASA regularly had a booth and a number of panels. NASA HQ sent a list of talking points, which did not include the word climate. The document did give the following general advice:

A “No comment” should be avoided at all costs. It’s much better to pivot away from the subject of the question to give the reporter a related NASA positive. Rather than give a direct response to the question, give some positive info on the work we do at NASA now.

For example: “How do you feel about the suppression of government social media accounts?” Response: “NASA has a lot of great social media accounts where we make our science and data available to everyone around the world. We are very open and that’s going on right now. Have you seen them?”

On March 15, 2017, after my SXSW panel, I flew to Greenland to embed with a NASA science campaign studying ice-mass loss around the coastline. The trip had been scheduled months in advance, and at this point, management’s rollout of the new restrictions was chaotic and disorganized. They didn’t stop me, and I didn’t ask why. I simply went. When I was with the same team during Obama’s tenure, I’d hosted multiple Facebook Live events, took tons of photos from the field, live-tweeted and published a series of seven articles on NASA’s climate website. But under Trump, I managed to publish only two pieces. I forwarded ideas for social media text and images back to the team at home. A handful squeaked through the layers of approval.

When I returned home, I received a meeting invitation from NASA’s ethics office. A representative from human resources joined us. They explained that they would be watching my work more closely. I felt intimidated and asked why I was singled out. The human-resources rep answered that it was because President Trump said climate change was a hoax, which meant the topic was sensitive.

By the summer of 2017, I had little left to do. I’d been stripped of my social media duties back in February, some of my co-workers had been moved to other departments, and anything I wrote was either banned or interminably stuck in review. For example, by September, a story I’d written in March about how we know people cause climate change had notes from 19 editors and was too unintelligible to read. My time during these months was largely spent meeting with managers telling me what I was no longer allowed to do. The toxicity got to me. I was drinking too much and stress-crying. I kept copies of unusual texts and emails and wondered how many others kept records.

In late August 2017, a reporter from Vice News noticed changes to NASA’s climate website and requested an interview with me. I sent his request to Media Relations, but instead of arranging a normal interview, they interceded and answered the questions he’d directed to me. Nonetheless, the Vice News reporter forwarded the email thread to me.

The responses to his questions—about the decline in the number and frequency of blog postings; changes to the character of the NASA Climate Twitter account; less coverage of topics explicitly related to climate change—were false, deceptive or simply didn’t answer the questions. “No, there’s been no change in the pace of publishing of NASA climate news and data on the website,” the Media Relations team wrote at one point. This was plainly false: in 2015, the site published 33 pieces, compared with six in 2017.

The deception bothered me. Without honesty and integrity, what did NASA stand for? I felt dismayed by the number of co-workers who went along with the censorship; who conformed, stood down, lay low. I wished more people had spoken up, but I knew that each of them had their own complex reasons for staying. I ultimately decided that communicating honestly about the gravity of climate change was more important to me than protecting NASA. After I was blocked from speaking to the press, I went to HR to discuss my frustrations. That’s when the HR rep suggested I take an unpaid leave of absence.

There was no agreed-upon term for the leave, and a couple of months later, I reached out to my manager, who told me she would be thrilled to have me back. But days later, the leave coordinator called to tell me that my position had been eliminated.

Since then, NASA’s Global Climate Change website has been hobbled, merely reposting stories from other NASA sites. For example, in mid-September 2020, as fires raged across the Western U.S. and a series of hurricanes slammed the Gulf Coast, the featured story on NASA’s Global Climate Change website was a long-winded piece about “Climate Sensitivity” along with a visualization highlighting instruments that measure carbon monoxide from the fires, which avoided mentioning the words climate change. NASA’s climate blog used to be updated at least three times a month; as of this writing, the most recent post is dated Sept. 8, 2020.

Alexander Vindman, former director of European affairs for the U.S. National Security Council under Trump, told NBC Nightly News in September, “in order to prevent yourself from running afoul of [the Trump] Administration, you need to compromise your values.” This was equally true for both high-level government appointees like Vindman and midlevel employees like me. The legacy of Trumpism won’t just be denial of climate science or medical science or basic facts. The legacy of Trumpism will be the hollowing-out of respected federal agencies like NASA and the CDC and the destructive effects of these losses yet to come.

Under the Biden Administration, scientific institutions might eventually recover. The new President has appointed Gavin Schmidt, a top NASA scientist, to the position of acting senior climate adviser, a new role formed to help put greater focus on the agency’s research on climate change. But rebuilding the government and restoring the federal climate-science apparatus won’t be easy. These scientific institutions will also need to regain public trust—far too many Americans believed Trump’s lies about climate science, just as they believed his lies about COVID-19 and election fraud. And just as with this pandemic, the sooner we start doing the right thing—making decisions based on sound, evidence-based research—the more we can avoid the most dangerous outcomes.

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