Trump Admin Ordered ‘Climate Censorship’ in Plans to Lease Texas Public Lands for Fossil Fuel Extraction
An environmental group has uncovered another case of "climate censorship" ordered by the Trump administration.
Administration officials had references to the climate crisis removed from a Forest Service notice of intent (NOI) to prepare an environmental impact statement on opening national forests and grasslands in Texas to oil and gas leasing.
"The Deputy who is reviewing the NOI requested every reference to 'climate' and 'greenhouse gasses' be removed. We did," Robert Potts, the Forest Service's natural resources and planning team leader in Lufkin, Texas, wrote in a July 25 email obtained by environmental group the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).
CBD obtained the email through a Freedom of Information Act request after it noticed something strange about two different versions of the NOI posted in the Federal Register, E&E News reported Wednesday. The first, posted Aug. 26, mentioned climate change and greenhouse gases. The second, which replaced it the next day, did not.
"This is another example of climate censorship that we've been seeing as a pattern under the Trump administration," CBD senior public lands campaigner Taylor McKinnon told the Houston Chronicle.
The drilling plans concern areas of the Sam Houston National Forest, Davy Crockett National Forest, Angelina National Forest, Sabine National Forest, Caddo National Grasslands and LBJ National Grasslands, which are parts of the Haynesville and Barnett shales. The Obama administration barred new oil and gas leasing on the lands in 2016 over concerns about the health and environmental impacts of fracking. The Trump administration is now looking to open them to new leasing once again and is working to supplement the last oil and gas analysis of the area, which was conducted in the 1990s, according to E&E News.
The first version of the NOI mentioned climate in relation to the 1996 environmental impact statement. It noted that the earlier statement did not analyze "current issues" like climate or greenhouse gases, and that a new statement would need to include them.
The second draft, however, removed climate and greenhouse gases from the current issues that would need to be considered. It also deleted "impacts from greenhouse gas emissions" from the list of "preliminary issues" that the statement would need to consider.
One Forest Service employee was apparently caught off guard by the requests, according to the email obtained by CBD.
In the email, Potts mentioned getting a call from Cynthia West, the director of the Forest Service's Office of Sustainability and Climate Change.
"She seemed surprised (and not surprised) about the request to remove references to climate and greenhouse gasses," Potts wrote. "All of her interactions with the Department have been very supportive of the work in her office (in spite of what the main stream media reports about the 'Administration.')"
In a statement provided to E&E News and the Houston Chronicle, the Forest Service denied that there was any policy implication behind the changes.
"The request was editorial in nature and does not reflect any policy on use of terminology or any policy regarding emissions associated with oil and gas development or climate," the service said.
However, McKinnon expressed concern about what the changes would mean for the quality of the eventual environmental impact statement (EIS).
"The bigger concern here is the issue of meddling and censorship," McKinnon told E&E News. "If it happens at this stage, it could certainly happen later in the EIS process. So we are concerned about the future of this EIS."
The Trump administration has deleted references to climate change from government documents or websites at least 184 times, the Houston Chronicle reported based on the work of the "Silencing Science Tracker" run by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. Both the Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which houses it, have maintained references to climate change on their websites, E&E News reported.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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