UCSD scientists worry Trump could suppress climate change data


UC San Diego may accelerate plans to preserve its climate data due to growing concerns among faculty members that the Trump administration could interfere with their work.

Campus officials intend to discuss what they should do during a March 21 meeting at the school’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, whose research has been used for decades to shape climate agreements.

The ideas include real-time storage and protection of data that Scripps collects around the world — from the Antarctic to the Indian Ocean to California’s coastline.


The situation at UC San Diego resembles efforts by scientists, librarians, environmental activists and others across the country to preserve climate data housed at colleges and on government websites.

Representatives of the University of Michigan and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said they’re worried that President Trump and his team could suppress information that’s central to policy discussions, international treaties and business regulations.

In the past two months, the Trump administration has scrubbed mentions of climate change from several White House web pages.

It also has removed a variety of data from federal websites, making them available only through specialized requests. And it’s aiming to impose double-digit cuts to a range of agencies, including those with deep involvement in climate science.

But there’s no evidence that Trump and his assistants have destroyed any climate data, and they haven’t indicated any intention to do so.

The situation reflects how politicized climate-change discussions have become. As Trump uses his high profile to criticize the scientific community’s main findings on climate change, researchers increasingly ponder worst-case actions by his administration.


The president has repeatedly denied the existence of global warming or cast doubt on it. He has called climate change an “expensive hoax” and said, “I am not a great believer in man-made climate change.”

Scott Pruitt — head of the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal government’s leading enforcer on climate-change issues — said last week that he doesn’t believe carbon dioxide is a “primary contributor” to climate change.

The same remarks are fueling anxiety in research labs and stoking interest in political protests, including the March for Science, which is set to be held in Washington and other locations on April 22 — Earth Day.

UC San Diego, one of the nation’s 10 largest research universities, sharpened its focus on climate data 18 months ago after learning that the federal government is trimming support for archiving such information.

But the apprehension about Trump’s views on climate change have given a sense of urgency to that project, said those involved with the undertaking.

“It is a reaction to the concerns of the scholarly community and the scientific research community about the effect that the new presidency has vis-à-vis climate change, vis-à-vis any other of a number of things,” said Brian Schottlaender, the university’s head librarian. “The stakes are up. The stakes are high. There’s more at risk now.”


Margaret Leinen, the director of Scripps, said it would be “incorrect to say that this effort began with a reaction to concerns about the new presidency. Concerns about this presidency amplified concerns that were already present about stewardship of the rich data legacy that our [Scripps’] focus on observing the planet has left us.”

Scripps has been a world leader on studying climate change since the 1950s, when Charles David Keeling began taking daily measurements of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere.

His data became known as the Keeling Curve because it showed the buildup of CO2 over time. That body of work helped lead to a consensus among most scientists that the rise in CO2 — created by everything from factory operations to vehicle commuting — is a primary factor in man-made global warming.

Keeling’s findings and other landmark discoveries by Scripps helped to shape the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which is meant to repair damage to Earth’s ozone layer, and the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to get both developed and developing countries to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions.

Some scientists believe that in the current political environment, such data could be suppressed or perhaps even destroyed, which in some cases could be illegal under federal law.

“There’s a big difference between outright destroying of records and removing easy online access,” said Anne Jefferson, a hydrologist at Kent State University who relies heavily on government data for her research. “If you take the data sets offline, you can effectively make the request process so difficult that many people will give up.”


A number of grass-roots campaigns are scrambling to harvest climate data from government websites, including those for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.These archiving efforts are being organized by The Libraries Network in coordination with the Data Refuge Project.

They’re a mix of ongoing campaigns as well as special events, such as those at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, MIT, Harvard University, UC Davis, UCLA and UC Berkeley.

Data Refuge grew out of a push started in 2014 at the University of Pennsylvania to organize and store information relevant to environmental studies, according to its website.

Since December, the project’s website has been a hub for everyone from scholars to data nerds looking to volunteer their time at “data rescue events.”

“I see these efforts as reflecting a broader and deeper concern about the future of climate science under the Trump administration, a fear that is well founded given the likely direction of federal funding for climate science,” said David Victor, a professor of global politics at UC San Diego who has focused on climate change policy.

But he added: “I doubt that the worst fears of some climate scientists will actually happen. I doubt federal climate data will be deleted since that would be illegal in most circumstances.”


UC San Diego officials said they haven’t established a timeline for their university’s data preservation project.

Schottlaender, the librarian, said the project hasn’t required special funding because the chancellor had already made financial investments to expand data storage capacity at the school.