Fearing climate change databases may be threatened in Trump era, UCLA scientists work to protect them

Scientists rally for climate change research during a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco last year. At UCLA, climate scientists marked President Trump's inauguration by making plans to protect their research data.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

On a rainy Inauguration Day morning, dozens of students, archivists, librarians, professors and other concerned citizens gathered in a UCLA classroom, poring over the Department of Energy website. They sifted through pages covering a broad spectrum of topics, from energy-efficient buildings and solar power to transportation and bioenergy.

The goal of Friday’s workshop, which ran more than six hours: To protect publicly available climate data on government websites – data that some feared could be deleted or otherwise degraded by a new administration that has indicated its aversion to climate science.

“Climate change data is specifically under attack,” said Joan Donovan, a researcher with UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics who spoke on a panel at the event. “There are real stakes to doing the work we’re doing today.”


Without good data, researchers said, you can’t make good policy. Scientific data, carefully taken over many decades, are essential for crafting a long-term strategy to deal with climate change.

“I am not ‘post-truth’ and neither should you be,” Donovan told the attendees. “Today we are fighting a war of information.”

President Trump has called climate change a hoax; his pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Atty. Gen. Scott Pruitt, has repeatedly sued the EPA and in a confirmation hearing said he did not accept the overwhelming scientific consensus that Earth is warming at a catastrophic rate and that human activity is to blame.

The workshop, planned by UCLA information studies graduate students Jennifer Pierre, Brittany Paris, Irene Pasquetto and Morgan Currie in a matter of weeks, was inspired by a “hackathon” hosted by the University of Toronto in December to preserve U.S. environmental data.

For Michelle Murphy, one of the organizers of the hackathon and director of the University of Toronto’s Technoscience Research Unit, the fear that a new administration might wage a war on climate science was rooted in experience — during the years that Conservative Stephen Harper served as Canada’s prime minister, from 2006 to 2015.

“Up here in Canada, under the Harper administration, we saw scientists being fired, scientists being muzzled, data lost, archives destroyed, regulations changed – and there was a big movement here around evidence and evidenced-based governance,” said Murphy, a founding member of the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative.


Since the University of Toronto hackathon, similar efforts have sprung up across the United States, including in Philadelphia, Chicago and Indianapolis. Data are being uploaded to the Internet Archive, a nonprofit digital library, as well as through DataRefuge, an initiative out of the University of Pennsylvania.

Some volunteers worked to “nominate” pages whose data might not have been captured by automatic webcrawlers used by the Internet Archive; others with more technical skills were building scripts that could pull the inaccessible information off those less accessible sites. Among their priorities: making sure that the metadata and other key contextual information is preserved along with the information itself.

It’s also not enough to blindly copy the data, Donovan pointed out. Such information, like a fossil dug haphazardly out of the ground, isn’t all that useful without knowing its original context. That’s why it’s essential to draw on the wisdom of archivists, who know how to properly preserve that information for use by future generations.

Some students and professionals said they attended the event to participate in an activity that, on Inauguration Day, felt both proactive and productive; others said they came simply to learn about and discuss broader issues in data science.

“I’m just glad to learn these things so that I can know how to do this later, too,” said Sara Bond, a UCLA graduate student in information science.

Fellow graduate student Ellen Colvin, sitting next to her, agreed.

“Guaranteed, more information’s just going to go away,” she said. “And it’s going to be our job to try and stop it — to stem the flow.”

Sibyl Schaefer, a digital preservation analyst with the UC San Diego Library, noted that information doesn’t need to be deleted to be damaged.

“I think the bigger threat is the actual funding of the collection of the data,” she said. “Some of that longitudinal data, if you stop collecting it, you have a gap in the record — which is scary.”

The urgency of the event was driven home earlier that morning, when Jonathan Furner, chairman of UCLA’s information studies department, stood up in the middle of a discussion to make a breaking-news announcement.

“The headline that I’m looking at right now is ‘Donald Trump just replaced the White House climate website with nothing,’” he said. “All data about climate change has been deleted from the White House website.”

A pall spread over the room, but soon broke.

“The archive got it,” someone said.

The important thing was not the White House’s information page, which changes with every administration, but the EPA’s databases, the researchers said. And much of that data had already been protected.

Still, they added, there are plenty of climate science data in the constellation of government-funded sites still waiting to be saved. And the removal of climate change from the White House site sent a clear signal to groups trying to salvage that information — which is why the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative is calling for funds to help finish the work as soon as possible.

“If we cannot raise sufficient funds by the time the president’s full team is in place, data under the EPA and other organizations is at dire risk,” Ted Bordelon of the nonprofit 314 Action, which has partnered with EDGI on the archiving effort, said in a statement.

Follow @aminawrite on Twitter for more science news and “like” Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.


On Trump’s White House website, no more mention of climate change

The last time the oceans got this warm, sea levels were 20 to 30 feet higher than they are today

Earth sets heat record in 2016 — for the third year in a row