Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

August 8, 2017

Interior Dept official blows whistle on Trump threat to Alaskan villages

Meet the Senior Federal Official Blowing the Whistle on Trump's Suppression of Climate Science

Democracy Now!

Is the Trump administration trying to silence government scientists from working or talking about climate change? According to news reports, as many as 50 senior Interior Department officials have been reassigned since Ryan Zinke became head of the department. We speak with Joel Clement, a senior official at the Interior Department. Up until recently, he focused on the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities in the Arctic. But, without explanation, Clement was recently transferred to an unrelated job within the Interior Department—he now collects royalty checks from oil and gas companies. Clement believes he was targeted for speaking out about climate change. He went public with his concerns in the pages of The Washington Post, where he wrote a piece titled "I’m a scientist. I’m blowing the whistle on the Trump administration."

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Is the Trump administration trying to silence government scientists from working or talking about climate change? That’s a growing concern in Washington. On Monday, The Guardian reported staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been instructed to avoid using the term "climate change" in their work.
Meanwhile, The New York Times has published a draft of an alarming government report looking at how climate change is already causing drastic impacts in the United States. The report found the average temperature in the U.S. has risen dramatically since 1980. Scientists who worked on the study fear the study will be changed or suppressed by the Trump administration.
AMY GOODMAN: Scientists working inside the government are also being silenced in other ways. We’re joined now by Joel Clement, senior official at the Interior Department. Up until recently, he focused on the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities in the Arctic. But, without explanation, Clement was recently transferred to an unrelated job within the Interior Department. He now collects royalty checks from oil and gas companies. Clement believes he was targeted for speaking out about climate change. He went public with his concerns in the pages of The Washington Post, where he wrote a piece headlined "I’m a scientist. I’m blowing the whistle on the Trump administration." According to news reports, as many as 50 other senior Interior Department officials have also been reassigned since Ryan Zinke became head of the department.
Joel Clement, welcome to Democracy Now! First, can you talk about the action that you took?
JOEL CLEMENT: I blew the whistle on the Trump administration because I believe they retaliated against me for disclosing the fact that these Alaska Native villages in the Arctic are threatened by climate change, and my work with the federal government to try and get those folks out of harm’s way.
AMY GOODMAN: And what has been the response of the administration?
JOEL CLEMENT: There has been no response yet. I didn’t hear anything from leadership before the reassignment or after the reassignment, just to tell me where to move my things.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about this—the directive for your reassignment, from work as a scientist to basically work as an accountant, and how that happened or what explanation was given to you?
JOEL CLEMENT: Well, there was no explanation for that. I think the irony, of course, is not lost on me. I think the intention was that—to get me to quit. I think that that may have been the intention behind many of these reassignments. That’s why it’s very chilling, because that goes against a long list of rules and procedures in the federal government.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about the work that you were doing as a scientist in terms of the conditions in Alaska?
JOEL CLEMENT: Yeah. I was—I was coordinating the federal engagement here in Washington, D.C. The villages in Alaska are poised on permafrost that is melting. These islands are no longer locked in place. So the villages, in some cases, have voted to relocate. Others just want to get out of harm’s way, develop evacuation plans that are realistic. And my goal and my objective here in Washington was to get the federal act together on helping them do that. It’s an essential role. It can’t be done without full engagement here in Washington.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the landmark federal government report that has just been leaked that’s found the average temperature in the U.S. has risen dramatically since 1980 and that the impacts of climate change are already being felt across the country? The New York Times obtained and published a copy of the report amidst concerns from scientists that the study’s findings may be suppressed, changed or censored by the Trump administration, which has sought to deny the effects and human impacts of climate change. This just out yesterday and today.
JOEL CLEMENT: Yeah, that report is world-class science. That’s some of the best work that is done through the Global Change Research Program. Until my reassignment, I was the Department of the Interior principal to that program. This report is no secret. This has been going around. It’s gone through draft form. It’s been evaluated by the National Academies and many other very august scientific bodies. It is a concern that they would suppress this. I’m not surprised that it’s gotten out. There’s a long pattern within the Trump administration of muzzling and sidelining scientists and suppressing science. And for scientists, the integrity of their work and the integrity of the organizations they work for are paramount. And this pattern of undercutting scientific integrity is very, very worrisome.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about how long this report has been in the making? And very interesting that it came out just a few days after Sessions held a news conference about leakers, and we know it’s a top priority of General John Kelly, the chief of staff now of President Trump.
JOEL CLEMENT: This report’s been in the works for a very long time, over a year. These reports that come out of the GCRP, the Global Change Research Program, are very meticulous. They’re very well reviewed. It’s a long drafting process. Some would say it just takes too long, you’re being too careful. But the fact is, you have to do that. It’s important that that be done. And this has turned out to be very world-class work that they’ve developed.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, meanwhile, The Guardian has revealed that workers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been instructed not to use the words "climate change" in their reports. A series of emails show the censorship started immediately after Trump’s inauguration. In a January 24th email, a top official at the USDA unit that oversees farmers’ land conservation wrote to other senior officials, quote, "It has become clear one of the previous administration’s priority is not consistent with that of the incoming administration. Namely, that priority is climate change. Please visit with your staff and make them aware of this shift in perspective within the executive branch," unquote. Can you talk about what kind of pressure you’ve received, or other scientists that you know of, in terms of your work on climate change?
JOEL CLEMENT: Well, first, I have to say that’s absolutely chilling to hear those words. And we at DOI have been very nervous about this, as well. I will say, though, that those of us at DOI, we work on climate adaptation and climate change resilience issues. We didn’t think that we would be targeted for this kind of suppression, because what we’re dealing with are the impacts that are already baked into the system. And there are consequences. For example, the Native—Alaska Native communities in Alaska, there are direct consequences to American health and safety if we—if that is suppressed and we are forced to step away from the table. So this is extremely chilling to hear. Department of Interior is also—it feels there’s some hostility. Everyone is looking over their shoulders, a lot of concern about those that have worked with anything that even sniffs of climate change, even if it’s adaptation and resilience.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, you filed a couple of forms, a complaint and a disclosure of information with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. Could you talk about what those—what those filings represent, from your perspective?
JOEL CLEMENT: Yeah, there are two filings. One, the complaint about being retaliated against for disclosing the threats that climate change poses to these Alaska Native communities. And that’s where the consequences—the rubber hits the road. Many of us lay awake at night wondering what’s going to happen in the coming storm season, which is upon us in just a few weeks up there. So that is a direct concern for the health and safety of Americans.
Also filed a disclosure about the—that mass reassignment process. That was very unusual, raised a lot of eyebrows. It appeared very clear that they were trying to shake some people loose and get them to quit or retire, which is absolutely not what the Senior Executive Service procedures are meant to be used for. They’re meant to be used to move senior executives around. We understand it’s a mobile workforce. We all sign up for that. But it’s not meant to try and get people to quit, or to retaliate against them.
AMY GOODMAN: Joel Clement, can you talk, overall, about the response of other scientists within not only Interior? You know, we were down in Washington on Earth Day for the March for Science. There were many government scientists who were there among the thousands of people, deeply concerned. And I was wondering specifically about Ryan Zinke, the former congressman from Montana, who heads your department. Did he personally reassign you?
JOEL CLEMENT: The reassignment letters came from the associate deputy secretary, so, no, it wasn’t a personal reassignment. But, of course, the secretary has to sign off on all such reassignments. And it is—there is certainly a lot of concern amongst all federal scientists right now that the incoming leadership is being very ham-handed about how they’re trying to suppress this information, and, I think, quite reckless, in fact. So, I’m hoping that there will be others like me to speak up, because this is something that has direct consequences for American health and safety.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in news from Washington, D.C., recently resurfaced blog posts show that Trump’s nominee for the Department of Agriculture’s top scientist, Sam Clovis, called progressives, quote, "race traitors" and "liars" and called President Obama a socialist supported by what he said were "criminal dissidents who were bent on overthrowing the government of the United States," unquote. Clovis has come under fire for lacking the credentials to be the Agriculture Department’s top scientist, given that he’s published few peer-reviewed research papers, has no experience with agricultural research and denies the human impact on climate change. I’m wondering: Your sense of some of the appointees so far to key positions in the Trump administration in terms of science?
JOEL CLEMENT: Well, I won’t speak to the qualifications of specific individuals. I think there is, of course, this pattern of putting special interests before the interests of Americans. And that’s—in fact, that’s vexing, because they’re talking about "America first," but they’re putting special interests first and putting Americans last. And that’s why I’m so worried about, right now, the consequences for people like the village of Shishmaref up in Alaska.
AMY GOODMAN: Just talking more about Clovis, though you don’t specifically know him, nominated by President Trump, he was an F-16 fighter pilot turned defense contractor turned conservative radio host in Sioux City, Iowa. He was a failed U.S. Senate candidate, now the pick for the Department of Agriculture’s chief scientist, a position that, by law, must be drawn from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education and economics. I’m reading from a Politico piece. Does this fit a trend, Joel Clement?
JOEL CLEMENT: It appears to fit the trend. It’s vexing. It’s of concern particularly to scientists within the federal government that feel that their work is being compromised and suppressed, but also it’s chilling because these are the leaders that are coming in that are meant to interpret that work and serve it up to the American public. So, it is—this is a very disturbing trend. And hopefully this administration will step back, because they’re being very sort of transparent about this, and have a close look at what the consequences might be for American health and safety, because, ultimately, if there is a superstorm in the Arctic, for example, and one of these villages gets wiped off the map or there’s loss of life, heaven forbid, it’s on their watch. And this is a—this is a major concern for many of us.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what has been the reaction by your fellow scientists who—because you’re still working at the agency, and also your superiors, to your pretty public statements now that you’ve made in numerous interviews in the past few weeks?
JOEL CLEMENT: Well, there’s a great contrast between those two reactions. I have heard nothing from my superiors or the leadership at the department or the White House. But I have heard just a groundswell of response from my colleagues, both at Interior and in other agencies, thanking me for speaking up, feeling empowered to do the same, should the opportunity present, and, in general, appreciating the fact that there is a voice out there saying, "Hey, you know, you’ve got rights. You’ve got a voice. Please us it."
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Senator Al Franken questioning Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in June.
SEN. AL FRANKEN: Can you tell how much warming government scientists predict for the end of this century under a business-as-usual scenario?
INTERIOR SECRETARY RYAN ZINKE: Well, the Paris accord, in the president and my’s judgment, it wasn’t about climate change. It was about a bad deal. We spent $3 billion, $1 billion in cash—
SEN. AL FRANKEN: Let me just—I know we’re out of time, so can you just answer my question? Can you tell me how much warming government scientists predict for the end of this century under a business-as-usual scenario?
INTERIOR SECRETARY RYAN ZINKE: I don’t think the government scientists can predict with certainty. There isn’t a model that exists today that can predict today’s weather, given all the data—
SEN. AL FRANKEN: Well, they predict a range. And you said we have to go with the science. That’s what you said during the early part of this hearing. You said we have to go with the science. And there is agreement among climate scientists about the range of what we would have in warming by the end of the century. Do you know what that range is?
INTERIOR SECRETARY RYAN ZINKE: If everyone adhered to the Paris climate accord, that change would be roughly 0.2 degrees, which is insignificant. And yet people ignore the fact—
SEN. AL FRANKEN: No, no, no.
SEN. AL FRANKEN: No, no, no.
INTERIOR SECRETARY RYAN ZINKE: That was an M—that was an MIT study. We can give you—
SEN. AL FRANKEN: That was a—that was what the change would be under the period covered by the agreement. That’s not what the change would be in the end of the century if they continued it. So you’re really mixing apples and oranges.
AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Minnesota Senator Al Franken questioning your boss, Joel Clement, the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
JOEL CLEMENT: Yeah, that’s—I certainly listened in to that hearing. And, of course, it’s very disturbing to hear leadership talking like that. That is, those are—those are sort of simplistic and poorly delivered talking points of the climate deniers. I will say it is very heartening for many of us to have good minds in Congress to take these folks to task, because it is important there are three branches to government, and there are checks and balances. And hopefully we can trust that system to some degree, because now Congress is very concerned, on many fronts, about the level of leadership and expertise that’s being brought in during this administration.
AMY GOODMAN: Last week, a senior official resigned from the Environmental Protection Agency, citing the Trump administration’s war on science and administrator Scott Pruitt’s business-friendly ties. Elizabeth Southerland, a 30-year veteran of the EPA, ended her tenure as director of the Office of Science and Technology for the agency’s Water Office. In a public letter of resignation, Southerland wrote, quote, "Today the environmental field is suffering from the temporary triumph of myth over truth. The truth is there is NO war on coal, there is NO economic crisis caused by environmental protection, and climate change IS caused by man’s activities." Do you know Elizabeth Southerland? Do you know other people in the government who are going to be resigning or speaking out, as you are, Joel Clement?
JOEL CLEMENT: I don’t know Elizabeth. I appreciate her words. I think she’s spot-on. I do know a lot of people that are asking themselves what to do next. This is a very difficult time for a civil servant. We are brought on to keep the ship of state running, regardless of the administration, this neutral competency to just focus on what’s good for Americans. And so, there are times—and I have spoken with many folks who have been through several transitions over the past few decades. They don’t recall any assault like this on the integrity of their work and on the quality of their work. This has been really vexing. A lot of people are certainly considering doing what Elizabeth has done.
But I have to say, I hope people stay in. I think you can have a voice, you can still speak out about these things, but stay in your positions in the civil service, because this is absolutely key. America without subject matter experts and climate scientists, that’s a frightening prospect. So, I am really impressed with her letter and her words. I hope others speak out. And I hope many choose to remain, as well. I know it’s very, very difficult—in some situations, untenable—to remain. But for those that can, I encourage people to and stick it out, because your work and your expertise is absolutely essential.
AMY GOODMAN: Joel Clement, you were the director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the U.S. Interior Department. So, what exactly are you doing now?
JOEL CLEMENT: I’ve been reassigned to the accounting office. They collect the royalty revenues from the oil and gas industry and mining industry. So, of course, the irony is pretty explicit. I don’t think there was any attempt to conceal the fact that they expected I would quit upon being reassigned.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Have you been surprised by the royalties you’ve been collecting?
JOEL CLEMENT: The numbers are certainly staggering. But that’s—you know, at this point, I haven’t been assigned to many duties. They’re now scrambling. This is an excellent office of people. Their auditors and their accounting people, they do a great job. I have no idea how to do those things. So they’re trying to find out now—they’re forced into the position of trying to find a way to incorporate and integrate a senior executive into their office. I’ll need to be retrained. There will need to be travel involved. It’s going to be an extensive process, and it’s all happening at taxpayer expense. So, it’s vexing not just for me and for the folks I used to work with, but also the office I’m going to. It’s a very difficult situation for them. So, overall, I think this classifies as a huge mistake. And, of course, I do see it as retaliation. That’s why I blew the whistle on the Trump administration for this action.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you going to be suing them?
JOEL CLEMENT: I have to trust the investigation process. You submit your whistleblower complaints to the Office of Special Counsel. They conduct an investigation. I’ll trust the process and, of course, hope that they will then direct the Department of the Interior to put me back in my position.
AMY GOODMAN: What is your biggest concern about the Trump administration?
JOEL CLEMENT: Well, the overall concern right now is the suppression. There’s been a long pattern, since the administration took over, of suppressing science, muzzling scientists, sidelining subject matter experts. The biggest concern is that doing so has huge consequences for Americans—and, particularly in my case, those Alaska Natives. I mean, that permafrost is melting. They’re fully exposed to storms now that the sea ice has receded. And that concern is not going to be limited to Alaska Natives for long. Right now they’re on the front lines, but every coastal city, the deserts of the Southwest, the farms of the Midwest that are getting these frequent and almost biblical deluges, these are direct impacts on the health and safety of Americans and our economic prosperity. So, I see this as an assault on our nation’s well-being, and that’s my biggest concern.
AMY GOODMAN: Joel Clement, we want to thank you for being with us, director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the U.S. Interior Department—well, until he was reassigned. And we will follow what happens to you, now senior adviser at the department’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue. We will link to your piece in The Washington Post headlined "I’m a scientist. I’m blowing the whistle on the Trump administration."
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, another whistleblower, who spent almost two years in jail, just recently out. John Kiriakou worked with the CIA and blew the whistle on torture. Stay with us.
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