You’ve heard about the concerns regarding federal climate and environmental data. So what’s next?

A slightly modified verison of this post first ran on the Issues and Advocacy Roundtable blog. Post by Eira Tansey, University of Cincinnati.


Shortly after the results of the US election, many who rely on federal climate and environmental data became very concerned about the continuing public availability of this data in the new administration. I am among this group myself, as my research partners from Penn State and I use data sets from NOAA to map climate change risks to American archival repositories. In the past few weeks, institutions such as the University of Toronto and the Penn Environmental Humanities Lab began to organize hackathons in order to seed the End of Term Project with climate and environmental webpages, and determine ways to effectively copy large data sets. The issue gained steam over the weekend when climate journalist and meteorologist Eric Holthaus began tweeting about it, and has gained major news coverage with stories in the Washington Post and Vice.


As a leader within ProjectARCC (Archivists Responding to Climate Change), I had reached out to individuals at Toronto and Penn to get more information about their projects as soon as I heard about them, including the role of librarians and archivists in their efforts. Representatives from the University of Toronto and Penn joined last night’s monthly ProjectARCC conference call to update us on their efforts.


Things are moving very swiftly right now on all of these fronts, so additional posts will be forthcoming as information and efforts are updated.


What is already in place?


Fellows from the Penn Environmental Humanities Lab began raising the issue of vulnerable environmental data with a hackathon earlier this month. The Penn Environmental Humanities Lab is now quickly organizing on many of the issues associated with downloading and distributing the work of copying the many data sets scientists rely on. You can read their initial vision here, their preliminary take on how not all data sets may be equally vulnerable, and yesterday’s update regarding their taking over the initial crowdsourced spreadsheet that Eric Holthaus started, as well as their collaborative work with the University of Toronto.


The University of Toronto is hosting a “guerrilla archiving” event on December 17. This event will focus on EPA page URLs that will be seeded for the End of Term project.


What is next?


The folks at Penn and Toronto have received a massive outpouring of interest. Which is great! It also means that they need to take some time to organize their efforts, so that they can evaluate the offers of help/storage space/etc most effectively. You can visit Penn’s #DataRefuge website, which just went live yesterday, to learn more about the efforts as they evolve.


Beyond the work that is coming out of the Toronto event on December 17, Toronto and Penn are planning to develop a toolkit that other institutions can use to host their own hackathons.


The Penn folks are currently setting up contacts with representatives from many organizations, including the Society of American Archivists.


How can you help?


The Penn #DataRefuge project now has a “I’d like to help” form. You can submit your response here.


If you have any .gov pages you would like to nominate for the End of Term web archiving project, you can do that right now using the End of Term Nomination Tool.


Why are people so worried about this to begin with?


Several departments and agencies within the federal government, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Interior, Department of Energy, National Aeronautic and Space Administration, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (to name but a few), create myriad and massive data sets related to monitoring pollution of air and water, weather patterns, energy usage, and tracking indicators associated with climate change (ocean temperature and acidification, sea level modeling, and global temperature records).


The incoming Trump administration is signalling that it will likely be hostile to the established consensus science on climate change, as well as existing pollution regulations. The President Elect has denied the reality of global warming, and has made a series of appointments that have a legislative or business record of undermining environmental regulation and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many of the recent appointments have extensive ties to the fossil fuel industry, including the nominee for the EPA (Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma Attorney General) and the nominee for Secretary of State (Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil). Multiple meta-surveys of climate science papers have established that climate change is real, and that it is primarily driven by human activities. The last publication on this extensively documented issue includes one published in April 2016, showing that between 90-100% of climate scientists themselves are in consensus on the causes of global warming, and 18 of America’s prominent scientific organizations are in agreement on the science showing that climate change is primarily driven by human activities.


Researchers are worried funding will be cut from existing federal environmental and climate monitoring and research efforts, but also about continued access to currently public data sets. It remains to be seen whether many of the recent Open Government initiatives that increased public access to federal data will receive the same level of support in the next administration. If data sets are removed from public access, this could mean that researchers would be required to file FOIA requests for access to data sets. With similarly extensive ties to the fossil fuel industry, during the Bush administration scientists documented dozens of instances of manipulation of scientific advice, restrictions on federal scientists’ work, and cutbacks on public access to environmental information (the most famous case probably being the proposed closure of EPA libraries). Some Canadians are alarmed by what could happen in the United States, given how the Harper administration also reduced public access to federal environmental data.


For now, researchers are in wait and see mode, but most are erring on the side of being overly cautious — hence why so many have mobilized to copy the data that is currently available as fast as possible.


For questions about the current status of this work, please feel free to contact

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