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Energy Department staff should refuse to answer Trump’s intimidating climate questions

Energy Department staff should refuse to answer Trump’s intimidating climate questions


An effort to single out employees

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The Department of Energy headquarters in Washington, DC
The Department of Energy headquarters in Washington, DC
Dept. of Energy

Last week, Bloomberg reported that President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team issued a questionnaire to the Energy Department, asking for a list of employees who have attended climate meetings and have worked on efforts to reduce the US’s carbon emissions. Senior DOE officials should refuse to answer the questions that seek to single out scientists for their work during the Obama administration. The Trump presidency hasn’t even started yet, but it’s already time for some civil disobedience.

The questionnaire inquires about a number of DOE activities, including research and loan programs, the mechanisms behind certain climate models, and the Energy Information Administration — the agency’s independent arm for energy statistics and analysis. It then asks for “a list of all Department of Energy employees or contractors” who have attended United Nations climate meetings, as well as interagency meetings on the “social cost of carbon” — a way of estimating the economic damages associated with greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s already time for some civil disobedience

It’s normal for new presidents’ transition teams to seek information about ongoing programs and activities within a federal agency. But the questions sent by Trump’s team ask for specific names and single out only the employees who are involved in the climate change field — and that’s intimidating.

“It is highly unusual and of great concern that the transition team seems to be trying to identify civil service employees and research scientists who worked on key elements of the Obama Administration's carbon-reducing program,” Paul Sabin, an environmental historian at Yale University, wrote in an email to The Verge. “The questionnaire raises even greater concern when put in context, because it is part of a larger campaign that has unfolded in recent years to harass and target individual climate scientists.”

It’s not exactly clear why the Trump transition team wants the names of the people who’ve taken part in climate talks and helped with the implementation of Obama’s climate policies, but it’s easy to imagine. Considering how Trump goes after individual citizens, attacking them on Twitter and unleashing hell from trolls, compiling lists of federal employees based on the work they’ve done is scary.

It looks like the team is seeking the information to purge the Department of Energy of people who are climate scientists or worked on climate deals, says Ken Kimmell, the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It does seem to be intimidating, unnecessary,” he tells The Verge. “We don’t understand any legitimate purpose for it.”

The list is eerily reminiscent of Lysenkoism — the USSR purge of geneticists. Trofim Lysenko was the the Director of the VI Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences under Joseph Stalin. He rejected the science of genetics, and instead believed that plant species could be quickly forced to change — Lysenko believed that if all the leaves were plucked off a plant, for example, its offspring would also be leafless. Soviet scientists who disagreed were sent to concentration camps and even killed. Food shortages resulting from crop failures eventually forced Lysenko from power.

“It does seem to be intimidating, unnecessary.”

“Lysenko was a tyrant who used politics and public popularity to suppress free scientific thinking and those who opposed him,” write Yongsheng Liu, Baoyin Li & Qinglian Wang, of the Henan Institute of Science and Technology in Xinxiang, China, in a 2009 article in Embo Reports. “The history of Lysenkoism and its devastating effect on Soviet research stands as a warning to those who argue that scientific research ought to answer to public opinion or political decisions.”

Trump can’t use information from the DOE questionnaire to purge employees; civil service rules prevent politically motivated firings. Energy Department officials should just refuse to answer those specific questions; they should protect the identity of individual employees and contractors who’ve worked on climate within the DOE. If the Trump transition team really wants to get that information, they can try to obtain it through Freedom of Information requests. There’s no reason why DOE officials should present the names of all the employees who worked on climate change policy on a golden plate.