Hundreds of environmental and climate scientists have left their posts at federal agencies under the Trump administration. That brain drain could pose problems for President-elect Joe Biden, who campaigned successfully on a promise to act swiftly on climate change. To make good on that promise, he’ll need to recoup the loss in talent.
Over the past four years, Donald Trump’s administration has worked to systematically dismantle existing efforts to tackle the climate crisis and limit other harms that come with burning fossil fuels. It’s worked to roll back over 100 environmental regulations aimed at protecting the air, planet, and people. It’s scraped the words “climate change” off government websites. Trump signed an executive order last year to slash the number of science advisory committees by a third across every federal agency. And his appointees have tried to impose new rules that would limit which scientists and what types of research can influence federal policy. Altogether, it’s created an environment that pushed experts out of government service. Over 1,600 federal scientists left their jobs in the first two years of Trump’s presidency, The Washington Post reported in January. Trump continued to inflict damage on federal science agencies earlier this week when he removed the scientist in charge of putting together the seminal national report on climate change that’s produced every four years. The move could potentially delay its publication.
“Much of the expertise of the federal bureaucracy has fled in horror, taken early retirement, or taken other jobs. And a lot of new talent that ordinarily would have gone into federal service decided not to,” said Michael Gerrard, founder and faculty director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. “Bringing back the talent pool of the federal government will take some time.”
Bringing science back
Biden’s climate goals, the most ambitious of any president to date, meet the scientific reality: we’re running out of time to stop the world from careening further into climate catastrophe. Global average temperatures have already gotten hot enough to besiege the US with more intense wildfires, hurricanes, and heat waves.
To keep things from getting worse, Biden needs to cut Americans’ greenhouse gas emissions drastically. He’s already signaled that it will be a top priority from “day one” of his term in office. He has grand plans to electrify vehicles, boost public transportation and clean energy, and slash more emissions from the power sector, buildings, and agriculture. It amounts to a huge overhaul of US infrastructure and lots of changes to how Americans go about their business. All that will require collaboration across much of the federal government.
There’s no single agency responsible for the nation’s climate research and policy — it’s spread out over agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and US Geological Survey. The Environmental Protection Agency plays a key role in overseeing the implementation of the Clean Air Act — the single most important federal statute relating to climate change, according to Gerrard. But Biden would also need to tap other bodies like the departments of transportation, energy, and agriculture to get a handle on all the nation’s sources of planet-heating pollution.
These groups’ capacity to take on one of the biggest existential threats to humanity will be crucial to Biden’s climate aims. Their role becomes even more key if Republicans maintain control of the Senate and hinder Biden’s ability to pass sweeping environmental legislation — forcing him to stick to moves he can make with his executive powers. President Obama did something similar when he faced deadlocks over climate in Congress. The EPA under Obama proposed a “Clean Power Plan” to get a handle on greenhouse gases, which Trump swiftly replaced with a weaker proposal.
“Another key element is trying to rebuild the budgets of these organizations,” Lori Bird, director of the US Energy Program at the nonprofit World Resources Institute, said during a press briefing. Trump sought to slash research funding at federal agencies in his budget proposals to Congress each year of his presidency. Smaller budgets not only kneecap research, they limit hiring, too. The EPA’s budget, for one, was more than $1.2 billion less in 2020 than it was in 2010, although budget drops since then began during the Obama administration. The agency’s workforce between 2018 and 2020 stood at 14,172 people, the lowest since 1987, according to the EPA’s website. In an email to The Verge, a spokesperson for the EPA said that it added 2,435 new staff to the agency since 2019 for a current head count of just over 15,000 staff — although it did not explain why that figure did not match the data on the website.
A climate of fear
“I saw signals all around me that I was not welcome at the Environmental Protection Agency,” says Vijay Limaye, an epidemiologist who studied air pollution at the agency from 2015 to 2017 and worked on water quality issues at the agency from 2007 to 2009. He was working in the Chicago regional office to study health disparities among primarily Black and brown neighborhoods burdened with more air pollution during his last stint there. He tells The Verge that once Trump was elected to office, he felt his area of work, which is typically described as the realm of environmental justice, was sidelined. The former head of environmental justice efforts at the EPA, Mustafa Santiago Ali, resigned in March 2017 after staying with the agency for 24 years. Ali penned a letter to then EPA administrator Scott Pruitt at the time pointing to cuts in environmental justice grant programs.
Limaye says he was encouraged by superiors to strike the term “environmental justice” from briefing memos he prepared because it might “raise flags” for political leadership. “If you can just imagine all the effort that went into basically placating these people who oftentimes lacked any scientific expertise, themselves, in order to basically avoid a four year-long kind of war with the political appointees,” Limaye says. “There was a lot of wasted effort, certainly in my experience, in just trying to mollify these people who had their own agenda that often undermined the basic science that I spent years working on.” Limaye left the EPA to join the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, which is now headed up by former EPA administrator under the Obama administration, Gina McCarthy.
“It was just this fear of confronting the organization, the fear of confronting Pruitt … it was a little bit like this biblical fog that came over things,” says Dan Costa, former national program director of the EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program. He had been with the organization for 34 years before retiring in 2018. Costa says he postponed his retirement long enough to ensure that his program would survive, after worrying for a year that the word “climate” would be removed from the name of his program. He tells The Verge that budget officials cautioned that directly mentioning climate change could lead to additional reviews of their work, and ultimately resulted in a sort of self-censorship within the agency. “Some folks will take out climate change and talk about the evolution of the environment, or the changing environment — just anecdotal ways to sort of say the same thing, but not exactly,” Costa says.
Ultimately, Costa says he decided, “I can do more on the outside [the EPA] being a voice than I can on the inside beating my head against the wall.” The Verge reached out to the Environmental Protection Agency, which denied that employees were discouraged from talking about environmental justice or climate change. It emailed The Verge a link to a September 3rd address by EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler in which Wheeler says that with a second term of Donald Trump in office, there would be “a new focus on community-driven environmentalism [that] is the best opportunity in at least a generation to solve the environmental justice issues we face today.”
While some staff decided to leave, others were forced out. Former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who stepped down in 2018 following a string of ethics scandals, decided in 2017 to bar people who had previously received EPA grants from the agency’s advisory boards.
“I had to fire quite a few people as part of that,” says Chris Zarba, the former director of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board Staff Office, who was with the agency for 38 years before retiring in 2018. The policy quickly faced legal challenges, but damage was already done. The number of industry representatives began to outnumber other experts on scientific advisory boards. And a 2019 report from the federal watchdog Government Accountability Office found that the agency “did not ensure that all appointees met ethics requirements.”
Waiting on the starting gun
“The loss of scientists and science capability has reduced the agency’s ability to stay ahead of understanding the impacts of pollutants in the environment, and the impact on human health,” Zarba tells The Verge. That will ultimately cost lives, he warns. It could also cost more precious time in efforts to get a handle on the threats posed by climate change.
All the former EPA scientists with whom The Verge spoke are optimistic that things will turn around under a new administration. They agreed that with the exception of Donald Trump’s leadership, the EPA kept a relatively steady ship regardless of which political party was in charge. Zarba believes seats on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board can be filled within a matter of months. But Costa worries that it could take years — potentially until the end of Biden’s first term to fully recoup losses at the agency. Decisive action from leadership that Biden appoints will be crucial to a speedy recovery, experts tell The Verge. Again, the Senate could pose roadblocks if Mitch McConnell (R-KY) continues as majority leader and follows through on a reported threat to block “radical” cabinet appointments.
But there are still people across federal science agencies who are waiting for their chance to lead the charge on climate when new leadership steps into office. “I think that there’s a great deal of pent up desire across federal agencies to act on climate change,” Columbia’s Gerrard says. “There are many officials who are just waiting for the starting gun.”