Environmental Protection Agency cancels appearances by three scientists at key climate change conference

Donald Trump-appointed administrator Scott Pruitt does not believe global warming a man-made problem so withdrawals from Rhode Island event met with dismay but little surprise by activists

Lisa Friedman
Monday 23 October 2017 13:15 BST
EPA chief Scott Pruitt
EPA chief Scott Pruitt (Getty)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has cancelled the speaking appearance of three agency scientists who were scheduled to discuss climate change at a conference on Monday in Rhode Island, according to the agency and several people involved.

John Konkus, an EPA spokesman and a former Trump campaign operative in Florida, confirmed that agency scientists would not speak at the State of the Narragansett Bay and Watershed Programme in Providence, Rhode Island. He provided no further explanation.

Scientists involved in the programme said that much of the discussion at the event centres on climate change. Many said they were surprised by the EPA’s last-minute cancellation, particularly since the agency helps to fund the Narragansett Bay Estuary Programme, which is hosting the conference. The scientists who have been barred from speaking contributed substantial material to a 400-page report to be issued Monday.

The move highlights widespread concern that the EPA will silence government scientists from speaking publicly or conducting work on climate change. Scott Pruitt, the agency administrator, has said that he does not believe human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are primarily responsible for the warming of the planet.

“It’s definitely a blatant example of the scientific censorship we all suspected was going to start being enforced at EPA,” said John King, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island who chairs the science advisory committee of the Narragansett Bay Estuary Programme. “They don’t believe in climate change, so I think what they’re trying to do is stifle discussions of the impacts of climate change.”

Monday’s conference is designed to draw attention to the health of Narragansett Bay, the largest estuary in New England and a key to the region’s tourism and fishing industries. Rhode Island’s entire congressional delegation, all Democrats, will attend a morning news conference. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, an outspoken critic of Pruitt, will be among the speakers.

Scientists there will unveil the report on the state of the bay, which EPA scientists helped research and write. Among the findings will be that climate change is affecting air and water temperatures, precipitation, sea level and fish in and around the estuary.

Autumn Oczkowski, a research ecologist at the EPA’s National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory Atlantic Ecology Division in Rhode Island, was scheduled to give the keynote address. Colleagues familiar with her speech said she intended to address climate change and other factors affecting the health of the estuary.

Rose Martin, a postdoctoral fellow at the same EPA laboratory and Emily Shumchenia, an EPA consultant, were scheduled to speak on an afternoon panel titled “The Present and Future Biological Implications of Climate Change.”

“The report is about trends. It’s kind of hard not to talk about climate change when you’re talking about the future of the Narragansett Bay,” King said.

The agenda and speaker lineup was emailed to attendees on 4 October. Tom Borden, programme director of the Narragansett Bay Estuary Programme, said he received a call Friday from Wayne Munns, director of the Atlantic ecology division of the EPA’s Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, telling him the three scientists would not be allowed to speak.

“I was not really provided with a clear explanation,” Borden said. “He advised me that it was the decision of the EPA Office of Public Affairs.”

Several Rhode Island scientists who work closely with the regional lab said political officials from EPA headquarters in Washington spent two days last week in the Rhode Island office reviewing the lab’s work.

Munns confirmed that EPA officials would not be participating in the meeting but did not explain why. Konkus, the agency spokesman, did not respond to questions about whether the conference’s focus on climate change was a factor in canceling the appearances.

He said in an email that EPA scientists may attend the programme, but not the morning news conference. He later clarified saying, “EPA staff will not be formally presenting at either.”

Since August, all EPA grant solicitations have gone through Konkus’ office for review, according to a directive first obtained by E&E News. Konkus served on President Donald Trump’s campaign before he was appointed deputy associate administrator in EPA’s Office of Public Affairs. At the time, agency officials said they were ensuring agency funding is in line with Pruitt’s priorities.

The Narragansett Bay Estuary Programme is funded through the EPA’s approximately $26 million National Estuary Programme. It funds 28 state-based estuary programmes and delivers about $600,000 annually to the Narragansett Bay programme. Pruitt’s proposed budget for 2018 would eliminate the national programme.

Under Pruitt’s leadership, the EPA also has removed most mentions of the words “climate change” from its website. He has declined to link carbon dioxide emissions to global warming, and in an interview with Time magazine last week said he intended to assemble a team of independent experts to challenge established climate science because, Pruitt asserted, it has not yet been subject to “a robust, meaningful debate.”

The New York Times

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