Department of Energy refuses to reveal names of climate scientists to Trump

The Department of Energy refusal is as unprecedented as the Trump transition team's initial request for the names.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters/File
U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump appears at a campaign roundtable event in Manchester, New Hampshire, U.S., October 28, 2016.

The Department of Energy (DOE) has refused to give the individual names of workers associated with work on climate change in response to a request from President-elect Donald Trump.

While a request for information for an incoming president is not unusual, questions from the Trump team asking for lists of who was involved with climate change research and negotiations under the Obama administration raised fears of a "witch hunt" among many DOE employees. Mr. Trump has called human-caused climate change a "hoax" on multiple occasions, putting him at odds with the majority of the scientific community.

While most politicians prefer agencies under their control to be staffed by employees and researchers sympathetic to their ideas and causes, the specific nature of the request and potential high cost of climate change denial have made this situation unprecedented. Few, if any, credible climate scientists still doubt that human activity contributes in some way to global warming, and most world powers agree that immediate action is necessary on a global scale in order to prevent warming to dangerous levels. In addition to the environmental concerns, many critics of Trump are also worried that his transition team's request indicates that climate change workers who are just doing their jobs could be unjustly marginalized by the incoming administration.

Last week, the Trump team sent a questionnaire to the DOE asking for details about various aspects in the agency's policies, not in itself an unusual occurrence. But as as The Christian Science Monitor previously reported:

The questionnaire specifically asked for the names of all DOE employees who attended the United Nation’s annual climate talks for the past five years, employees who helped develop the President Obama’s social cost of carbon metrics, and which programs are essential to President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

All of which raises concerns that Trump’s administration will target employees involved in Obama-era policies that the president-elect spent his campaign promising to dismantle, including the Paris Climate Agreement, Clean Power Plan, and various other DOE and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations.

"The identity of employees that worked on climate change projects may be a reasonable administrative request; however, their affiliations would seem to be beyond the pale, and an implicit statement that the employees are motivated by small 'p' politics rather than science." Daniel Riesel, principal of the environmental law firm Sive, Paget & Riesel, tells the Monitor in an email. "The new administration should be able to evaluate the climate change work without meddling in the employees’ personal predilections – unless of course that is the basis of the new Administration’s approach to climate change science."

Some people in the department who Trump's team asked to be named may have feared that their jobs might be at stake. While there are protections in place that make outright firing unlikely, there are other ways employees could be punished by the administration, says Todd Eberly, professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

"There are significant Civil Service protections in place, but a person could easily be marginalized or ostracized," Dr. Eberly tells the Monitor in an email. "Likewise, the executive branch could use budgeting priorities to eliminate positions or redirect funds in a away that marginalizes targeted employees."

In an act of defiance to protect these employees, no less unprecedented than the initial questionnaire itself, the Department of Energy has refused to give Trump the names of specific employees requested by the team.

"Our career workforce, including our contractors and employees at our labs, comprise the backbone of DOE (Department of Energy) and the important work our department does to benefit the American people," Eben Burnham-Snyder, a DOE spokesman, told the Washington Post in an email. "We are going to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department. We will be forthcoming with all publicly-available information with the transition team. We will not be providing any individual names to the transition team." [Emphasis in original.]

But despite the evident strong feelings of the current administrators of the department, Eberly says the DOE would likely not be able to refuse or ignore a similar request under the Trump administration.

The DOE's mission statement, according to its website, "is to ensure America's security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions." Much of the environmental concerns of the department is related, at least in part, to cleaner sources of energy focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and curbing global climate change.

But both Trump and his nominee to head the DOE, former Texas governor Rick Perry, are climate change skeptics. Trump has called climate change a "hoax" on multiple occasions, though he has been known to waver on that hardline position somewhat. In November, the president-elect told the New York Times that he would keep an "open mind" about human-caused climate change and the possibility of not pulling out of the Paris Agreement, the international climate change accords that aim to prevent global temperatures rising above 2 degrees C over pre-industrial levels. On Dec. 5, Trump met with former vice president Al Gore, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work raising awareness about climate change. However, his cabinet picks so far don't indicate any softening of his stance, especially with his choice of Environmental Protection Agency chief, Scott Pruitt, who has sued the EPA for its greenhouse gas emission reduction policies.

"It's likely that Perry's agenda [for the Department of Energy] will reflect Trump's - more domestic production of readily available sources of energy," says Eberly. "The focus will be on independence, production, and affordability. It's likely that environmental concerns will become secondary or tertiary concerns."

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