Copying countdown: How scientists plan to save climate data from Trump

A data-copying event in Toronto is just one of several initiatives to preserve climate change data before the start of the Trump administration.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
People hold signs as they listen to a group of scientists speak during a rally in conjunction with the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016, in San Francisco. The rally was to call attention to what scientist believe are unwarranted attacks by the incoming Trump administration against scientists advocating for the issue of climate change and its impact.

Scientists from around the country are preparing to copy government climate records onto independent servers, even in Canada, in order to maintain a copy out of the reach of President-elect Donald Trump's administration.

While a proposed backup of this magnitude might have seemed paranoid a few months ago, a growing number of scientists have expressed their concerns over Mr. Trump's negative and often hostile views on human-caused climate change. On a number of occasions, Trump has called the phenomenon a "hoax," despite a near-consensus among scientists on the reality of global warming.

The data-copying event will include publicly available government data as well as ".gov" webpages. While the so-called Internet Archive also preserved end-of-term records in 2008 and 2012, this transition has more at stake than previous backups, concerned environmental researchers say, pointing to Trump's cabinet nominees, which include climate change skeptics, or figures tapped to run departments they have publicly criticized. Rick Perry, for example, the former Texas governor selected for energy secretary, said in a 2011 debate that he would eliminate the department.

A "guerrilla archiving" event in Toronto will kick off the heightened effort.

"This event is focused on preserving information and data from the Environmental Protection Agency, which has programs and data at high risk of being removed from online public access or even deleted," says a statement from the University of Toronto. "This includes climate change, water, air, toxics programs. This project is urgent because the Trump transition team has identified the EPA and other environmental programs as priorities for the chopping block."

The event is part of a greater effort by the Internet Archive, a San Francisco-based non-profit "library" of old web pages and other documents preserved for online viewing. At the end of every presidential term, the archive collects important government web sites that they believe are at risk of deletion by the next administration. 

"The statements by Trump on the campaign trail...have ramped us into higher gear, moving us further and faster than we would have," says a post from the Internet Archive Blogs, citing, as one example, the then-candidate's comments about "closing parts of the internet." "The election led us to think bigger."

News of the archival effort comes after the Department of Energy refused the Trump team's request to identify the names of specific climate change scientists, as The Christian Science Monitor previously reported. But for many scientists, worries about their own job security under Trump pale in comparison with the environmental consequences of ignoring climate change.

"Something that seemed a little paranoid to me before all of a sudden seems potentially realistic, or at least something you'd want to hedge against," Nick Santos, an environmental researcher at the University of California at Davis, told The Washington Post. "Doing this can only be a good thing. Hopefully they leave everything in place. But if not, we're planning for that."

By copying information onto independent servers in Canada, the data and websites on climate change research would have an extra layer of protection against Trump in the event of deletion in the US, says Villanova University computing sciences professor Henry Carter.

"Moving data to another country would be an effective means for preserving it in the event of the new administration actually deciding to delete climate records," Dr. Carter tells the Christian Science Monitor in an email. "It has been notoriously difficult for the American legal system to stop copyright infringement and digital piracy happening in foreign countries. Demanding that another country delete this climate data seems even more difficult, since storing this data doesn't seem to break any laws (assuming the data is publicly available anyway)."

Jody Roberts and Nicholas Shapiro, two of the researchers involved in the process of establishing a network for collecting and preserving access to EPA data, tell the Monitor that this would not be the first time access to climate research was restricted by a US president. During President George W. Bush's administration, many Environmental Protection Agency libraries were shut down, and there were multiple accusations that government publications on climate change had been edited to change their meaning.

"The idea of storing the information elsewhere emphasizes the need to preserve access to information in the present and for the future. This is why the threat to close EPA libraries under [George W. Bush] was so profound," Dr. Roberts and Dr. Shapiro tell the Monitor in an email. "It is important for this reason to note that many of the individuals involved in these current activities are not scientists but social scientists, historians, archivists, and the like who understand that this about more than censorship; this is about permanently altering the record for the future."

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