What Can Archivists Do about Concerns Regarding Federal Climate and Environmental Data?

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This post is by Eira Tansey, University of Cincinnati and a leader in the Project Archivists Responding to Climate Change (ProjectARCC).

Shortly after the US election results, many who rely on federal climate and environmental data became very concerned about the continuing public availability of this data in the new administration. I am among this group myself, as my research partners from Penn State and I use data sets from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to map climate change risks to American archival repositories. In the past few weeks, institutions such as the University of Toronto and the Penn Environmental Humanities Lab began to organize hackathons in order to seed the End of Term Web Archive project with climate and environmental webpages, and determine ways to effectively copy large data sets. The issue gained steam over the weekend when climate journalist and meteorologist Eric Holthaus began tweeting about it, and has gained major news coverage with stories in the Washington Post and Vice.

As a leader within ProjectARCC (Archivists Responding to Climate Change), I had reached out to individuals at Toronto and Penn to get more information about their projects as soon as I heard about them, including the role of librarians and archivists in their efforts. Representatives from the University of Toronto and Penn joined last night’s monthly ProjectARCC conference call to update us on their efforts.

Things are moving very swiftly on all fronts, so additional posts will be forthcoming as information and efforts are updated.

What is already in place?

Fellows from the Penn Environmental Humanities Lab began raising the issue of vulnerable environmental data with a hackathon earlier this month. The Lab is now quickly organizing on many of the issues associated with downloading and distributing the work of copying the many data sets scientists rely on. You can read their initial vision here, their preliminary take on how not all data sets may be equally vulnerable, and yesterday’s update regarding their taking over the initial crowdsourced spreadsheet that Eric Holthaus started, as well as their collaborative work with the University of Toronto.

The University of Toronto is hosting a “guerrilla archiving” event on December 17. This event will focus on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) page URLs that will be seeded for the End of Term project.

What is next?

The folks at Penn and Toronto have received a massive outpouring of interest. Which is great! It also means that they need time to organize their efforts and evaluate offers of help, storage space, etc., most effectively. You can visit Penn’s #DataRefuge website, which went live December 13, to learn more about efforts as they evolve.

Beyond the work that is coming out of the Toronto event on December 17, Toronto and Penn are planning to develop a toolkit so other institutions can host hackathons.

The Penn folks are currently setting up contacts with many organizations’ representatives, including the Society of American Archivists.

How can you help?

The Penn #DataRefuge project now has a “I’d like to help” form. You can submit your response hereTo nominate .gov pages for the End of Term Web Archive, you can use the End of Term Nomination Tool.

Why are people so worried about this to begin with?

Several departments and agencies within the federal government, including EPA, NOAA, Department of Interior, Department of Energy, and National Aeronautic and Space Administration (to name but a few), create myriad and massive data sets related to monitoring pollution of air and water, weather patterns, energy usage, and tracking indicators associated with climate change (ocean temperature and acidification, sea level modeling, and global temperature records).  

The incoming Trump administration is signalling that it will likely be hostile to the established consensus science on climate change, as well as existing pollution regulations. The President Elect has denied global warming’s reality and has selected a series of people that have a legislative or business record of undermining environmental regulation and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many proposed appointees have extensive ties to the fossil fuel industry, including the EPA nominee (Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma Attorney General) and the Secretary of State nominee (Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil CEO). Multiple meta-surveys of climate science papers have established that climate change is real and primarily driven by human activities. Recent publication on this extensively documented issue includes one published in April 2016, showing that between 90-100% of climate scientists themselves are in consensus on the causes of global warming. 18 of America’s prominent scientific organizations are in agreement on the science showing that climate change is primarily driven by human activities.

Researchers are worried that funding will be cut from existing federal environmental and climate monitoring and research efforts, but also about continued access to currently public data sets. It remains to be seen whether recent Open Government initiatives that increased public access to federal data will receive the same level of support in the next administration. If data sets are removed from public access, this could mean that researchers would be required to file FOIA requests for access. During the Bush administration, with similarly extensive ties to the fossil fuel industry, scientists documented dozens of instances of scientific advice manipulation, restrictions on federal scientists’ work, and cutbacks on public access to environmental information (the most famous case is probably the proposed closure of EPA libraries). Some Canadians are alarmed by what could happen in the United States, given how the Harper administration reduced public access to federal environmental data there.

For now, researchers are in wait-and-see mode, but most are erring on the side of being overly cautious—hence why so many have mobilized to copy currently available data as fast as possible.

For questions about this work’s current status, please feel free to contact eira.tansey@uc.edu.

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6 thoughts on “What Can Archivists Do about Concerns Regarding Federal Climate and Environmental Data?

  1. Pingback: You’ve heard about the concerns regarding federal climate and environmental data. So what’s next? – project_arcc

  2. Pingback: Climate Data Harvest Project: what you can do | Going Green @your library

  3. Pingback: Climate science and facts in the Trump Administration -protecting the public right to know | Work and Climate Change Report

  4. Pingback: Interview with Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook and Katharina Hering of the Concerned Archivists Alliance – Human Rights Archives Section

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