Government Whistleblower Sounds the Alarm on Villages Threatened by Climate Change

A scientist looking for a way to help Alaska Natives whose villages are sinking was reassigned by the Trump administration to a job collecting royalty checks from fossil fuel companies.

Whistleblower Sounds the Alarm on Climate-Threatened Villages

A home destroyed by beach erosion lies on its side in the the Alaskan village of Shishmaref. (Photo by Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)

A government scientist is speaking out against the Trump administration. In a Washington Post op-ed, Joel Clement, a scientist at the Department of the Interior, says he was shifted to a job collecting royalty checks from fossil fuel companies — a move, he says, that was meant to sideline him “in the hope that I would be quiet or quit.”

Before his reassignment, Clement was working to help Alaskan villages deal with climate change. As we wrote in May, many of these villages — often inhabited by Native Americans — are in danger of slipping into the sea. In some cases, houses have already collapsed into the ocean. In Newtok, Alaska, buildings stand on stilts and villagers pass between them on boardwalks as the melting permafrost beneath the village turns to swampland. Alaskan officials are prepared to help the villagers relocate inland, but the funding isn’t there. “We have a plan for doing it, we know all the different components that have to be done and the sequencing for how it has to happen,” Sally Russell Cox, a community planner overseeing climate adaptation for the Alaskan government, told us. “If there was designated funding for Newtok they’d be done within two years — they’d be completely moved over.”

Meanwhile, temperatures are climbing higher (the first half of this year was the second-warmest on record, surpassed only by the first half of 2016) and the effects of climate change — including rising seas and stronger storms — are getting worse. “The impacts are not going to go away, whether you think it’s climate change or not,” Cox told us. “The impacts are going to continue to happen and [inhabitants of coastal villages] are going to continue to need help.”

Clement was working on the same issue at the Department of Interior. But, in a sign of the value his new boss, Ryan Zinke, placed on his work, he was reassigned to accounts receivable. Clement writes:

Removing a civil servant from his area of expertise and putting him in a job where he’s not needed and his experience is not relevant is a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars. Much more distressing, though, is what this charade means for American livelihoods. The Alaska Native villages of Kivalina, Shishmaref and Shaktoolik are perilously close to melting into the Arctic Ocean. In a region that is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, the land upon which citizens’ homes and schools stand is newly vulnerable to storms, floods and waves. As permafrost melts and protective sea ice recedes, these Alaska Native villages are one superstorm from being washed away, displacing hundreds of Americans and potentially costing lives. The members of these communities could soon become refugees in their own country.

Fortunately, instead of quitting, Clement chose to speak out. And it seems that other civil servants who work on climate change may be prepared to stick around as well, even if their bosses aren’t interested in their work. Niina Heikkinen and Robin Bravender report for ClimateWire that at the Environmental Protection Agency, staffers aren’t “rushing for the exits,” despite efforts by the Trump administration to reduce the size of the agency through cash incentives for those who quit. One anonymous staffer told the reporters that it was “rare” to see people leave. “Folks are dedicated to the mission and really see that even if your wishes or your policy stance don’t align with the administration, there’s still important work to be done.”

Read Joel Clement’s Washington Post op-ed »


Read more installments in our series “While He Was Tweeting” — keeping an eye on Trump’s wrecking ball.

John Light


John Light is a reporter and producer for the Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.