On Friday, the Twitter account for the National Park Service retweeted two photos side-by-side, depicting the National Mall during the 2009 and 2017 inaugurations. While NPS hasn’t released estimates on crowd sizes during events and marches since 1995, the organization oversees national monuments, including the Mall. The retweet, then, did not seem too far afield from the agency’s work.
However, the organization was quickly admonished; the inauguration retweet and another, discussing the removal of climate change policies and other stances from the White House website, were both deleted, and the agency issued an apology. The Interior Department, of which NPS is a part, was temporarily banned from tweeting.
But, it turns out, that was only the beginning.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Twitter account for the Badlands National Park Service tweeted out a series of facts about climate change:
Photo courtesy of Twitter
The first tweet, which contains a quote, is not attributed, but the figures are correct. Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory has collected data on atmospheric change since 1956, and NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory reports that December saw carbon dioxide rates hit 404.48 parts per million last year.
Photo courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
The other Badlands tweets are also backed up by years of scientific research.
Shortly before these tweets were posted, a number of federal agencies and sub-agencies were reportedly issued gag orders on sharing any of their work with the public, including social media. The organizations apparently told to keep their lips zipped included parts or all of the Environmental Protection Agency; the Department of Health & Human Services; the Department of Agriculture; and the National Institutes of Health.
Tweeting as a federal agency has become, depending on how you look at it, an act of disobedience or resistance. Perhaps the social media manager behind the Badlands Twitter account bristled at the gag orders and wanted to take an oppositional stand; perhaps he or she feared that a government-wide order would come next.
But why focus on climate change? What do national parks and climate have to do with each other?
Quite a lot, actually. Weather patterns have changed significantly over the years, from unusual rain and snowfall in winter to intense heat in summer. Species protected by national parks are in danger of going extinct, and changes in disease and predation patterns could hasten their demise.
A 2014 report published in the journal PLOS One evaluated the effects of climate change on U.S. national parks, finding that they “are challenged by climate and other forms of broad-scale environmental change”—and that many changes “are occurring at especially rapid rates.”
National parks like Badlands have discussed environmental change on their platforms, including Twitter, for years. The National Park Service has led the charge by maintaining a climate strategy to assess and address the effects of climate change on all cultural resources—including archeological sites, cultural landscapes, ethnographic resources, museum collections, and historic buildings and structures.
The 60-page strategy document has made no bones about the scientific consensus on climate change: “Modern anthropogenic climate change is the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere due to emissions of greenhouse gases, deriving largely from the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use.”
“Among all of the federal land management agencies, they are probably paying the most attention to climate change,” Bruce Stein, the National Wildlife Federation’s associate vice president of conservation science and climate adaptation, said of national parks last year.
When President Obama visited Yosemite last June, he highlighted the urgency of the changes being wrought in our national parks and across the planet. “Make no mistake,” he said. “Climate change is no longer just a threat—it’s already a reality.”
Such a stance is confirmed by 97 percent of scientists, yet it remains, somehow, controversial.
Trump himself has called climate change a hoax, and he has filled his cabinet with climate deniers and skeptics. The president has also vowed to extract the United States from the historic Paris agreement on climate change.
This isn’t just campaign rhetoric; immediately after taking office, the Trump administration cracked down on climate policy. When the White House website transferred to the new administration last Friday, the page with information about climate disappeared, along with other hot-button issues like health care and LGBT rights.
The news about the gag orders in departments dealing with natural resources and health, then, fit neatly into the administration’s stance on climate. On Wednesday, the administration took further steps, reportedly instructing the Environmental Protection Agency to scrub its website of information related to climate change.
The Badlands tweets were deleted a few hours after they were posted. By that time, another NPS Twitter account had joined the fray:
Screenshot courtesy of Emily Nussbaum
That tweet, too, was quickly deleted. But this past week on Twitter has set the tone for agencies instructed to communicate with the public a certain way—or not at all—to resist.
Top photo daveynin CC BY 2.0
is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC.