Inside the Race to Save Climate Data in the Age of Trump

A day with a team of researchers from UCLA

Politics Features climate change
Inside the Race to Save Climate Data in the Age of Trump

On Inauguration Day, a grim rain hammered Los Angeles for most of the morning and into the afternoon, part of a record-setting series of storms that would cause flooding, mudslides, and evacuations across southern California. Meanwhile, in a nondescript Lego-block building housing the department of Graduate Education and Information Studies on the UCLA campus, a diverse group gathered over their laptops for reasons practically as grim.

Inspired by and in conjunction with other “hackathons” at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Toronto, the group’s mission was to preserve and protect precious scientific data related to climate change and environmental regulation by scraping as much information from the Department of Energy website as time would allow. They called it “a guerrilla archiving event.”

“We worked on the DOE data sets because we didn’t want to focus on anything that would be redundant with DataRefuge at UPenn or Toronto,” said Jennifer Pierre, a PhD student in the Department of Information Studies and one of the event’s organizers. “They had already done a lot of work on NASA, NOAA, and EPA, so when we talked to them they said, ‘Here’s everything we’ve scraped so far.’ It’s just a challenge to tackle this huge amount of data and prioritize what data sets should be examined and culled.”

The project speaks to the surreal nature of this political moment. As the Trump administration takes over with characters like Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency and Rick Perry at the Department of Energy, no one’s kidding themselves that these men are tasked with anything besides degrading environmental protections and making the country and the world as vulnerable as possible for extractive industries, particularly coal, oil, and gas. For anyone who thought the global community had turned a corner on the battle to arrest runaway climate change, the Trump administration presents an existential threat, not only to taking action but to the very research that investigates what we’re doing to the planet. One of the first things the Trump administration did when it got control of was erase any and all references to climate change on the website.

“It’s not so much that we’re worried all these data sets will be erased, but with data the key is that it’s available and accessible,” said Britt Paris, another organizer and PhD in the Department of Information Studies. “What’s almost certain to happen is that these organizations will get defunded, and this can throw the management of data sets into disarray. Then they are made irrelevant over time and can become lost for all intents and purposes. It’s a degrading of the science that backs up our knowledge of what’s happening.”

If you’re like me, and your understanding of all things computer is limited to opening Word documents and streaming janky NBA feeds from reddit, what the UCLA group did that day was, in some cases, actually fairly simple. After assessing a website’s properties and the complexity of the source code, if a site was easily “crawlable,” they simply took the Internet Archive nomination tool and use it to “crawl” a website (meaning, to analyze and download the material in code form). That information is then stored at Internet Archive, a nonprofit digital library and one of the few places that can hold all these terabytes and terrabytes of data. If a site was deemed not crawlable, a sub-set of people spent the day working on the more technically difficult process of writing a script for alternative scraping. In conjunction with DataRefuge and the University of Toronto, the UCLA group also discussed best practices for maintaining the integrity of these data sets.

“Data can’t just be saved. It has to be usable, findable and preserved in a way that’s cohesive,” said Pierre. “Especially with environmental data that uses longitudinal systems of observation like species growth or weather patterns or sea ice extant or temperature gradations. You have to have proper meta-data around this data. There’s a reasoning and logic to how the info is organized. Policy has to be backed up and informed by data that really represents a body of evidence in a readable and understandable manner.”

In this post-truth moment, that almost sounds radical, doesn’t it?

As Donald Trump delivered his speech on an American Carnage, I spent the afternoon listening to this group brainstorm methods and ideas for preserving an indispensable archive of knowledge. It was that fabled assembly of a few dedicated individuals chipping in to change the world, and it had the surprisingly jovial mood created by the sense of like-minded people linking arms. Pierre, Paris, and their fellow organizers ordered too much pizza, and the boxes had to be piled beneath folding tables. Junk food and quick calories were abundant. The carpet of this institutional classroom, the kind you hated from Introduction to Statistics class, was a disaster of crumbs and soda stains. Professors, undergrads, and over-tattooed grad students pecked away at laptops. Jason Scott, the representative from the Internet Archive, oversaw the proceedings in an intriguing black top hat and a button-up shirt of vines and skulls. Everyone’s mind seemed to work in overdrive. No one spoke at less than a mile a minute.

After all, as this data comes under political risk, there are unseen consequences. Several people discussed the downstream impacts losing this data could have on the private sector or the military. This data is important not just to scientists or environmental activists but to everyone from farmers to commercial shippers to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Steve Diggs, a researcher at UC San Diego had an outlook that could either be described as bleak or hard-headedly realistic. Diggs’s work involves archiving and managing hydrographic data, basically deep ocean physics and chemistry. His work has been used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report. He saw the threat as more than just a loss of data but a loss of funding for science, period.

“As a person involved in these observations, this is day-to-day. One day you’re gathering data, the next day you go dark,” said Diggs. “Many of the global climate observations in the US are done by small groups funded on a three to five year timescale. This is a huge systemic weakness.”

The deep ocean is incredibly important, because that’s what’s actually been storing the bulk of humanity’s excess carbon emissions—not the atmosphere—and the impacts of this or not really yet known, except to say, they could be very scary. We are in completely uncharted territory in terms of pushing Earth’s systems to their limits, and perhaps the most frightening aspect of this unplanned global experiment is how much we still don’t know.

“Studying the deep ocean is harder than studying space,” said Diggs. You have to go thousands of miles off-shore. You need instruments that can withstand freezing temperatures and crushing pressure. It takes money and resources to collect that data, so you need really dedicated groups.”

The idea that the executive branch is essentially going to attempt to cancel climate science at this moment of such extreme peril sounds insane, but that is exactly what is about to happen—if not worse. As the Washington Post reported early in the Trump transition:

The Trump transition team has issued a list of 74 questions for the Energy Department, asking officials there to identify which department employees and contractors have worked on forging an international climate pact as well as domestic efforts to cut the nation’s carbon output.

There was no reason for this unless the administration is planning to attempt a McCarthy-esque purge of climate change expertise from the government. In just the first week of Trump’s presidency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention abruptly canceled a conference on the disease-related impacts of climate change, while the administration has banned the EPA from communicating with the public.

Though climate change was not an issue at all in the campaign, it is shaping up to be the raison d’etre for the Trump administration. His appointees, his ties to oil-powered Russia, and his initial moves during the transition and now in his nascent presidency all point towards a policy of radical climate denial and accelerated fossil fuel extraction and carbon emissions. If someone wanted to devise a plan to burn the planet to the ground, they would hire Trump and his team.

But couched within the madness of this moment-and the sheer insanity of this project undertaken by a small group of data specialists huddled in a UCLA classroom—is the damning conclusion one must arrive at about climate denial.

Simply put, we are rapidly overheating the planet with our energy, transportation, and food systems. If we don’t reverse this process immediately, it is hard to see how human civilization will carry on in anything like its current form. A small group of very wealthy people, whose wealth derives from the exploitation of fossil fuels, are intent on burning every last molecule of carbon-based fuel they can find. Trump and the Republican Party are the political tools of these extractive interests, and while the media, be it Fox News or NBC, portrayed this election as being about anything but climate change, it was all about climate change. Behind the horror of what is happening to the planet lies the data—empirical proof of what is happening to the planet.

For the denialist, there is no challenging this data, this reality. If there was true conflicting evidence about climate change, trust me, by now these people would have found it and rented a van to truck away all the Noble Prizes they surely would have won as a result. But they have no challenge to the science, which grows more ironclad and frightening by the year, so instead they are attempting to degrade, debase, and maybe just lose the evidence. It’s the political equivalent of a child closing his eyes, putting his hands over his ears, and screaming. We all guffawed at Sean Spicer’s claim that Trump’s inauguration was the largest ever, but behind that lie, that pathetic insecurity, lies a continuing plan to stonewall and deny the most dangerous story of them all.

“The question on everyone’s mind today,” said Paris, gesticulating at the buzzing room, as if Trump’s noxious speech hung the air like foul odor. “The question is ‘What can I do?’ Activism can take many forms, but within the realm of data there are so many ways people can get literate and support this work. We need policy, so what is policy made from? Data. You want to make sure facts represent the truth—not a corporate entity’s point of view, not a politician’s wish, not the way people want things to be. But the truth.”

And the truth, the facts, the data are becoming increasingly radical ideas.

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