In March 2017, few months after the US presidential inauguration, Mustafa Ali resigned from his position as a top official in the Office of Environmental Justice at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Having participated in the influential 1991 People of Color Environmental Justice Leadership Summit, Ali joined the EPA’s newly formed Office of Environmental Equity (later renamed Environmental Justice) soon after, working there for 24 years. However, the appointment of Scott Pruitt to the EPA showed Ali it was no longer a place where he could advocate for environmental justice. “When I took a look at some of the proposals for rolling back regulations that have played a significant role in helping to protect the environmental and public health of our most vulnerable communities, I just couldn’t be a part of that,” he told Democracy Now.
Ali’s resignation is part of an ongoing crisis within US federal environmental agencies, with which environmental justice scholars, advocates, and activists are only beginning to reckon. With the appointment Pruitt and Ryan Zinke to lead the EPA and the Department of Interior, respectively, Trump has given the oil and gas industry, think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Competitive Enterprise Institution, and other social actors of the “climate change countermovement” direct access to the highest levels of government.1Robert J. Brulle, “Institutionalizing Delay: Foundation Funding and the Creation of US Climate Change Counter-Movement Organizations,” Climatic Change 122, no. 4 (2014): 681-694. The prospect looms that, over the next three years, agencies like the EPA will become shadows of their former selves—particularly devastating for marginalized communities who have long struggled for environmental and health protections.“Erasure of data and other information from government websites can also sow doubt and uncertainty on climate change and other important environmental issues.”
This threat spurred a group of academics to form the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI, pronounced “edgy”) in the weeks after the November 2016 elections. EDGI began as an email conversation among a dozen colleagues and has grown into an interdisciplinary, cross-professional organization of over 150 people across the United States and Canada. During the presidential election, Donald Trump had promised to get rid of the EPA “in almost every form” and called climate change a “hoax.” Myron Ebell, Trump’s appointment to lead the EPA transition team (and a key figure at the Competitive Enterprise Institute), also denied the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. EDGI scholars took this rhetoric seriously and developed activist and scholarly projects to respond to it. The focus on environmental data emerged in part from “lessons learned” through the experiences of EDGI colleagues in Canada under Stephen Harper’s recent administration (2006–2015), which demonstrated how erasures of environmental data can be part of efforts to deregulate and otherwise undermine environmental policy and agencies. Erasure of data and other information from government websites can also sow doubt and uncertainty on climate change and other important environmental issues. Additionally, EDGI cofounders (many of whom were involved in research or activism relating to environmental justice, broadly speaking) recognized that many environmental justice organizations rely on government datasets on environmental risks—combined with geographical data on racial and economic inequalities, these datasets often enable organizations and researchers to formulate claims about racism and other injustices. The continued preservation and public accessibility of federal environmental data is therefore an issue of environmental justice.
Protecting and monitoring federal environmental data
EDGI brought together academics from a wide range of fields—from social, natural, and data scientists to librarians and archivists—to collaborate on a publicly engaged project. The organization works largely through the donated labor and skills of practicing scholars and scientists, along with small grants for specialized projects.2We have received grants from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the David and Lucille Packard Foundation. Over time, we have organized ourselves as a decentralized, consensus-based organization, using various online platforms. Organization-wide decisions are made in weekly meetings by a twelve-person steering committee. Starting in December 2016, EDGI set out to respond to the Trump administration’s rhetoric and actions through projects that seek to archive and preserve in the public interest federal environmental datasets, monitor and report on changes to federal environmental agency websites, and interview agency employees.
DataRescue: With climate change deniers like Ebell appointed to Trump’s EPA transition team, EDGI began organizing what ultimately became DataRescue—a collaborative project with the DataRefuge at the University of Pennsylvania. DataRescue was an effort to archive websites and datasets from federal environmental agencies to maintain their public accessibility in the context of a profound uncertainty about the future of online environmental data and other resources.“Hundreds of people participated in DataRescue events, reflecting the public value of environmental agencies and environmental science in the United States.”
The first DataRescue event at the University of Toronto, in December 2016, sought to archive EPA web pages and also develop a toolkit that would enable the project to spread. By June 2017, over 49 DataRescue events had taken place in cities across the United States and Canada (many at university libraries). Over this time, the event toolkit and overall workflow was refined through the EDGI-DataRefuge partnership, so that each DataRescue event contributed to the overall efforts of archiving at-risk federal environmental datasets and web pages. DataRescue archived web pages from the EPA, OSHA, NOAA, NASA, and other agencies by nominating URLs to the Internet Archive’s End-of-Term project, and by “harvesting” more complex datasets for eventual public access through repositories like DataRefuge.3For more information on DataRescue, see Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI), EDGI Introduction and Accomplishments (EDGI, May 6, 2017). Hundreds of people participated in DataRescue events, reflecting the public value of environmental agencies and environmental science in the United States. DataRescue also represented a form of resistance to the Trump administration’s attacks on science and environmental policy.4Naomi Klein mentions DataRescue as a form of resistance in No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need (Haymarket Books, 2017).
Web Monitoring: Alongside DataRescue, we initiated a project of monitoring federal environmental agency web pages on a daily basis. EDGI currently uses a fee-based software program called Versionista to monitor tens of thousands of government web pages, mostly at the EPA, NASA, NOAA, the Department of Energy, and the Department of the Interior.5EDGI is working to develop its own software program, with an eye to making web-monitoring efforts more accessible to other community groups. The Web Monitoring project seeks to identify socially meaningful changes to federal websites and produce reports on these changes, which are circulated to journalists. Some examples of socially meaningful changes we have found include the mission statement of the Office of Science and Technology Policy—changed from describing the office as providing “accurate, relevant, and timely scientific and technical advice,” to simply providing “advice”; additionally, a line reading that the office “ensures that the policies of the Executive Branch are informed by sound science” was removed—and the removal of links to climate change reports on the State Department website. Taken together, these reports inform the public of the scale and scope of the Trump administration’s effects on federal environmental agencies and offer a new model of government oversight and accountability.6EDGI’s Web Monitoring reports have informed articles at the New York Times, the Washington Post, ProPublica, and other publications.
Interviewing EPA and OSHA employees: EDGI researchers also initiated an interview project with current and former employees at the EPA and OSHA. Since then, EDGI has confidentially interviewed over 60 employees in order to better understand the Trump administration’s effects on the budget, staff size, and these agencies’ overall capabilities, which are supposed to protect environmental and human health. Our initial analysis of these transcripts were published as EDGI’s report EPA Under Siege: Trump’s Assault in History and Testimony, which led to news stories in Mother Jones, Bill Moyers, and the New York Times. The interview project is ongoing, and we plan to continue to convey our findings to the broader public via reports, op-eds, and other publications, as well as collaborative academic articles.
Environmental data justice
Though EDGI seeks to protect environmental agencies and federal environmental science from the Trump administration, it does not advocate a return to Obama-era liberalism. Rather, we have worked to build new social practices and analytical concepts that can rethink and remake (hopefully in radically new ways) existing environmental data and governance practices.
One example of this is Data Together—a collaboration between EDGI and the companies Protocol Labs and qri.io—which aims to develop community-based and decentralized models of data stewardship. Data Together emerged in part from conversations and reflections during the DataRescue project and represents a shift in emphasis from preserving existing datasets towards building new social and technical infrastructures to enable alternative relationships to data.“EDGI members recognize that environmental justice activists have long struggled with the inadequacies and absences of state and industry-led environmental monitoring practices…”
Another example is the concept of “environmental data justice” (EDJ), which emerged from conversations within EDGI about the prior politics of environmental data—questions such as who collects and manages that data, and whose interests they serve?7Lindsey Dillon et al., Environmental Justice, published electronically, October 2017. For example, EDGI members recognize that environmental justice activists have long struggled with the inadequacies and absences of state and industry-led environmental monitoring practices, even as EJ groups often must depend on that same data as evidence to make justice claims legible to the state. EDGI seeks to continue in the tradition of grassroots environmental monitoring projects, like the Louisiana Bucket Brigades, by bringing environmental justice concerns together with critical data studies. As EDGI member Dawn Walker explains, “EDJ brings together the concerns of the emergent area of data justice with the long standing principles of environmental justice, thereby foregrounding the ways digital technology and technoscience are integral to environmental justice.”
As part of developing the concept of environmental data justice, EDGI organized a mini-conference, “Enacting Environmental Data Justice,” in Boston in August 2017, prior to the annual meeting of the Society for the Social Studies of Science. Michelle Murphy, professor of history and women and gender studies at the University of Toronto and one of EDGI’s founding members, leads the EDGI working group on environmental data justice, and Murphy’s Technoscience Research Unit in Toronto received the Connaught Global Challenge award to further develop environmental data justice in theory and practice.
Our initial findings
Compiling all the information and data gathered through the projects, EDGI members also collaborate to develop research reports and analyses of current political events for a general audience. These include a series of reports on the Trump administration: EPA Under Siege, Pursuing a Toxic Agenda: Environmental Injustice in the Early Trump Administration, and a forthcoming report on website changes and climate change denial in the Trump administration. Based on testimony from EPA’s own employees obtained by EDGI as well as historical research, EPA Under Siege found that the Trump administration poses the greatest threat to the agency in its 47-year history. Pursuing a Toxic Agenda demonstrated how the Trump administration had also increased environmental risks for vulnerable communities, through its support for the Dakota Access Pipeline, the reversal of a ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos, and changes in workplace safety regulations. Moreover, the Trump administration has proposed to dismantle or significantly reduce funding for environmental protections such as lead remediation and toxic cleanup and limit access to other publicly available environmental data through the IRIS (Integrated Risk Information System), which provides toxicological assessment of environmental contaminants.“Other EDGI reports include a white paper on a House bill that would limit the kinds of scientific studies the EPA could rely on in developing environmental protections.”
EDGI researchers also gathered online the night of Pruitt’s inaugural speech to collectively annotate the transcript of his speech, providing historical and sociological context for his statements and rhetoric. Other EDGI reports include a white paper on a House bill that would limit the kinds of scientific studies the EPA could rely on in developing environmental protections. H.R. 1430, which was passed by the House of Representatives this year and currently sits in a Senate committee, would block the EPA from relying on scientific studies that are not reproducible (including studies of socionatural disasters) or that rely on private (though anonymized) medical records, among other things. Our white paper found that this rule would circumscribe the EPA’s regulatory capacity.
EDGI is only a year old, but we are all committed to continuing to respond to the Trump administration’s anti-science and anti-environmental policies, and to developing alternative and more just environmental decision-making and data practices. We believe the current political moment not only calls for creative forms of resistance, but that there is an important place for research-based and scholarly activism to incorporate justice-oriented social theories and critique in the project of building and enacting a better world. We hope to continue developing tools and practices other scholar-activists can work with and develop through their own projects, and to have established a conversation and set of concerns on environmental governance and data justice that will influence policymakers and subsequent administrations.