By Nicole Block, Climate Communications Student Writer
It has been two weeks since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released any Twitter messages, unusual for an account that typically posts at least once per day about environmental policy, research findings or public service announcements
Since January 20, when President Donald Trump took office, the EPA and other government agencies have been silent due to reported “gag orders” to refrain from posting on social media and sharing information with press and the public. While former U.S. presidents have called for freezes on federal agencies to review policies and take stock upon taking office, the scope and scale of silencing in President Trump’s first few days as Commander-in-Chief have been unprecedented. The administration has removed hyperlinks to the EPA and climate change issues previously listed on the White House webpage. All EPA scientific studies and reports are undergoing political review before publication, suggesting a clear shift in the new President’s focus and goals.
Social media has surged around these silenced agencies by enabling unofficial “rogue” accounts like @RogueNASA, @AltNatParkSer and @ActualEPAFacts. Some of these accounts identify themselves as government employees, others as civilians who wish to share facts that may be repressed by the Trump administration. Environmentalist Tom Steyer has made available a replica of the EPA’s website to protect information and data on climate change. These instances represent the growing popularity of social media and the web as a tool for bridging efforts to preserve scientific facts with political engagement.
Claire Napawan, associate professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Design at UC Davis and UC Climate Champion, harnesses social media and digital platforms to share ideas and information about climate change. Her website allows users to share their everyday interactions with climate change by tagging their posts #ourchangingclimate on social media. Napawan seeks to make climate issues that often seem far away and too global to tackle accessible on a local, individual level. She also seeks to widen and diversify who can address these issues to find solutions.
“You don’t have to wait for the politicians to say, this is how it’s going to be or this is how we’re going to address it. Suddenly, a student realizes ‘I can make a change,’ I can improve this [ecological] resilience. It’s really empowering,” said Napawan.
Napawan traces the roots of social media activism to a concept in environmental design, the participatory urbanism movement. Participatory urbanism relies on citizens and individuals to catalyze action — rather than waiting for local agencies to meet community needs by sharing information, mobilizing actions, and garnering support outside of traditional political avenues. Most importantly, it is an approach that allows people to take on the role of creating political change from a personal platform.
The rogue Twitter accounts together with the larger trending topics on social media reflect the desire for personal participation and involvement.
“What Alt National Park Service, Alt EPA and Alt NASA are trying to do is the thing that social media can do,” said Napawan, “which is network people, share information, and do it freely, which I think is really important.”
Napawan also sees an additional threat: the Trump Administration is doubting core scientific agencies because of political or partisan views, rather than trusting facts and data. The EPA is under review by political staff not by scientists and academics. Major sources of government funding for environmental science is frozen. Trump’s nominated director for the EPA, Scott Pruitt, doubts the man-made effects of global warming. He has sued the EPA multiple times as attorney general of Oklahoma, an oil-rich state. The Administration’s lack of leadership and communication about climate change has led to the organization of a scientists’ march on Washington on Earth Day in April 2017.
“We cannot wait for our federal government; we cannot wait four years for our next president to enact the policies that we need,” Napawan said. “And we need to stop politicizing issues such as science and climate change. If we could stop talking about it with jargon and we could just talk about it in terms of ‘how my life’ is affected by climate change and share it through social media, we might be able to break some of these barriers.”