On July 19, Joel Clement, a top climate scientist and policy analyst at the Department of Interior (DOI) filed a whistle-blower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel alleging that his reassignment to an accounting position was retribution for speaking out about the dangers of climate change. Clement, who had raised the alarm about the potential catastrophic impacts of rising sea levels and warming temperatures on Native communities in Alaska, had been transferred to the Office of Natural Resources Revenue, which collects royalty checks from the fossil-fuel industry. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Clement accused the Trump administration of choosing “silence over science.”
But Clement wasn’t the only leading climate scientist at the DOI who was targeted. As part of a radical, department-wide restructuring that Secretary Ryan Zinke has described as “probably the greatest reorganization in the history of the Department of the Interior,” at least two dozen senior executive employees have been moved to new positions. Although new administrations often shake up agency personnel, the transfers of senior officials at the DOI are unprecedented in scale and, in several cases, viewed as politically motivated or designed to intimidate staff who work on environmental issues. Zinke has defended Trump’s plan to reduce the DOI budget by $1.6 billion next year, costing roughly 4,000 employees their jobs and rolling back many of the regulations put in place by the Obama administration.
Among the initial transfers at the DOI was Dr. Virginia Burkett, the former associate director for Climate and Land Use Change at the United States Geological Survey (USGS), who contributed to several reports on climate change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. According to interviews with several DOI employees, Burkett was originally reassigned to the office of the assistant secretary for Water and Science, which would have moved her from overseeing vital climate-science research at USGS to an as yet undefined advisory role at DOI headquarters in Washington.
Burkett, who joined the DOI in 1990 and has been at the USGS for more than 15 years, is an internationally recognized expert on climate change, sea-level rise, and coastal wetlands. She has written extensively on the impacts of climate change on coastal communities, as well as on strategies for adaptation. As an adviser to the assistant secretary for Water and Science, it’s unclear what her new role would have been. The office reports directly to newly named Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a former high-powered lobbyist who had previously sued the DOI and whose conflicts of interest related to water-use issues have been well documented.