Political Appointees Pressure Scientists to Cherry-Pick Data on California Wildfires

Published May 12, 2021

What happened: Political appointees at the Department of the Interior (DOI) pushed federal scientists to cherry-pick data on the 2018 California wildfires to support political positions.

Why it matters: When political appointees interfere in the work of federal scientists for political purposes, it sets a dangerous precedent. The DOI is guided by a scientific integrity policy that prohibits political interference in the collection and reporting of scientific data. By violating its own scientific integrity policy, DOI political appointees elevated politics over science and thereby undermined the agency’s ability to protect people and the environment from devastating wildfires.

According to emails obtained by the Guardian, political appointees at the Department of the Interior (DOI) and its subagency the US Geological Survey (USGS) pressured federal scientists to provide misleading, cherry-picked data to support a political agenda. In the wake of the devastating fires in California in 2018, DOI officials sought data to craft a misleading narrative that forest protection efforts are responsible for wildfires and therefore an increase in logging activities would have diminished the immense toll from California’s wildfires. To bolster this narrative, DOI officials pressured federal scientists to report cherry-picked data that showed that carbon emissions from the 2018 California fires were more than the carbon emissions from the state’s electricity sector.

James Reilly, the USGS director, asked federal scientists in a series of email to provide estimates of carbon dioxide emissions that were generated by two devastating California wildfires, the Camp and Woolsey fires. In November 2018, Reilly said to USGS scientists, “Can you have [the scientists] gin up an estimate on [what] the total CO2 equivalent releases are so far for the current 2 fires in CA?” Reilly later added, “That would make a decent sound bite the Sec [DOI Secretary Ryan Zinke] could use to put some perspective on it.” While Reilly acknowledged that carbon emissions could vary depending on the type of tree that burned, he told the scientists that he sought numbers that would make “a good story.”

A few days after these emails, the DOI published a press release at the request of Secretary Zinke, entitled, “New Analysis Shows 2018 California Wildfires Emitted as Much Carbon Dioxide as an Entire Year’s Worth of Electricity.” The press release stated that forest management techniques, including “mechanical thinning,” will reduce the risk of wildfires and curb carbon emissions.

Scientists overwhelmingly agree that the recent spate of large and deadly wildfires observed in California and elsewhere are driven by human activities that release greenhouses gases, like carbon dioxide, which contribute to climate change. Logging does not necessarily prevent or lessen wildfires and is not considered by scientists to be a primary solution to curb the threat of wildfires.

Institutions like the DOI and USGS are science-based agencies that produce valuable scientific data and research which are used by decisionmakers, scientists, and the public across the world. When DOI and USGS political appointees pressure scientists into reporting false, misleading, or cherry-picked scientific information, they are undermining the credibility of their agencies and elevating political concerns over the communication of robust, accurate, and trustworthy scientific information to the public.