“I lost my job, but they can’t take my voice”

The American climate scientist and whistleblower Joel Clement, visited Stockholm on 9 November and gave an exclusive interview to Mistra Geopolitics. He squeezed in a meeting at SEI in Stockholm on his way to the climate conference COP23 in Bonn. He describes his last weeks as ‘electrified’ as he is constantly on call with interviews, invitations, comments… So, to make a complicated story short; there is a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. The summer of 2017 his life changed completely when he went from being one of many American scientists, a field biologist by training, working as a senior executive in the federal government – to one of the most powerful voices against the Trump administration.

On 4th October Joel Clement publicly resigned from his job at US Interior Department. This was a protest against a re-assignment from a position as director of the Office of Policy Analysis and top climate change policy official to an accounting job at the Natural Resources Revenue that he was neither trained for (“I am not an accountant!”) nor good at (“I was essentially clearing royalty payments from the oil and gas industry so they obviously wanted me out of the way”).

Before this flamer, Clement was leading the urgent process around the vulnerable situation of the Alaska natives, exposed to the rapid effects of global warming. He was not alone in being pushed out. The Trump administration moved 50 people from the Senior Executive Service at once. This has raised concerns that the public service is being illegally politicised. “Never before have so many officials been reassigned. A legal process is underway. Clement did not go quietly, publishing a critical op-ed in the Washington Post in July on why he blew the whistle. He also published his official resignation letter there.

“I wanted to be public about this. This is happening throughout the government administration as we speak – inconvenient scientists are disarmed, moved to positions where they cannot contribute to important processes any longer.”

This way of marginalizing the impact of science goes, according to Clement, far beyond the issue of climate change. Scientists have been moved from scientific advisory boards in what Clement calls a ‘war on science’.

This apparent backlash against knowledge-based decision-making brings Clement back to what disturbs him the most.

“The irony is that our work raised an awareness of those who risk being left behind, people who need protection like the Alaskan villagers whose life and death literately depends on our ability to protect them from the effects of storm that have become more frequent and damaging with warmer temperatures melting glaciers and permafrost.”

At the same time, the most vulnerable groups of people were often the ones voting for this President – a sign of frustration among the marginalized people and the less educated.

So, what can be done about this?

Joel Clement says that building trust among citizens is essential, especially in multicultural societies where politicians are attempting to drive wedges between groups.

“They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

So, being out there, bringing science out to the people in dialogue with them, is one way of building trust the bottom-up way. The Womens March in Washington is an example of a new development that made Joel Clement hopeful about the future, after all.

“Maybe I am naïve, but I think the situation in the US has made scientists as well as other citizens, aware that we need to use our voices and speak out. We can approach the situation with new power.”


Author: Eva Krutmeijer