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Interior official turns whistle-blower, claiming retaliation for climate change work

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    Now, what do you do when your job changes, but you don't agree with the change?

    For one government scientist, it forced him into the role of a reluctant whistle-blower.

    Our William Brangham has our conversation.

    Recently, Joel Clement had been working as a senior policy official in the Department of the Interior. His work included the Arctic and the dangerous climate change posed.

    But, in June, he was reassigned, along with several dozen others, to a completely different position unrelated to his previous work.

    Last week, Clement went public in a The Washington Post op-ed alleging that he was reassigned because of his work on climate change. He said he was now — quote — "a whistle-blower on an administration that chooses silence over science."

    Joel Clement joins me now.

    Welcome to the NewsHour.

    JOEL CLEMENT, Former Director, Department of Interior Office of Policy Analysis: Thank you, William. Good to be here.


    So, you were one of several dozen people were reassigned. And you allege that this was because of your work on climate change.

    And I'm curious. Let's talk a little bit about what that work was that you were doing before you were reassigned. What did you do?


    Year, I was — here in Washington, I was the director of the Office of Policy Analysis. I had a team of analysts and economists and scientists.

    And we were looking at a lot of cross-cutting issues, one of which in particular we spent a lot of time on was addressing the risks that climate change poses for the Alaska native communities in the Arctic. They are on these very narrow islands, barrier islands, that are in a very dire situation.

    Because the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, the permafrost that locks those islands in place is starting to fall apart. And the sea ice that used to protect them from the oncoming storms and floods during the season of harsh weather has receded during that season.

    So, now these bits of land are not only falling apart under their feet and buildings sliding into the sea, but they're at the mercy of these storms that come through. And each episode can be quite dramatic.

    And, honestly, we worry very much that one superstorm, and one or more villages could be wiped right off the map.


    You argued in your piece that you believed you were reassigned for raising concerns about these communities.

    You wrote — quote — "The Trump administration clearly retaliated against me for raising awareness of this danger."

    What evidence do you have that that's really why you got moved?


    Well, it's clear that there's been an ongoing effort to suppress this climate change stuff, right? We didn't worry about that as much at Interior, because we work on climate adaptation and resilience issues, right? We're addressing the impacts that we know are coming, that are baked into the system, no matter what we do, about mitigating greenhouse gases.

    So, I guess, naively, we thought that the focus would be on greenhouse gases and EPA. But, really, in I think it was May, President Trump rescinded an executive order from last December that set up a tribal advisory council and some other boards that would help get this work done.

    That's when we realized it doesn't matter whether it's resilience adaptation or mitigation. They're coming after anything that has the scent of climate change to it.


    And what were you doing specifically to raise awareness about this issue that you think put you in the crosshairs?


    Well, I spoke very publicly about the issue. I raised it to leadership at the Department of Interior. I raised it with leadership at the White House.

    I spoke on several occasions to the public about it. And just the week before I received the reassignment letter I spoke about it at the United Nations.


    Now, a spokesman for the Interior Department says that this move, transferring you from A to B, was completely appropriate. They say it's — Interior Secretary Zinke said he was going to reorganize the department on day one, and that they argue that you signed up for this job knowing that this was likely going to happen.

    So what is your response to that?


    We absolutely know that the Senior Executive Service is a mobile work force. That's what it was intended for.

    Anyone who becomes an SES, a senior executive, is aware that they could at some point be reassigned, even involuntarily.

    What it doesn't allow, however, is for the administration to retaliate against employees by reassigning them or try and get them to — to coerce them into quitting their jobs. And it was very clear to me, based on the job they put me in, that that was their intent.


    But they never said to you, we didn't like that you were talking about this or raising this issue? They simply said, we think you're better positioned to do this other job?


    Yes, they actually never said anything. I didn't talk to anybody. No one reached out before the reassignment, and no one reached out after the reassignment, except to tell me where my new office was.

    And my notice office is in the office, the accounting office that collects royalty checks from oil and gas companies.


    That's your current job now?


    That's where I sit now. It's not really a job. I'm a senior adviser, so it's a job title with no duties, so I think it was understood that I would quit the job before moving.


    Do you see some irony there, that you were working on climate change largely driven by the consumption of oil and gas, and now you're cashing checks from the oil and gas industry?


    Year, the irony is not lost on me, nor is the very clear intent of that reassignment.


    You have filed a complaint now with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. What is it you hope comes of this?


    Well, I'm going to trust the process. They will do an investigation. I certainly hope that they will then ask the department to reinstate me in my old job, so I can get back to work looking out for these Alaska native communities, looking out for the health and safety of Americans.

    That's what makes this work meaningful. And, of course, I hope to be able to do that. I also, though, hope that others that are contemplating speaking out realize they do have rights, and they do have a voice, and there's an opportunity if they need to, if they're told to do things they don't approve of or not to do their job, that they should speak out.


    All right, Joel Clement, thank you very much for talking with us.


    Thank you very much.