After He Spoke Out On Climate Change, Scientist Says He Was Demoted

Jul 20, 2017
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Joel Clement is a government scientist, a policy expert who is focused on climate change. Last month, he was given a job reassignment. He was removed as director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the U.S. Interior Department. He was given a new job in the department's accounting office. Clement wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post questioning what was behind his job move, and he joins us in our studios this morning.

Welcome.

JOEL CLEMENT: Thank you, David. Thanks for having me on.

GREENE: How'd you find out you were reassigned?

CLEMENT: I received a letter the night of June 15. Some 40 or 50 of us all received these letters at the same time.

GREENE: Forty or 50 people around the department?

CLEMENT: That's right, all senior executives.

GREENE: And you write that you believe this was some sort of retaliation for work you have done on climate change, particularly helping communities in Alaska prepare for climate change. What makes you believe that?

CLEMENT: That's right. Well, for the months preceding the reassignment letter, I had spent quite a lot of time talking about this issue in public fora and in conversations and emails to White House leadership and interior leadership, talking about the risk to the health and safety of these Alaskans.

GREENE: Did anyone, though, tell you - any of your superiors - that that is why your job was being moved? Or is it that just an assumption you're making?

CLEMENT: No, it's a clear path. We certainly had indication when President Trump rescinded the executive order from last December that was intended to build resilience for these communities. So when that happened, we saw the writing on the wall.

GREENE: You say the writing on the wall, and you say this was, you believe, retaliation for your beliefs. But I just have to ask, I mean, shouldn't a new administration be able to move people around a department and put people in places that, you know, best helps it promote its views and policies?

CLEMENT: Oh, yeah, absolutely. In fact, that's what the senior executive service was created for. It's appropriate to move them around. They're meant to be a mobile workforce. What's not appropriate and potentially illegal is to do so in retaliation or to coerce these executives to quit. A week after the letters went out, Secretary Ryan Zinke testified to Congress that he would be using reassignments to thin the workforce, which is - certainly goes against all the intentions of the OPM regulations.

GREENE: Yeah, the secretary said the - I mean, in an open - in a congressional forum, I mean, that he would rely on buyouts, attrition, reassignment to cut down the agency. So you're saying that's what you find or are suggesting is illegal, not necessarily that you would be moved because of your views of the work you've done?

CLEMENT: Actually, both. I filed two forms of complaint. One was I've been disclosing this information about these Americans in danger. And that is something that federal employees are protected from retaliation against. But I also did file a complaint related to the misuse of government funds and processes.

GREENE: I guess - you're calling yourself a whistleblower now. I wonder if you're revealing anything that we didn't already know about President Trump and his climate policy.

CLEMENT: No, I don't think there's anything new here. You know, there's been a chill going through the federal workforce for quite some time. This is not - it's not new that they would take a somewhat ham-fisted approach to thinning the ranks and so on. But this is, perhaps, one of the more flagrant. I don't think they were hiding their cards any when they moved the climate adaptation guy to the fossil fuel royalty collection office.

GREENE: That's what you're doing now? You're collecting royalties from oil companies?

CLEMENT: Yeah. The honor - the office I've been moved to as a senior adviser is responsible for collecting those royalty checks and auditing the companies that provide them.

GREENE: Not your area of expertise. Are you going to stay in that job?

CLEMENT: I'm going to stay in public service as long as I can, as long as I'm allowed to. I'm hoping that the process will work out. The Office of Special Counsel will investigate. And ideally, I can be put back in my job and serve those Americans in Alaska and other places where we're very threatened by the impacts of climate change.

GREENE: Joel Clement is now a senior adviser at the Interior Department's Office of Natural Resources Revenue. Thanks so much for the time.

CLEMENT: Thank you. Happy to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.