Here is Part I of our interview with Interior Department whistleblower Joel Clement. Mr. Clement is a former federal executive and public lands policy expert with a background in climate and energy. After publicly disclosing how climate change affects Alaska Native communities, Mr. Clement was reassigned to an accounting position for which he had no experience. Believing he was a victim of unlawful employment retaliation, Mr. Clement spoke out in a Washington Post piece entitled I’m a scientist. I’m blowing the whistle on the Trump administration. Here is how Mr. Clement details first-hand his experience as a whistleblower, his advice to others, and his visions for what comes next.
Whistleblower Insider: Can you tell us a little about your background before you worked for the government?
Joel: I was a field biologist, an ecologist, studying forest ecology and the forest canopy. I then moved into philanthropy, working for a private foundation out west on public land issues. So everything that ranged from conservation science to climate change adaptation and data sharing were all projects that I spun up out there. Coming into my original job in the federal government was not much of a change. I was still working on federal land, still working on science and policy issues, and bridging the two.
Whistleblower Insider: Is there something unique about you or your background that made it more likely for you to come forward as a whistleblower?
Joel: Well, growing up in Maine, and I mentioned this in my original whistleblower Op-Ed, I was taught to speak up when things aren’t going the way they should or when I believe someone is misusing or abusing their authority. And I grew up, running around in the woods, with a deep appreciation for nature. A lot of Mainers would say the same thing. The mission at DOI is very important to me, particularly the focus on our natural resources. I don’t really think I’m that different from a lot of the federal employees at DOI, honestly. I think it’s just because my area of focus was climate change and because this incoming administration was clearly disregarding one of the most pressing issues of our time, I felt compelled to say something.
Whistleblower Insider: In your experience, are the folks at DOI particularly committed to the agency’s mission, perhaps even more than you might expect at other agencies??
Joel: Absolutely—I think from the Park Service to the Bureau of Land Management to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Geological Survey, all these bureaus are full of people who came there for the mission. And these are not lucrative, high-end jobs, this was an opportunity to influence and help form federal policy around natural resources. That’s always attracted people who care more about the mission than the money. DOI in particular, I think, has a lot of very committed people. I would say there are a couple of other agencies out there like that. The people at NASA are very dedicated to that work and EPA as well. But at DOI, it is a very committed and skilled bunch of public servants.
Whistleblower Insider: Do you think part of that is because of what you said about this being one of the preeminent issues of our time or do you think many of the folks just have a passion for environmental issues?
Joel: I don’t even know that it’s necessarily environmental issues, so much as carefully stewarding the natural resources that are the public trust. For some of the bureaus at DOI it’s not necessarily an environmental job, they may actually be part of the leasing process for oil and gas off shore,. But it’s important the people doing that work have a deep understanding of these resources and that it is a public trust. It’s not just a resource that you can hand over to the oil and gas industry. This is all Americans’ property.
Whistleblower Insider: Did you have a particular point in your career where you really started to focus on climate issues?
Joel: That issue has been part of my work and at the forefront of my priorities since I was in college and grad school back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. This has always been an issue for me.. Back then it was, “how do we stop this climate change thing that we’re hearing about?” It evolved into, okay, maybe the best use of my time is focusing on how do we adapt to it because there are certain aspects of this that we’re not going to be able to get out of, issues we have to address. And once we learn what we need to do to adapt and how much it’s going to cost, I expect this country will understand we can’t afford climate change. We have to act now. So, this has been a part of my thinking for quite some time.
Even growing up in Maine, we didn’t talk about climate change, but you get a deep understanding of the seasons and the ecological webs and how small changes can make a huge difference. I was just up in Maine, and noticed the geese were still lingering up there because it’s been so darn warm—it’s been in the 70’s in late October—pretty crazy. Those are the things you pay attention to when you grow up in a place like that. So they mean more. When you hear something about climate change you really pay attention.
Whistleblower Insider: What are your thoughts on the growing awareness on climate issues?
Joel: On one hand, we would be acting on this issue much more thoroughly and comprehensively if people were really acknowledging the science behind the issue. So it’s great that people are starting to perk up now, but this needed to happen decades ago. And the science has been telling us that we need to get on the ball for decades. We can’t cry over spilled milk now, but if it takes these storms and increased suffering to get people’s attention, well we’re in for a rude awakening because there’s going to be a lot more of that now. So, as you can tell, I have sort of a bittersweet take on the issue. It just should not have taken this long.
Whistleblower Insider: Can you tell us about your communications with the administration prior to your reassignment?
Joel: On one hand, I had spoken very publicly about the climate change issue, and particularly on the plight of the Alaska natives whose villages are being eroded away. They’re very vulnerable now to big storms and have to relocate very soon. I talked about that quite a lot in public, including in the U.N. the week before I was reassigned. I had let my superiors at DOI know that this work was going on, that it was essential work and I wasn’t going to stop doing the work because this is important and there are people’s lives that actually depend upon the federal government acting on these issues. I’d also communicated with White House staff through the state department about the issue and the need for momentum on climate change adaptation and resilience.
Whistleblower Insider: Did you get the sense they were taking your concerns seriously?
Joel: There was no communication in the other direction at any point. The politicals at DOI were not reaching out to career staff and from what I understand, that’s still the case. I never heard back from them at all, until I got a letter saying, “Guess what, you’re no longer going to be doing that work.” And that does fit the pattern, right now, of non-transparency.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART II.
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