U of T heads 'guerrilla archiving event' to preserve climate data ahead of Trump presidency

Some academic institutions fear that the upcoming Trump presidency threatens climate data and research, and they're working to preserve it out of fear it will be destroyed.

'What we're seeing is environmental McCarthyism,' activist says of incoming administration

The University of Toronto and other academic institutions are participating in an event to archive climate and environmental data before president-elect Donald Trump takes office on Jan. 20. (Shutterstock)

He's called climate change a hoax invented by the Chinese. He's nominated a climate-change denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency. And he doesn't believe California is in a drought.

President-elect Donald Trump isn't even in office yet, but environmentalists are deeply concerned about his views concerning climate change and the environment as a whole. Many are also worried that, once he takes office, years of climate and environmental research could be lost or much harder to access.

On Saturday, the University of Toronto, together with the University of Pennsylvania, is hosting what it calls a "guerrilla archiving event" to preserve any climate and environmental data before Trump takes office. It takes place at the Faculty of Information and runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The event coincides with the Internet Archive's End of Term 2016, a project that aims to preserve federal government information found on the internet at the end of each presidential term. 

You may already be familiar with the Internet Archive: it's home to the Wayback Machine, which searches old versions of web pages after they are updated. One of its offices is at the University of Toronto.

Volunteers welcome

The fear of information being deleted isn't new. Sam-Chin Li, a government information librarian at the University of Toronto, who will be giving advice and direction to those involved on Saturday, said she was involved in archiving many federal government websites in 2013 when the Conservatives announced an amalgamation of 1,500 sites into one. She feared that much of the information could have been lost.

Li said that the incoming presidency worries her.

"Access to government information is so important. It's really a foundation for a function of democracy. And we're seeing all those things disappearing in front of our eyes, so how can we stand there not working?" Li said.

We're learning that the stakes of environmental pollution are planetary.- Michelle Murphy, University of Toronto

Michelle Murphy, director of the University of Toronto's Technoscience Research Unit, said that anyone can participate in Saturday's event. The organizers don't just need those with tech skills, but also people who know how to research and are familiar with environmental issues. 

"It's not just about those with programming/hacking skills," she said. "Ultimately this is an archival process."

Though the university doesn't have any firm numbers on those who will attend, as of Wednesday afternoon, the Guerrilla Archiving Facebook page had 76 people who had confirmed they would be at the event.

The prospect of losing access to U.S. information isn't just an American problem.

"We share waters; we share atmospheres," Murphy said. "We're learning that the stakes of environmental pollution are planetary."

A collaborative effort

Patricia Kim, a graduate fellow at the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, will be in Toronto on Saturday to participate in the event. The two universities are working together to develop a framework for other academic facilities to utilize. The university — whose effort is called #datarefuge and will take place Jan. 13 to 14 — is providing short-term storage with a goal of long-term.

What we're seeing is environmental McCarthyism.- Patricia Kim, University of Pennsylvania

Trump's recent decision to choose Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA — he is known for opposing the EPA and even suing it during his time as Oklahoma attorney general — is concerning to Kim.

"What we're seeing is environmental McCarthyism," said Kim.

But Kim is doing her part to safeguard existing databases and research, and she's looking forward to participating in Saturday's event.

Trump seemed to have wavered on his stance on climate change during a November visit to the office of the New York Times, saying that he'd "keep an open mind." Still, that doesn't mean he plans to soften his stance on the issue, Kim said.

That's why she's taking action now.

"Better safe than sorry." 


Nicole Mortillaro

Senior Reporter, Science

Nicole has an avid interest in all things science. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books.