Joel Clement. Source: PBS Newshour

By Nicky Sundt
CSPW Senior Fellow

Former Senior Department of Interior (DOI) official Joel Clement submitted his resignation yesterday to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Clement articulated three primary reasons for the resignation, citing “poor leadership, waste, and [Zinke’s] failures on climate change.”

The best use of my skills is to join with the majority of Americans who understand what’s at stake, working to find ways to innovate and thrive despite the many hurdles ahead. You have not silenced me; I will continue to be an outspoken advocate for action, and my voice will be part of the American chorus calling for your resignation so that someone loyal to the interests of all Americans, not just special interests, can take your job.”

On June 15, Clement was among dozens of senior DOI Senior Executive Service (SES) officials who were notified that they were being involuntarily reassigned, apparently with the intention of prompting their resignations. In an op-ed piece published on July 19, 2017 in the Washington Post (“I’m a scientist. I’m blowing the whistle on the Trump administration”), Clement said he had filed a retaliation complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. He also filed a disclosure of information with the counsel because, he said, “eliminating my role coordinating federal engagement and leaving my former position empty exacerbate the already significant threat to the health and the safety of certain Alaska Native communities.”

On Sept 21, 2017, Clement received the Joe A. Callaway Award for Civic Courage from the Shafeek Nader Trust for the Community Interest. According to the website, “the award recognizes individuals in any area of endeavor who, with integrity and at some personal risk, take a public stance to advance truth and justice, and who challenged prevailing conditions in pursuit of the common good.” See our detailed coverage of Clement’s case in “Interior Department Whistleblower Joel Clement Receives Award for Civic Courage” (October 2, 2017).

In a press release issued yesterday, Government Accountability Project (GAP) Executive Director & CEO Louis Clark said:

“Mr. Clement is a brilliant scientist and a courageous civil servant. The biggest losers in this management morass at the Department of Interior are the taxpayers. What is now at stake at the department is the civil service system itself. If the Secretary is able to get away with the reorganization that has begun then he will have succeeded in politicizing the entire department, something that Richard Nixon tried to do during Watergate.”

Clement says administration is “shackled to special interests” and “unwilling to lead on climate change.”
In his resignation letter, Clement said:

I blew the whistle on the Trump administration because I believe you unlawfully retaliated against me for disclosing the perilous impacts of climate change upon Alaska Native communities and for working to help get them out of harm’s way. The investigations into my whistleblower complaints are ongoing and I hope to prevail.”

After discussing what he characterized as Zinke’s poor leadership and waste of taxpayer dollars, Clement concisely outlined the threats posed by climate change and the greater risks faced by Americans as a result of the Trump Administration’s policies:

Climate Change Is Real and It’s Dangerous. I have highlighted the Alaska Native communities on the brink in the Arctic, but many other Americans are facing climate impacts head-on. Families in the path of devastating hurricanes, businesses in coastal communities experiencing frequent and severe flooding, fishermen pulling up empty nets due to warming seas, medical professionals working to understand new disease vectors, farming communities hit by floods of biblical proportions, and owners of forestlands laid waste by invasive insects. These are just a few of the impacts Americans face. If the Trump administration continues to try to silence experts in science, health and other fields, many more Americans, and the natural ecosystems upon which they depend, will be put at risk.

The solutions and adaptations to these impacts will be complex, but exponentially less difficult and expensive than waiting until tragedy strikes – as we have seen with Houston, Florida, the US Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico – and there is no time to waste. We must act quickly to limit climate change while also preparing for its impacts.

Secretary Zinke: It is well known that you, Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, and President Trump are shackled to special interests such as oil, gas, and mining. You are unwilling to lead on climate change, and cannot be trusted with our nation’s natural resources.” 

Clement’s resignation was revealed publicly in an article published yesterday on the Washington Post website (“Interior Department whistleblower resigns, calling Ryan Zinke’s leadership a failure”).

“Keeping my voice is more important than keeping my job,” Clement told the Washington Post. “I have not found another job yet. I have vast contacts inside the agency and outside. I do believe I can be a strong voice to resisting what the Zinke team is doing.”


Nicky Sundt is CSPW’s Senior Fellow. She is an expert on energy and climate change with over 35 years of experience and accomplishment in government, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector. During the four-month fellowship, Nicky will watch over and report on key US federal climate science obligations under law – especially those relating to communications to the President, Congress, and the public.