MADISON, Wis. — A group of University of Wisconsin-Madison professors criticized the state Department of Natural Resources on Monday for scrubbing its website of language that stated human activity is causing climate change, accusing the agency of ignoring facts and violating the public trust.
The Republican-controlled DNR's revisions came last month. Instead of saying human activities that increase greenhouse gases are the main cause of climate change, the website now says that Earth's climate is going through a change and the reasons are up for debate.
Seven UW-Madison climate, zoology and ecology professors sent an essay to media outlets Monday saying the new language incorrectly implies climate change is mysterious when it's clearly caused by greenhouse gases produced by burning fossil fuels.
"The Wisconsin DNR has a responsibility to accurately inform the public about the challenges presented by climate change," the scientists said. "Ignoring facts and this responsibility, hobbles the state agency entrusted to manage natural resources and protect the public. It also portrays the Wisconsin state government as anti-science."
DNR spokesman James Dick said Monday that agency officials decided to "update" the website in response to an inquiry from The Lakeland Times newspaper in far northern Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Monday that the newspaper asked why the site wasn't changed since agency officials have been stating the cause of climate change is up for debate for several years.
Asked for comment on the scientists' essay, Dick said the DNR doesn't have the capacity to evaluate the causes of climate change and the agency continues to adapt management strategies to address changing environmental conditions.
Most scientists agree burning fossil fuels has increased greenhouse gases and caused global warming. A 2014 United Nations report found that human influence on climate is clear and global warming is unequivocal and unprecedented.
Gov. Scott Walker, who controls the DNR, and his fellow Republicans have been critical of President Barack Obama's climate change initiatives.
The scientists' column threatens to further inflame tensions between UW-Madison and Republican legislators. Over the last several weeks, Sen. Steve Nass, a Whitewater Republican and frequent UW critic, has urged the GOP to slash UW-Madison and the UW System's budget as punishment for the school offering a course called "The Problem of Whiteness" and a program in which male students explore the meaning of masculinity. Nass equated the program to a declaration of war on men.
UW-Madison officials have defended "The Problem of Whitness" course on free speech grounds. They have declined to directly defend the masculinity course other than to say the program is voluntary, lasts six weeks and a number of other universities around the country offer it.
Nass' spokesman, Mike Mikalsen, questioned why UW-Madison's communications department issued the essay since the faculty wrote it on their own. He offered no further comment, saying his office was waiting for a response.
Republican state Sen. Tom Tiffany, a frequent DNR critic who leads the Senate's Sporting Heritage, Mining and Forestry Committee, said the agency appropriately updated its website.
"Their criticism is off-base," Tiffany said, "because climate change is a theoretical construct."