Early in his career, Joel Clement had the quietest kind of job. Using a bow and arrow, he’d shoot rope into trees in Costa Rica, Venezuela, Madagascar and Chile. With climbing gear, he’d make his way to the top, to the canopy where the trees meet the sky. He’d sit and watch, a forest biologist studying all that was around him, the very architecture of the trees, plants, animals, even the mosses. Migrant and resident birds would fly in and around the canopy of giant trees. Eight hours might pass.

“I would just be silent and not move,” he said.

These days, the Falmouth native, who will make two public speaking appearances this week in Maine, is known for being anything but silent. After more than six years at the Department of Interior working to help Americans face the coming impacts of climate change, Clement shot a proverbial arrow into the heart of the Trump administration. He announced in a highly public forum (first in the Washington Post’s opinion pages and then in newspapers across the country and in his home state) that he’d been reassigned to a job in the department’s accounting office as retaliation for speaking out about climate change. He joined Twitter the same day he filed a whistleblower complaint against the government, taking the handle @jclement4Maine, and he’s tweeted over 2,000 times since then.

Tweeter, noisemaker, and specifically whistleblower were not roles he was familiar with. He’s a scientist, who did graduate work in forest biology at Evergreen State College in Washington state and became an expert on building resilience to climate change in the Arctic. While he was aware of the term and what it meant – “I knew who Edward Snowden was” – it hadn’t occurred to him that he, a government scientist used to assessing and advising and planning, would become one. Not that his action meant going rogue entirely; there’s even a law in place to protect his rights. The Whistleblower Protection Act, signed into law by the first President George Bush in 1989, offers protection for federal workers who identify and report misconduct within a federal agency.

Though he was hired at the Department of the Interior in 2011 during President Barack Obama’s first term, Clement had planned on keeping his position (he resigned in October) in the new administration. But he also didn’t expect that the work he was doing would be threatened.

“Honestly none of us that worked in (the area of) adaptation and resilience were that worried,” Clement said during a phone interview from Washington, where he is still based. “We knew that the administration did not believe in climate change, but we didn’t think that they would prevent Americans from getting help mitigating impacts of climate change happening here and now in front of your eyes.”


Just a few months into the new presidency, Clement said that is just what happened.


Clement will be giving a talk Wednesday evening at Bates College in Lewiston, cosponsored by Maine Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and the Conservation Law Foundation. On Thursday, he’ll be speaking at the Maine Audubon headquarters in Falmouth (that event is sold out).

One of the attendees will be a former neighbor, Ted Vail, 91, who was Clement’s first boss. The longtime Falmouth resident hired Clement as a teenager to mow lawns and do other handy work (“good worker!”), and ended up with something of a friend later, when, after Clement had gone off into the world, he’d come home for visits. “He would often come to see me and we would talk history and politics and all kind of things,” Vail said.

Both talks represent Clement’s new mission: making sure people understand the role the Trump Administration is playing in undermining climate change policies.

It’s also a chance to speak to Mainers, who face their own battles with resiliency from climate change. These include rising seas – as the beachfront communities of York County can definitely attest after recent storm surges – the arrival of invasive plants and animals, and the likely displacement of native species, like lobster. Clement’s July op-ed was notable for his bold language, and for its nod to the place where he grew up: “Born and raised in Maine, I was taught to work hard and speak truth to power.”


The reference to Maine in his Twitter handle might make some wonder if he’s planning a political career himself. But no, he said, he’s just a shameless Maine booster. “I am of a place, and I feel strongly about the place.”

Clement grew up in Falmouth, with two brothers and a sister.

“I was in the woods all the time,” he said. “That was my playground and my school.”

“It was nature, nature, nature,” confirms his mother, Marcia Johnson, whether he and his brothers were rigging up crab traps off the dock or sailing on Casco Bay. When he wasn’t playing in nature, he was working, running the launch at Handy Boat, mowing lawns in the summer, shoveling snow in the winter. And reading books. “He spent a huge amount of time reading,” his mother said.

He marched through the Hardy Boys, Motor Boys, Aviator Boys and straight into “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” “I must have borrowed every Jacques Cousteau book from the Falmouth library at some point,” he said. “Of course, “The Lord of the Rings” consumed me for a summer when I should have been out in the woods. I couldn’t put it down.”

Joel Clement walks past his camp in Wayne. The Falmouth native will make two speaking appearances this week in Maine: Wednesday at Bates College in Lewiston and Thursday at the Maine Audubon headquarters in Falmouth.

In high school, Clement was drawn to history. One of his teachers was interested in Thomas Jefferson, and recommended the University of Virgina to Clement. Back then, he liked the idea of getting out of New England (Now? He misses Maine, hard). After getting a history degree from UVA in 1988, Clement headed West “as many of us do.” He tried out Seattle and then decided he wanted to see tropical rainforests. So he hitchhiked his way to Central America (his mother refers to this as his “walking trip”) and once there, connected with a grassroots organization that had installed platforms in the rainforests of Costa Rica to study the canopy. He volunteered to help.


“And that is when I started climbing trees,” he said. This became a passion of his, continued in the Pacific Northwest over the course of the next decade (there’s a full spread on him and his fellow tree-climbing scientific explorers in the January 1997 issue of National Geographic; his mother still has a copy). “It’s a lot like studying coral reefs – the chemistry and the diversity.”


In 2002, Clement went to work for Wilburforce, a Seattle-based private philanthropic organization that supports land, water and wildlife conservation efforts in Western North America, a grand swath from Alaska all the way into Mexico. Denise Joines hired him to work on issues throughout the West. “Basically protecting big wild places,” she said.

Clement, standing on a rock and fishing in the Kennebec near Bingham. Growing up in Falmouth, Clement recalls, “I was in the woods all the time. That was my playground and my school.”

“He is one of the smartest people I have ever known really,” Joines said of Clement. “He is able to pull together a whole bunch of different threads of different information and consolidate them into a coherent whole. That is the mark of a really brilliant scientist.”

After a few years, she said, she and another of Wilburforce’s top program officers decided to establish a new program in conservation science and put Clement in charge of it. “It was clear that we weren’t really taking advantage of his core strengths, which were in science, so we created a whole new position and program for Joel.”

In 2011, Clement learned about an appealing, “wonky” job opening at the Department of Interior. The job description for his new gig at Interior wasn’t all that different from what he’d been doing at Wilburforce, but it had the promise of being able to make change. “You can toss ideas over the walls all day long but until you are inside that castle, it is hard to implement things,” Clement said.


For a long time, the castle was a good place to speak truth to power. Clement didn’t expect a radical shift after Donald Trump was elected. He recalls assuring colleagues all around the world. “I would say, ‘Yes, it looks bad. But adaptation (the work he was involved in) is still going to happen.’ But I was completely wrong.”

Clement was working closely with three Native communities on Alaska’s western coast, Kivalina, Shishmaref and Shaktoolik, all of which he said are in jeopardy of being swallowed up by rising sea levels. Mostly he was working on this from the Washington, D.C., side of things, but he’d been to the communities, met the whaling captains and established relationships and trust that the government would help relocate them and help them weather the changes they’d have to make.

“One big storm and one of those Arctic villages would be wiped right off the map,” Clement says of the Native communities in Alaska he was working to help while at the Department of the Interior.

“We kept implementing orders,” Clement said. “We didn’t stop doing that until April, when the president rescinded an executive order on resilience in the Arctic (put in place by President Obama). That is when we realized, they don’t even want us working on climate impacts.”

“One big storm and one of those Arctic villages would be wiped right off the map,” he said.

The jeopardy those villages were in was the catalyst for Clement speaking out, but the larger issue was how the government planned to protect all Americans who might be in danger from the impacts of climate change.

The final straw was when he was reassigned to the Department of Interior’s accounting department. As he said in his op-ed, he was no accountant. Nor was he the only one of his senior colleagues to reassigned. In his op-ed, Clement cited testimony by the new Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, before Congress that “the department would use reassignments as part of its effort to eliminate employees; the only reasonable inference from that testimony is that he expects people to quit in response to undesirable transfers.”


He went to trainings in Colorado and said his new colleagues were treating him well, but he felt like he was cheating taxpayers. In October, he resigned. His mother was proud, both of the whistleblowing and his decision to leave a job that had nothing to do with his training or expertise.

Clement on an ice fishing trip to Dexter Pond with Luke Deblois.

“You are going to hear nothing but superlatives from me,” his mother, Marcia Johnson, said by phone from her home in Florida. (She’s a summer visitor to the state now.) “He is so principled. He is his own man.” She didn’t know of his plans to make a stance until he did so. Suddenly, in July, there was his picture splashed across the news and some strong words. Like these: “Silencing civil servants, stifling science, squandering taxpayer money and spurning communities in the face of imminent danger have never made America great.” But she, like others who have known Clement a long time, found it in keeping with his character, if not behavior.

Nalini Nadkarni, who is known for her pioneering work in canopy biology, is the mentor who encouraged Clement to take on graduate work at Evergreen State College. She said in an email from Costa Rica (where she is still working in those tall trees) that Clement is “a listener rather than a shouter, so it was not obvious that he would make a media splash with his actions nor be a loud spokesperson.”

But she was not surprised, “because it was consistent with the quiet efforts to help the Earth that I was aware of when I first met him.”

That was the early 1990s.

“He was an interesting, intelligent and motivated young man,” Nadkarni said. “Very well-spoken and with a clear idea of what he wanted to do – not the specifics of the scientific questions he wanted to answer, but the idea of something of contribution to the world.”


For Joines, who hired Clement at Wilburforce, what is happening in the Department of the Interior and throughout the environmental branch of government is cause for grief.

“It made me sad for our government, basically,” Joines said. “That someone with his skills and experience and commitment would be reassigned from a job that he loved, that he was excellent at, that he was serving his country with, to a position that he would have been very good at because he is very good, but a complete waste of skills and talents.”

She wonders what will happen to the Alaskan communities that Clement was helping with climate change resiliency efforts.

“Who is their advocate now?” she added. “Who is working for them?”


Whoever hires him next is going to be “very lucky” Joines said.


Clement is piecing together a living. He has a fellowship with the Union of Concerned Scientists and is working with the Stockholm Environmental Institute on Arctic resiliency.

“Technically I am unemployed still,” he said. “But I have been busier since I resigned than I ever was when I was working.”

His Maine speaking engagements are part of a pointed effort to speak out nationally. His work with the Union of Concerned Scientists is focused on scientific integrity issues.

“That’s a big concern,” he said. “The politicization of science and the sidelining of scientists has gotten so bad across this administration. There isn’t even a science advisor for the president yet. It is literally already putting American health and safety at risk.”

Busy as he is, about once a month he comes home to Maine. In 2014, Clement bought a camp in Wayne. It needed a lot of work, but his mother, who came with him to look at the place, instantly sensed it was for him. “I just had a feeling about it and him,” Johnson said. “He needs it. Anybody who is doing intense things needs to get away and that is the place to do it.” “I can’t get enough of it,” Clement said. He said the dawn light over the pond is so stunning, “I’ve probably taken hundreds of pictures from the same spot on the deck.”

He’s seen and worked in so many beautiful landscapes, but this – Maine – is the one that speaks to him. “In the end, it just gets in your blood,” he said. “The Maine outdoors is what you prefer.”


With some time on his hands, maybe he’ll even climb some of his tall trees, which are mostly pines. He’s still got the gear and that bow and arrow.

“There is no feeling like being on the top of a really high tree,” he said. “It is not so much the height. You are connected to the tree, and it is swaying in the wind. It is a little bit like being a bird. It is energizing.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:


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