ATLANTA — Organizers of a conference on public health and climate change urged policy experts and policymakers to mobilize in the wake of a new administration they say has denied the impact, and even the existence, of global warming.
Three lead organizers behind the Climate & Health Meeting — former Vice President Al Gore, Harvard Global Health Institute’s Dr. Ashish Jha, and the American Public Health Association’s Dr. Georges Benjamin — brought together more than 300 people at the Carter Center in Atlanta for a one-day meeting to replace the three-day conference originally scheduled for this week at the CDC headquarters four miles away. The original meeting was canceled after the presidential election in anticipation of the Trump administration’s unenthusiastic views toward climate change work. But two CDC scientists who played a leading role in the scrapped summit spoke at Thursday’s meeting. So did former President Jimmy Carter.
“With the possible disapproval of Congress, the CDC has to be a little cautious politically,” said Carter, a longtime advocate for global health issues, as he made unannounced remarks. “The Carter Center doesn’t.”
The canceled event cast a shadow over the meeting’s intended message — if we don’t slow climate change, infectious disease, metabolic illness, and other maladies will either become more common or will find themselves in new geographies that were once too cold, or perhaps too dry.
Some researchers discussed how health conditions like heart disease and mental illness have climbed, linking them to global warming. Columbia University public health professor Kim Knowlton said rising temperatures have the potential to increase the number of heat-related hospital visits and deaths in cities like New York. Other experts focused on the global effects of climate change including the recent increase in natural disasters and the spread of infectious diseases.
“Walls will not keep these pathogens out,” Jha said to the audience. “No borders are going to protect us. That’s what awaits us unless we act.”
During his opening remarks, Gore acknowledged that CDC canceled its summit “for reasons we don’t need to go into.”
Benjamin cut to the point as he urged public health and climate policy experts to act so they would “not be impeded by denial” from skeptics.
After the CDC canceled its summit in late December, speculation had swirled about whether CDC staffers would be allowed to participate or attend the resurrected meeting. CDC spokesman Bernadette Burden told STAT the agency did not “provide direction to employees about attending the meeting. Some CDC staff may have decided to take personal leave to attend.”
The CDC staffers who did show up Thursday kept a quiet profile during the meeting. Laura Turner Seydel — an environmentalist who sits on the board of the Turner Foundation, a one of the meeting’s main sponsors — told STAT she believes CDC scientists may be “scared by the wrath of Trump.” He has called climate change a hoax invented by the Chinese.
Because of that, she worries researchers like George Luber, an epidemiologist who’s participated in the global warming documentary series, Years of Dangerously Living, might be deterred from speaking further about issues of climate and health.
“George Luber had done a very good job of describing the problem,” Seydel said. “He’s been quiet for the past couple of years as he hangs in there like a loose tooth.”
Breysse, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, was one of the original CDC summit organizers before agency officials canceled it. He still participated in the rescheduled event — briefly, though, as he introduced a speaker.
Talking to reporters, Benjamin later conceded some of his peers at the CDC “are afraid” about the potential fallout within the agency. But Benjamin said it wouldn’t stop him from reaching out to them in the future to see if they would help raise awareness with the public about the human costs of global warming.
“If they’re told they can’t [participate], we’re going to be asking why,” he said. “We’re going to continue to ask that question until we get a satisfactory answer. The answer is simple: Science is above politics. Professionalism is above politics. We need to let people get involved.”