Energy/Environment First Look

CDC cancels upcoming climate conference, won't say why (+video)

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have canceled a Feb. 2017 conference on climate change and health, but officials are not publicly saying why.

A sign marks the entrance to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
David Goldman/AP/File
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has canceled a conference on climate change that was scheduled to be held next month in Atlanta, Ga.

The government's top public health agency gave no official reason for the cancellation, but some involved with the conference have suggested that the cancellation may be an attempt to avoid political friction with President Trump's new administration. While there is a consensus among most scientists that humans have a leading role in climate change, Mr. Trump has called the phenomenon a hoax on more than one occasion.

The CDC has received political flak before for its positions on various issues. But fear of reprisal or even losing funding for taking a strong opposing stance against the new administration may have been a factor in the conferences' cancellation, says Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. Dr. Benjamin told the Associated Press that there had been no request or order from the Trump administration to stop the conference, but that members of the CDC had expressed worries to him about the country's new leadership.

"They had no idea or not whether the new administration would be supportive," said Benjamin, whose group was set to co-sponsor the conference.

"They decided the better part of valor was to stop and regroup," he added.

The Climate and Health Summit had been scheduled for Feb. 14-16. The event would have supported discussion on the effects of climate change on human health, including heat-related illnesses and the spread of disease-carrying tropical insects.

"In the long run, climate change is affecting the health of Americans," Kristie Ebi, a professor of global health at the University of Washington in Seattle who had been asked to speak at the conference, told the AP. "At some point, I hope they will go forward with the conference."

CDC spokeswoman Bernadette Burden told CNN that the organization was "exploring options" for rescheduling the meeting. The event was supposed to kick off a year of similar climate and health-related conferences, but political opposition from the Trump administration might cause other organizations to question the wisdom of taking a strong position on the human cause of climate change.

"I'm very much concerned about the precedent and very concerned about how [the Trump administration will] handle climate change going forward," Benjamin told CNN. "The truth of the matter is we can pretend like climate change is not here, but ... it's a big issue. So we can put a name to it and try to fix it, or we can not put a name to it, but we're going to have to fix it anyway." 

Predicting the new administration's official stance on the issue could also prove difficult. Scott Pruitt, Trump's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, has expressed doubts about the human cause of climate change in the past, but backed away from those statements during his confirmation hearing. Trump himself has expressed multiple opinions on the subject, keeping government agencies like the CDC guessing. But some experts like Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, say that these organizations should stand against climate change denial, no matter the political cost.

"Politics is politics, but protecting the health of our citizens is one of our government's most important obligations to us," Dr. Maibach, another intended speaker for the CDC conference, told the Washington Post. "Climate change is bad for America, and bad for the world, in so many ways. One of these ways is that it is harming our health, already, and is likely to get much worse over the next few decades unless we take action."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.