Reviewing the proposed agenda for this Thursday’s Climate and Health Summit in Atlanta brings an immediate question to mind: Why, exactly, were the nation’s chief public health officials so afraid of holding this meeting? Just as Donald J. Trump was taking office last month, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention abruptly canceled the long-planned conference on worrisome public health problems linked to global warming. The meeting had been planned for months, and research papers had been solicited. Although CDC officials gave no explanation, this seems like a case of self-censorship in order to avoid the ire of our flat-earth president, who has declared climate change a hoax. By choosing the path of least resistance, the CDC is abrogating its core mission as the country’s guardian of public health.
Fortunately, former vice president Al Gore’s nonprofit Climate Reality Project teamed up with other nongovernmental organizations, like the Harvard Global Health Institute and the American Public Health Association, to fill the gap left when the CDC pulled out. “We know we’re right about the science,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the APHA. “We don’t like to get told no. This is leadership in the face of adversity.”
The research that will be presented at the one-day meeting will inevitably add to a preponderance of evidence that links extreme weather, choking air pollution, and Zika outbreaks to climate change. In fact, the CDC’s own research has documented heat-related deaths attributed to extreme weather.
All this unfortunately adds up to an inescapable fact: Climate science has become increasingly distorted by our nation’s divisive politics. One of Trump’s first actions was to freeze federal grant spending at the Environmental Protection Agency. In Congress, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology — which could theoretically be a check on any White House excess — is led by Representative Lamar Smith, a climate-change-denying Republican from Texas. Smith has used the panel’s subpoena power to try to obtain internal e-mails from government scientists about a global warming study he didn’t like in the journal Science — leading to a chill that has nothing to do with the weather.
If this adversarial match between government and science seems familiar, that’s because it is: Decades ago, Congress stripped funds from the CDC for research on gun violence. If fear of a repeat performance prompted the CDC officials to pull out of this month’s climate summit, they can look to gun research for a path forward.
Researchers at private universities, foundations, and nonprofits are plunging ahead with their efforts to analyze the impact of gun ownership in the United States. Michael Siegel and Emily Rothman at Boston University, in a study published last year, tracked gun ownership and domestic violence. Siegel is now working on a project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to develop a database of all state firearm laws from 1991 to 2016 and share it with all interested organizations. That research, he hopes, will help bring the perspective of gun owners and dealers into the public policy debate about gun safety. States like Massachusetts have stepped up as well. On Monday, Attorney General Maura Healey, who tightened enforcement of the Commonwealth’s assault weapons ban, partnered with the Massachusetts Medical Society to develop a voluntary training program to help health care providers prevent gun-related accidents, suicide, and other violence.
It’s a model that may need to be replicated in other fields. Organized efforts like the upcoming Atlanta climate summit, fueled by funding outside typical government channels, offer a viable way to push back when basic science and truthful discourse are at risk.