Climate change has a long list of known human health consequences, not the least of which is a set of adverse impacts on mental health. As more and more people are directly affected by destructive floods, heat waves, drought, deadly storms and other extreme weather events – all worsened by increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide – experts predict a steep rise in mental and social disorders: anxiety, depression, PTSD, substance abuse, increased suicide rates, and outbreaks of violence. Hardest hit will be children, the poor, the elderly, and those with existing mental health problems: collectively, this amounts to about half the US population! Worse, the consensus seems to be that the mental health profession is unprepared to handle these challenges.
Just three days after the presidential inauguration, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced in a terse email that it was cancelling a three-day conference, the “Climate and Health Summit,” that was to take place in Atlanta from February 14-16. With the “translation of science to practice” as the planned theme, scientists were to present their most recent research on the physical and mental health effects of climate change, and conferees were to explore ways to improve interagency cooperation and stakeholder engagement. Though no official reason was given, it quickly became evident that the CDC had engaged in self-censorship. President Trump has alleged that global warming is a notion invented by the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing noncompetitive and, more recently, that climate change is a hoax. This “strategic retreat,” as one scheduled speaker characterized it, was the result of a fear-based decision to shut down the event preemptively, before the new administration had a chance to shut it down for them, absent any foreknowledge or hint that they would.
As taxpayers who underwrite interagency federal climate science to the tune of about two billion dollars a year, we should be as intolerant of self-censorship as we are of outright censorship of government information. The unfettered communication of research findings regarding climate change impacts across regions and sectors is necessary for public awareness, preparedness, and sound policymaking. As global temperatures rise, all will be better served if civil servants inoculate themselves against the chilling effect that normally accompanies the sort of tyrannical rule we’ve already witnessed from our new President. In all likelihood, the CDC Summit was not on the White House radar, and could have proceeded unimpeded. Instead, Al Gore and several health-related organizations swooped in, came to the rescue, and sponsored a distilled down, one-day version they called the Climate & Health Meeting. But it is not the responsibility of private citizens and organizations to pick up the slack when agencies cower.