By Anne Polansky
Senior Climate Policy Analyst
We recently wrote about the plight of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Climate and Health Program and the political persecution of its former chief, epidemiologist Dr. George Luber. This courageous truth-teller is now fighting back by waging a spirited legal battle and media campaign with the help of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and a team of specialists here at Government Accountability Project. Several key developments have occurred over the past two months.
On the legal front, the CDC issued a harsh 120-day suspension proposal to Dr. Luber on July 3, replete with unsubstantiated allegations to which PEER filed a formal response; on August 16, PEER attorney Kevin Bell submitted a 34-page complaint on behalf of Dr. Luber to the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) seeking whistleblower protection. Government Accountability Project attorneys are submitting Freedom of Information Act requests and preparing an amicus brief in support of the OSC petition. A flurry of media coverage began with a late-breaking news alert of the upcoming whistleblower filing by E&E News on August 13, followed by deeper analysis the next day by Timothy Gardner at Thomson Reuters; the story was then picked up by CNBC, Yahoo News, Science Magazine, and a few international outlets.
InsideClimate News posted its own original story on August 16, which goes into more depth regarding the Trump administration’s sustained efforts to shut down federal climate science programs and censor the findings. Indeed, these efforts have been vicious, untruthful, threatening, and systematic. For example, the words “climate change” have all but disappeared from a host of federal government websites; Department of Interior climate impacts advisor Joel Clement was transferred and removed from any responsibility related to science by then-Secretary Ryan Zinke; National Park Service analyst-turned-whistleblower Maria Caffrey was retaliated against and fired for calling out threats to coastal national parks due to storm surge and sea level rise in a climate-changed world; and the Trump White House blocked the Congressional testimony of a key State Department intelligence analyst, Rod Schoonover, resulting in his decision to leave the federal government altogether. Federal grants for climate science research and preparedness are being systematically zeroed out across the board. Moreover, federal government employees are fleeing their jobs in droves due to unrelenting personal and political attacks; and program managers are self-censoring and even shutting down their own climate-related operations in acts of anticipatory surrender so as to appease a White House hostile to all that smacks of climate change concern.
President Trump’s just-say-no approach to climate change was perfectly captured in his four-word remark in reaction to the November 2018 release of the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s Fourth National Climate Assessment: “I don’t believe it” — billions of dollars’ worth of federal research by thousands of scientists and thirteen government agencies notwithstanding.
On the Congressional oversight front, House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone sent a letter dated July 30 to CDC Director Robert Redfield expressing concern that reorganization at CDC had weakened the agency’s climate and health programs and requesting a briefing on this matter by August 12. The CDC neither briefed Committee staff nor responded to Chairman Pallone’s request.
Congress had appropriated $10 million annually for this program. Dr. Luber’s concerns that the CDC is misallocating this funding for activities unrelated to climate and health is one of the core bases of his whistleblowing. He believes the agency should be held to account for this by Congressional authorizers and appropriators. For FY 2020, the House Appropriations Committee has allocated $15 million for CDC’s Climate & Health Program managed and directed by Dr. Luber ever since 2009, indicating strong Congressional support for this critically-needed government function (the U.S. Senate has yet to act on a companion appropriations bill). Through a series of grants to non-federal entities, the CDC had been helping communities across the nation prepare for an onslaught of climate-related threats to public health – threats that include, for example, a host of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and West Nile virus; asthma and cardiovascular disease; heat stroke; cholera; malnutrition; and compromised mental health leading to suicide and other forms of violence.
CSPW has been calling for raised national preparedness for climate change impacts for well over a decade, just as the severity and frequency of harmful impacts escalates to dangerous levels and threatens national security. Global climate change presents a clear and present danger and is a known existential threat. Yet, the U.S. President has chosen not only to bury his head in the sand, but also to decapitate the body of scientific knowledge our nation has carefully created over the last 50 years in order to better understand Earth’s complex climate system and intelligently deal with the growing climate crisis.
CSPW Senior Climate Policy Analyst Anne Polansky has 30 years of experience in public policies relating to energy and the environment, with a strong focus on climate change and renewable energy. She is a former Professional Staff Member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.