The Trump administration may be hell-bent on sidelining any effort to address global climate change—or even have an intelligent conversation about it—but the public health community is having none of it.
Public health experts know full well that climate change is an existential threat to people’s health, safety, and security. So much so that our nation’s oldest, largest, and most highly respected public health organization—The American Public Health Association—declared 2017 as the Year of Climate Change and Health.
“We’re committed to making sure the nation knows about the effects of climate change on health. If anyone doesn’t think this is a severe problem, they are fooling themselves.” —APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, in The Washington Post
The organization is also ready to host its annual meeting. Attended by thousands of public health professionals from around the country, the theme of this year’s meeting is Creating the Healthiest Nation: Climate Changes Health.
I’m struck by the enormous disconnect between what is happening in our nation’s capital and what’s happening in the community of public health experts. There is quite a gulf on so many issues—from gun violence, reproductive health, exposure to pesticides and other toxic chemicals, and worker safety to minimum wage and health disparities.
But let’s cut to the chase and talk about climate change.
Sidelining climate change: A round-up of recent Trump administration actions
We all know where President Trump stands on climate change; we knew it well before he took office. His suggestion that global warming was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese is maybe his most memorable tweet on the issue, but he’s followed up this nonsense with real action—perhaps best personified in the successful nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. And then fulfilling his promise to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Followed by fossil-friendly Pruitt announcing his intention to repeal the Clean Power Plan.
And they are just getting started, using every tool in the toolbox.
Here is a quick round-up of the administration’s efforts to seriously sideline climate change – just over the past couple of weeks.
- The EPA issues its four-year strategic plan. No mention of climate change.
- The Department of the Interior ups the EPA by one year and scrubs climate change from a draft of its five-year strategic plan.
- Jumping on the bandwagon, the Department of Transportation follows suit and and drops climate change references from its strategic plan
- The EPA scrubs its climate change website of climate change
- The EPA cancels talks on climate change by agency scientists [Waiting to see if any agency cancels staff attendance at the APHA meeting; especially as it’s in CDC’s back yard.]
- Citing travel costs, a US Forest Service scientist scheduled to make a presentation about the role of climate change in wildfires at next month’s International Fire Congress in Orlando, FL was denied approval to attend.
- Not specific to climate change, but in another egregious anti-science action, EPA head Scott Pruitt issues orders to remake the composition of EPA science advisory boards. Scientific experts with EPA grants are out. Industry reps and opponents of regulatory safeguards are in. (For more, see also here and here.)
- The newly appointed US ambassador to Canada “appreciates and respects both sides of [climate] science,” despite the fact that science doesn’t have sides.
- The EPA puts a political appointee and former campaign aide in charge of vetting grant awards and grant solicitations. John Konkus has told staff that he is on the lookout for “the double C-word”—climate change—and repeatedly has instructed grant officers to eliminate references to the subject in solicitations. (OK, this was in September, but I couldn’t resist.)
Keeping climate change front and center: A look at the APHA public health conference
Public health scientists and practitioners have been raising the alarm about climate change and its impacts on human health for years (see for example, here, here, here, here, and here). And just this week, the Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, released a report on climate change and health, noting that its impacts are “far worse than previously understood.”
This year’s APHA annual meeting stands in stark contrast to the control, alt, delete strategy we see coming out of Washington. I’ve done a quick scan of the upcoming APHA program and its keynote addresses, panel presentations, scientific sessions, posters, group gatherings, and continuing education offerings that are in store for the thousands of public health professionals and advocates who will be attending next week’s meeting.
Here’s just a snapshot of the breadth and depth of the discussions that will be happening.
- Opening Plenary Session: Climate Changes Health
- President’s Session: Climate Change and Health: The 21st Century Challenge
- Global Faith and Health Perspectives on Climate Change: An Interfaith Celebration
- Climate Change and its Impact on African Americans (Poster)
- Climate Change and Vulnerable Populations
- Nature and Human Health: Vectors and Climate Change
- Climate Change and the Medical Care System
- Climate Change and Disaster Preparedness
- Climate Change Denial: Who Will Suffer Most and First?
- Climate Change and the Possible Effects on Arbovirus Transmission in the Americas
- Reproductive Health and Carbon Footprints
- Climate Change and Health in Epidemiological Research
- Climate Change, Energy, and Heat: Implications for Human Health
- Climate-friendly Farming: A Public Health Imperative
- Climate Change and Children’s Health
- Ethics, Environmental Justice, and Climate Change
- Climate and Geospatial Determinants of Health
- Best Practices of Policy Initiatives at the Local and Community Level to Address Climate Change
On Sunday, I’m heading to Atlanta to attend the annual meeting. It’s something I look forward to every year. It’s an opportunity to reconnect with colleagues from across the country; hear about new findings, issues, and initiatives from public health researchers and practitioners; share and test ideas; peruse new books, products, and educational resources in the popular exhibit hall (while picking up a couple of free tchotchkies and an occasional apple or piece of candy); and then come home with renewed energy and new friends.
APHA is a vibrant, active, and diverse community and, for me, the meeting helps recharge my battery. It’s like an annual booster shot. And this year’s booster is all about climate change.
Trust and listen to the public health community, not the Trump administration
There is real leadership here—and it’s not coming out of Washington.
The public health community, with far less capacity and significantly fewer resources than our federal government, is WAAAY ahead when it comes to understanding, exploring, planning, managing, advising, educating, and otherwise addressing climate change.
We can count on this community (my community) to put public health, public safeguards, and public protections first—including those focused on climate change. These experts come from every state in the nation and can bring voices and expertise to bear at every level of government.
We will come out of Atlanta next week more prepared and committed than ever to speak up, speak out, and hold our leaders accountable for failing to address this existential threat.