CDC Cancels Climate Change Conference

Published Jan 23, 2017

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, facing likely opposition from the incoming administration, canceled a planned conference on climate change and health—setting a worrisome precedent of self-censorship and denying scientists an opportunity to share information.

What happened: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, facing likely opposition from the incoming administration, canceled a planned conference on climate change and health. A smaller, private event was held instead.

Why it matters: Scientists lost an opportunity to share information with their peers about the health impacts of climate change and strategies for adapting to them. And CDC's pre-emptive cancellation set a worrisome precedent of self-censorship.

Shortly after Donald Trump was elected President, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) canceled a climate change conference that had been planned months in advance. The “Climate and Health Summit” was to be held in Atlanta, Georgia in February 2017. The CDC did not officially comment on why the conference, which had been in the works for months, was canceled.

The theme of the conference as originally planned by the CDC was “the state of the science on climate and health, adaptation through interagency collaboration, and communication and stakeholder engagement strategies.” The CDC said that it had notified participants as early as December 22 of the cancellation and that it was considering options for rescheduling the conference in light of “budget priorities for the fiscal year 2017.”

Some suggest that this cancellation was done in light of the Trump administration’s political views on climate change. The executive director of the American Public Health Association (APHA) and planned keynote speaker at the conference, Georges Benjamin, expressed that agency officials decided to call off the event rather than risk conflict with an incoming president who has repeatedly called climate change a “hoax.” “[CDC] ran it up the flagpole and realized that it was so close to inauguration, the chances of it being canceled were pretty real with the administration that was coming in. Some might argue they should have said, ‘We’re going to do this and make them tell us no.’ But that was the decision they made. We should think of this as a strategic retreat,” Benjamin stated.

Kristie Ebi, a professor of global health at the University of Washington and invited speaker at the CDC’s conference, echoed Benjamin’s concerns that the cancellation of the conference was worrisome. “In the long run, climate change is affecting the health of Americans. At some point, I hope they will move forward with the conference,” she said. Other scientists expressed concern that this could be indicative of a future pattern of “self-sabotage” or “self-censorship” of science from federal agencies.   

The conference ended up happening as a privately funded and abridged one-day summit instead of the three-day program that was previously planned. The one-day summit was sponsored by vice president, Al Gore. Benjamin said that Al Gore had called him to discuss continuing the conference, “he called me and we talked about it and we said, ‘there’s still a void and still a need.” We said, ‘let’s make this thing happen.’ ”

It was unclear whether or not CDC staff would be attending the resurrected meeting. CDC said that the agency did not “provide direction to employees about attending the meeting. Some CDC staff may have decided to take personal leave to attend.” It was reported that some CDC staff did attend the resurrected meeting, but that they kept a low profile. The meeting was held at the nonprofit Carter Center in Atlanta, GA on February 16.