Hushing Up the Health Hazards of Climate Change

Published Feb 11, 2008

White House officials heavily censored Congressional testimony from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that described the hazardous effects of climate change on public health.

In the final hours before CDC director Julie Gerberding was to present her testimony to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on October 23, 2007,1 the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) replaced her intended testimony with an edited version half the original length.2

The Associated Press (AP) revealed OMB's interference after the hearing when an anonymous CDC whistleblower told them the testimony had been "eviscerated".3 In response to this claim, Congress demanded White House officials produce records of all changes made to Gerberding's written testimony.4

Testimony gutted

The released records indicate that seven pages were deleted, effectively removing all language that unambiguously linked climate change to practical consequences for the American people. Entire sections describing the specific health threats of climate change and identifying vulnerable populations were removed.5 "They gutted it," said one CDC scientist to Science magazine.6

The original testimony was a well-rounded report describing the predicted health hazards of climate change for the U.S. population and outlining the considerable mitigation efforts that will be required of CDC and other federal agencies. OMB's edits left only vague discussion of actions CDC will take to "enhance overall health preparedness."7

For example, the opening paragraph originally stated, "Scientific evidence supports the view that the earth's climate is changing… [T]he public health effects of climate change remain largely unaddressed. CDC considers climate change a serious public health concern.";8 OMB removed this section entirely.

Other specific statements that were deleted from the draft testimony:9

  • "Allergic diseases and symptoms could worsen with climate change."
  • "Children are at greater risk of worsening asthma, allergies, and certain infectious diseases, and the elderly are at higher risk for health effects due to heat waves, extreme weather events, and exacerbations of chronic disease."
  • "The United States is expected to see an increase in the severity, duration, and frequency of extreme heat waves. This, coupled with an aging population, increases the likelihood of higher mortality."
  • "Climate change could aid in the establishment of exotic vector-borne diseases imported into the United States."
  • "Climate change is predicted to alter agricultural production…This may lead to scarcity of some foods, increase food prices, and threaten access to food for Americans who experience food insecurity."

Gerberding was able to address several of these redacted topics verbally during questioning by the committee.10

White House questions validity of CDC science

Criticism over the "heavy-handed"11 treatment of CDC science elicited a White House response from press secretary Dana Perino, who stated that the President's Office of Science Technology and Policy (OSTP), in consultation with OMB, had determined the CDC's statements were not in line with the findings of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).12 According to Perino, there was not enough time to reconcile the differences, and instead the pages were removed in their entirety.13

Dr. John Marburger, the president's science advisor and head of OSTP, denied his office had "wiped out" eight pages of the testimony,14 but confirmed in a statement before the Senate committee that OSTP had recommended revisions to correct "several nuanced but important differences between the IPCC report's findings and the draft testimony."15

"That's nonsense," said Jonathan Patz, professor of Public Health at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a lead author for the IPCC, "Dr. Gerberding's testimony was scientifically accurate and absolutely in line with the findings of the IPCC."16 A document prepared by the Senate committee presents a side-by-side comparison of the deleted CDC statements with supporting statements from the IPCC report, supporting Patz's assertion.17

Dr. Howard Frumkin, director of CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, said that this incident will not prevent CDC from going forward with its initiative to protect public health from the hazards of climate change.18 But whether the administration will allow the agency to proceed according to the best available science remains unclear.

1. Hearing entitled, "Examining the Human Health Impacts of Global Climate Change." U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. 23 October 2007. See the webcast online.
2. Kintisch, Eli. 2007. "CDC Director's Message on Risk Runs Afoul of White House Edits." Science. 2 November. Vol 318, p. 726.
3. Heber, Josef. "US Edits Climate Change Health Testimony." Associated Press Online. 23 October 2007.
4. Gordon, Bart and Miller, Brad. Letter to Dr. John Marburger, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. 24 October 2007.
5. Compare the draft testimony to the final testimony. Gerberding, Julie. Draft Written Testimony for hearing entitled, "Examining the Human Health Impacts of Global Climate Change." U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. 23 October 2007. See also a copy of the draft written testimony showing White House edits available on the EPW website.
6. Kintisch 2007.
7. Gerberding Final Testimony 2007.
8. Gerberding Draft Testimony 2007.
9. Testimony showing White House edits is also available on the EPW website. 
10. See the hearing webcast.
11. As described to the AP by an unnamed CDC official. See: Hebert, Josef. "US Edits Climate Change Health Testimony." Associated Press Online. 23 October 2007.
12. See the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Working Group II: "Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability." 2007.
13. Press Briefing by Dana Perino. 24 October 2007.
14. John Marburger, Director of OSTP. As quoted in: "White House Science Advisor Denies He Recommended Broad Deletions in Global Warming Testimony." 2007. Josef Hebert. The Associated Press. November 15.
15. Marburger, John. 2007. Statement before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. October 26. Accessed 7 February 2008.
16. As quoted in: Eilperin, Juliet. "Sen. Boxer Seeks Answers On Redacted Testimony; White House Cut Climate Warnings ." The Washington Post. 25 October 2007.
17. U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. "White House deletion of large sections of testimony on public health impacts of global warming by the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)."
18. Young, Alison and Schneider, Craig. "Uproar swirls around words of CDC chief: Senator wants to see preliminary drafts of testimony on health effects of climate change." The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 25 October 2007.