It turns out there will be a conference in Atlanta next month about climate change and its effects on public health. It just won’t have the federal government behind it.
The reason? Former vice president Al Gore.
“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,’ ” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “It was a no-brainer.”
News of a revived conference comes days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention abruptly canceled its long-planned Climate and Health Summit in the lead-up to the change in White House administrations. Benjamin called the move a “strategic retreat” given the climate skepticism of the incoming administration.
Emails sent to participants and scheduled speakers did not explain the reason behind CDC’s decision. Nor did the agency offer an explanation in response to a request for comment from The Washington Post, saying only that it was exploring the possibility of holding the event later in the year.
The meeting now planned for Feb. 16 will take place outside of any government circles. Rather than at CDC, it will be held at the nonprofit Carter Center in Atlanta. It will be a one-day event rather than the three days originally planned. Its sponsors now include nongovernmental groups such as the Harvard Global Health Institute, the Turner Foundation and the Climate Reality Project, an education and advocacy group founded by Gore. Organizers say they are aiming to attract as many as 200 attendees from around the country to talk about the mounting risks to human health posed by climate change.
The CDC’s move last week exasperated some environmental and public health advocates, who see the issue as an increasingly urgent one and argue that the agency should have gone forward with the summit unless told otherwise by the Trump administration.
“The meeting was important and should have been held,” one scheduled attendee told The Post. “Politics is politics, but protecting the health of our citizens is one of our government’s most important obligations.”
The cancellation got the attention of Gore, who organizers said hatched the idea to salvage some semblance of the gathering.
“Today we face a challenging political climate, but climate shouldn’t be a political issue,” Gore said in a statement Thursday. “Health professionals urgently need the very best science to protect the public, and climate science has increasingly critical implications for their day-to-day work.”
It’s not clear whether CDC employees who were scheduled to attend the agency-planned event will be allowed to attend its replacement at the Carter Center. A CDC spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Evidence has continued to mount that climate change poses major risks to public health around the globe. Scientists say a warming planet could mean millions more deaths from extreme heat, more frequent outbreaks of disease, longer allergy seasons and more extreme weather.
For instance, researchers writing in the Lancet last year argued that addressing the problem of climate change could be “the greatest global health opportunity of this century.” Not adequately addressing the problem, however, “threatens to undermine the last half century of gains in development and global health.”
The Obama administration also viewed the problem of climate change and health as a serious threat. It held a White House summit on the topic, and the president oversaw initiatives to highlight the links between climate and health, including a 300-page report last summer that underscored how a warming climate could exacerbate major public health problems.
Benjamin said Thursday that given the urgency of the issue, waiting to find ways to address it isn’t an option.
“There’s a thirst out there for this,” he said. “This allows the scientists to get together. We feel really strongly that climate change is affecting our health. We know it’s happening now.”