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The Insanity of Self-Censorship: Climate Change, Politics, and Fear-Based Decision-Making

Tom Devine Posted by Tom Devine.

Tom Devine is legal director of the Government Accountability Project, where he has worked to assist thousands of whistleblowers to come forward and has been involved in the all of the campaigns to pass or defend major whistleblower laws over the last two decades.

Climate change has a long list of known human health consequences, not the least of which is a set of adverse impacts on mental health.

Climate change has a long list of known human health consequences, not the least of which is a set of adverse impacts on mental health. As more and more people are directly affected by destructive floods, heat waves, drought, deadly storms and other extreme weather events – all worsened by increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide – experts predict a steep rise in mental and social disorders: anxiety, depression, PTSD, substance abuse, increased suicide rates, and outbreaks of violence. Hardest hit will be children, the poor, the elderly, and those with existing mental health problems: collectively, this amounts to about half the US population! Worse, the consensus seems to be that the mental health profession is unprepared to handle these challenges.

Just three days after the presidential inauguration, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced in a terse email that it was cancelling a three-day conference, the “Climate and Health Summit,” that was to take place in Atlanta from February 14-16. With the “translation of science to practice” as the planned theme, scientists were to present their most recent research on the physical and mental health effects of climate change, and conferees were to explore ways to improve interagency cooperation and stakeholder engagement. Though no official reason was given, it quickly became evident that the CDC had engaged in self-censorship. President Trump has alleged that global warming is a notion invented by the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing noncompetitive and, more recently, that climate change is a hoax. This “strategic retreat,” as one scheduled speaker characterized it, was the result of a fear-based decision to shut down the event preemptively, before the new administration had a chance to shut it down for them, absent any foreknowledge or hint that they would.

As taxpayers who underwrite interagency federal climate science to the tune of about two billion dollars a year, we should be as intolerant of self-censorship as we are of outright censorship of government information. The unfettered communication of research findings regarding climate change impacts across regions and sectors is necessary for public awareness, preparedness, and sound policymaking. As global temperatures rise, all will be better served if civil servants inoculate themselves against the chilling effect that normally accompanies the sort of tyrannical rule we’ve already witnessed from our new President. In all likelihood, the CDC Summit was not on the White House radar, and could have proceeded unimpeded. Instead, Al Gore and several health-related organizations swooped in, came to the rescue, and sponsored a distilled down, one-day version they called the Climate & Health Meeting. But it is not the responsibility of private citizens and organizations to pick up the slack when agencies cower.

Truth be told, climate change is scary; the only thing scarier, we argue, is a culture of repression in which government employees opt for the safety of silence over the invaluable service of disclosure. Fear appears to be the common denominator: deep-seated fear often underlies psychological suffering in response to dangerous conditions, and fear of retaliatory budget cuts and potential job loss motivated CDC conference organizers to cut bait in an act of anticipatory surrender. If we subscribe to the notion that knowledge is power and empowering, it only follows that the more we can know and understand how our climate system is changing and what sorts of abnormal weather patterns we can expect where we live and work, the more we can prepare ourselves across the board, including mentally and emotionally. We’re calling on the CDC and all federal and state entities conducting climate research to be fearless, to stand up in defiance of those who prefer to bury their heads in the sand and insist everyone else do the same. The stakes are too high to remain in the dark.

Climate change is already taking an emotional toll, but affects people differently. Dismissive, doubtful, disengaged, cautious, concerned, and alarmed: these words have been used to describe the wide-ranging responses people have to climate change. Those who are dismissive simply refuse to accept mounting scientific evidence, and often put forth bogus arguments in an effort to disprove global warming. There are at least two underlying explanations. As can happen with a diagnosis of life-threatening cancer, some people are thrown into fear-based denial. Simple greed or zealous protection of a financial interest can also motivate some to be dismissive and deny outright the veracity of the climate threat. Some treat climate change as if it were a religion, and declare a disbelief in climate change. To this, Neil deGrasse Tyson often says that the good thing about science is that “it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” It is as ridiculous to say, “I don’t believe in global warming” as it is to say, “I don’t believe in gravity” – both are simple laws of physics.

Those who are doubtful are reluctant to accept climate change as a reality, and tend to defend carbon-intensive lifestyles while pointing to unsettled science and denier rhetoric to defend their view. Then there are people who simply haven’t plugged in, are disengaged, and have failed to notice climate change as a problem that may affect them. Still others react more neutrally, are cautious, and neither fully embrace nor reject the threat of climate change, and take a wait-and-see attitude.

Yet, the science behind climate change is well-developed, so it is no surprise that a growing percentage of people are becoming deeply concerned about worsening impacts associated with climate change – severe and more frequent flooding, prolonged droughts, heat waves, devastating forest fires, sea level rise, storm surges, ocean acidification, and so on. The less fortunate of us have already been the victims of one or more extreme weather events, such as massive flooding, and have lost homes, livelihoods, even loved ones. Humans are emotional creatures. People who see unchecked climate change as an existential threat, who walk around every day acutely aware of the very real prospect of an increasingly inhospitable climate system – most climate scientists are in this group – can easily become alarmed.

Climate change exacts a psychological toll. A landmark 2015 reportin The Lancet warns that mental health disorders are one of the most dangerous “indirect” health effects of global warming. Multiple studies, such as those described in the US Global Change Research Program’s Third National Climate Assessment’s Health Chapter, have shown that climate change can cause people to become chronically worried and anxious, frustrated, overwhelmed, exasperated, even clinically depressed. Hyper-vigilance, obsessive-compulsive disorders, even full-blown PTSD can result. Some mental health professionals have dubbed the uncomfortable feeling of anticipatory anxiety ‘pre-traumatic stress disorder.’ Stress levels can be the greatest for those whose livelihoods are tightly wedded to the natural environment. For example, in some parts of the world, in response to a rapidly changing climate and abnormal weather conditions, farmers are committing suicide at alarming rates.

Even if we are not directly adversely affected by it in our daily lives, simple awareness of the climate threat, via the media and in normal discourse, is enough to cause anxiety. In most areas of the world, it’s difficult not to notice abnormal weather patterns: higher average temperatures, wild temperature swings, a lot more precipitation, or a lot less. Instinctively, many of us know something is wrong: we’re experiencing “the small drip of climate reality.

The Climate & Health Meeting Al Gore organized was held on February 16 at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

Over 300 people attended; Gore made opening remarks; there were two panels, about a dozen speakers, and a lunch keynote address. President Jimmy Carter made a surprise appearance and delivered a few remarks. “With the possible disapproval of Congress, the CDC has to be a little cautious politically,” he said, adding, “The Carter Center doesn’t.” The Chicago Tribune noted that “the move sends a powerful signal: Civil society and academic organizations will try to fill the conversation gaps about climate change left by the new administration.” Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association (APHA), one of the meeting sponsors, commented, “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.” The APHA has declared 2017 the Year of Climate Change and Health. It’s not clear how many CDC employees who were slated to attend the original conference were at the February 16 meeting. However, it is worth noting that two CDC staffers who did attend – Dr. Patrick Breysse, director of the National Center for Environmental Health, and Dr. George Luber, an epidemiologist in the Division of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects – were requested for media interviews, but a senior CDC press officer declined to make them available. Restrictions on interactions with the press were put in place across all federal agencies soon after Trump took office; reportedly, some of these restrictions are beginning to loosen up, but we still don’t know how much this administration will attempt to impede normal communications going forward.

Presenters at the meeting covered a wide variety of topics: air quality, infectious diseases, heat waves, extreme weather, vulnerable populations, state and local initiatives, adaptation measures, and the role of the health care sector. Children are particularly vulnerable, so much so that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a formal statement in 2015 urging pediatricians and politicians to work towards solving the climate crisis to protect the young. An AAP spokesperson noted, “Their future is at stake, yet they do not vote and they have no voice in the debate. We have a moral obligation to act on their behalf.” Indeed. Washington, DC-based psychiatrist Dr. Lise van Susteren, who presented on mental health at the Climate & Health Meeting (see transcript below), is convinced that the chronic failure of adults to tackle the climate change problem and implement effective solutions puts our children in harm’s way, and amounts to nothing less than child abuse. It’s difficult to disagree; failing to provide our kids with a world that’s as safe to live in as the one we were born into is something all parents should do their best to avoid.

Political interference in climate communication was a recurring problem in the Bush-Cheney administration. In October 2007, the Bush White House removed six entire pages of Congressional testimony offered by CDC Director Julie Gerberding, which linked climate change to adverse health impacts. Climate Science Watch covered the story of the eviscerated statement and published the unredacted testimony as submitted by Gerberding to the White House for customary review. It was later confirmed that Vice President Dick Cheney’s office had pushed for the deletions.

Under the fossil fuel-friendly Bush Administration, many lessons were learned, and some provisions have since been put in place that protect the right to free speech of federal employees wishing to share the results of their research with the media and the public.

Given the rapidly accelerating threat of climate change and associated risks to human populations – not just in America but all over the globe – political interference in the communication of scientific findings crucial to informing policymakers and the public is literally a life-threatening act of betrayal against current and future generations. Keeping our Constitutional right to free speech requires that we exercise it. Please, no more self-censoring.

Anne Polansky