Julie Gerberding’s Subjective Reality

Julie GerberdingThe head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Julie Gerberding, addressed the Senate last Tuesday on the health impact of global warming in the United States. On most news days, this would go un-noticed. It would have most likely been reported, but the public wouldn’t have noticed it. After all, Paris Hilton was probably shopping somewhere, and we all want to know about that, don’t we?

What made Dr. Gerberding’s appearance dramatic enough to temporarily bump Paris Hilton to the sidelines was the fact that the White House altered her report. White House press secretary Dana Perino explained that the draft was edited because officials didn’t believe it matched scientific conclusions in a report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Okay, let’s set aside for a moment the laughable idea that White House political appointees are better informed about the science in reports by the IPCC (the U.N.-chartered scientific group that shares this year’s Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore) than Dr. Gerberding and her staff are. As director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Gerberding has particular expertise.

Among the six pages that were removed from the original twelve-page draft by the Office of Management and Budget (which is staffed and run by true-believing political appointees) were specific things that Dr. Gerberding wanted to tell Congress. Such as “scientific evidence supports the view that the Earth’s climate is changing,” yet “the public health effects of climate change remain largely unaddressed,” and that areas in the northern part of the country “will likely bear the brunt of increases in ground-level ozone and associated airborne pollutants. Populations in Midwestern and Northeastern cities are expected to experience more heat-related illnesses as heat waves increase in frequency, severity, and duration.”

The draft version explained why climate change is a public health concern. It described the expected impact of climate change, including new disease patterns and food and water shortages for some people. It included predictions about the potential consequences of increased air pollution, the rampant growth of plants that cause allergies and the creation of environments that promote water- and food-borne disease. “Catastrophic weather events such as heat waves and hurricanes are expected to become more frequent, severe, and costly,” it said.

All this disappeared, leaving only wordy generalities like “climate change is anticipated to have a broad range of impacts on the health of Americans and the nation’s public health infrastructure.” The shorter version focuses on public health preparedness for climate change, including how the CDC is tracking diseases, doing heat-stroke modeling for cities to predict vulnerable populations and helping local officials plan for environmental emergencies.

So. Okay. The White House changed the report. Why is this even an issue. Who cares, right?

This is why it’s an issue …

The Bush administration has a history of political appointees rewriting the work of government scientists to bring their findings into line with White House policy and objectives. A Bush official once bragged to a reporter that the administration had the power to create its own reality. I believe the term that was used was “subjective reality”.

There was the 24-year-old Bush political appointee and college dropout at NASA, who reworked agency materials to take into account his belief that the big bang was only an “opinion” that should be accorded equal weight with intelligent design.

In 2005, after NASA scientist James E. Hansen said that greenhouse gas emissions were creating “a different planet,” his superiors tried to control his appearances and limit his interviews.

In 2003, the EPA did its best to bury an analysis by staff members showing that a proposal to cap carbon dioxide emissions by Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman would not seriously damage the economy.

In 2003, Philip Cooney, who then headed the Council on Environmental Quality in the Bush White House, made more than 300 changes to a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on global warming. Cooney’s changes exaggerated supposed uncertainties about global warming and removed many references to the phenomenon entirely.

In 2002, the White House made the Environmental Protection Agency drop a chapter on the risks of climate change from an annual EPA report that for six years had included such information.

On Tuesday of last week, Office of Management and Budget (the agency that edited Dr. Gerberding’s report) spokesman Sean Kevelighan said the OMB reviews documents and testimony to see whether they “line up well with the national priorities of the administration.”

As you can imagine, perception of this issue has been largely determined by political affiliation. Conservatives (who still aren’t convinced that global warming is real and consider the hang-wringing over it to be politically motivated) naturally believe that this is just another example of the Liberal mainstream media finding yet another issue to use to attack the Bush Administration. Liberals (who believe that global warming is real and is an issue that we need to take seriously) naturally believe that this is yet another example of the White House abusing Executive power, and they ARE using this to attack the Bush Administration.

What you have is two sides tugging back and forth over issues that contradict with their political ideology. Somewhere in the middle the science is forgotten.

Dr. Gerberding isn’t too worried about. Wednesday she said that she was happy with her testimony and that the review process was normal. In a lunch-hour speech before the Atlanta Press Club, Gerberding said she made all the points to Congress that she wanted to make. “This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” she said of the furor. “I don’t let people put words in my mouth. I spoke the truth to Congress.”

Despite myself, I can’t help thinking “well, that’s what we would expect her to say, isn’t it?“ Julie Gerberding wants to keep her job. And technically what she said IS true. She did speak the truth to Congress. She didn’t lie about what’s going on. But in her statement is a bit of political sleight-of-hand. It’s not what she said that people are taking issue with. It’s what she didn’t say. It’s what was left out that tongues are wagging about, not what was included.

If you state in a report that in a generic sense there is a possibility that a foreign army might invade our country, that perhaps we should be prepared for the eventuality, just in case, you’re probably going to be seen as reasonable and prudent. But what if you leave out the fact that a foreign army is camped just over the next hill and will be invading the capitol at dawn, just because your superiors don’t believe that the foreign army exists? Did you lie in your statements? No. You told the truth. You just didn’t tell the whole truth.

In short, what I’m trying to say is that what should have been a report on the problem of global warming was turned into a political issue by the Bush Administration. Don’t worry. Be happy. What you don’t know can’t hurt you.

Meanwhile, in the real world, British scientists, in a paper published this week, say that fossil records show mass extinctions of species are linked to warming tropical seas. And they say, based on Intergovernmental Panel projections, Earth is on course to reach extinction-level warming in about 100 years. If that level is reached, the panel says, “20 to 30 percent” of animal species will be at risk of extinction.

One has to wonder if there will be anyone left 100 years from now to debate whether or not there’s a problem.

Dr. Julie Gerberding’s original draft testimony

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