Experts on climate change and public health gathered at the Carter Center on Thursday for a conference put together to replace one with a similar agenda the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put on hold.
“Our work in this area of scientific discovery and public health is here to stay and will not be impacted by denial, misdirection or intimidation,” Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said in his opening remarks, where he made a special call-out to CDC staff. “I want to publicly let them know that we have their back.”
The focus of the conference was on how climate change affects health, and on approaches and tools for people working in public health. There was discussion of heat stroke, malnutrition, asthma, allergies, famine, natural disasters and early death.
This is not all stuff happening in some far off place, Catherine Flowers, of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, reminded the crowd.
“There are a lot of people living in conditions that we would normally find in third world countries that are existing right here in the United States,” she said.
Speakers referred to the current political climate too, like Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, who spoke about the spread of diseases like Zika.
“Walls will not keep these pathogens out,” he said.
Benjamin told reporters his group will work to oppose efforts to roll back climate change regulations, and now that former Georgia Congressman Tom Price is the head of the Health Department, he will hold him accountable.
“Now I understand he has his core beliefs,” Benjamin said. “But at the end of the day he’s a physician first, at least I hope so. And I’m going to say, ‘Doctor, what are you doing about your patients?’”
And President Jimmy Carter made a quick appearance, telling the crowd he was eager to host the event.
“The CDC has to be a little bit cautious politically; the Carter Center doesn’t,” he said to laughter and applause from the crowd. “I have Secret Service protection the rest of my life, and I’m not running for any office. So I’m kind of immune to politics.”
In his keynote, former Vice President Al Gore said he still has hope. He cited decreasing numbers of coal-fired power plants in the United States and increasing solar and wind energy capacity, including a new solar power installation at Carter’s property in Plains, Georgia.
At the end of the day, Gore hinted that the CDC’s original climate and health conference might be back on.
“For anyone who says we don’t have the political will, always remember that political will itself is a renewable resource,” he said.