Dion-Kirschner: Organizations can act without government to combat climate change

Hannah Dion-Kirschner, Columnist

Alongside social media accounts and White House web pages, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conference on health and climate change was yet another casualty of America’s new political climate. The conference was cancelled without explanation in anticipation of Donald Trump’s anti-environmental policies, and the cancellation was described by the director of the American Public Health Association as a “strategic retreat.” However, environmental leaders including Al Gore organized a new meeting, not sponsored by the government, as a replacement for the conference. The meeting was held last Thursday, with members of the CDC, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in attendance.

The story of the resurrected conference is hopefully a promising start for non-governmental climate action. In the first weeks of Trump’s presidency, it has become clear that his administration does not support federal efforts to combat climate change. But the stance of the White House does not need to preclude environmental progress for the next four years.

Last week’s Health and Climate Meeting sets a powerful example. Strong voices from the private sector and academia were able to organize a large-scale event to replace what would, in a different political climate, have been hosted by a government agency. Without the usual funding and support for science-related government agencies, non-governmental groups will need to step up and replace usual government function.

It is particularly striking that members of the CDC, the EPA, the NIH and NOAA were among the 300-some attendees of the meeting. These government agencies are currently experiencing significant political pressure from the White House and Capitol, from hiring freezes to social media bans to funding cuts, but employees could not be prevented from participating off-the-clock — at least, not yet.

The National Park Service has also shown that government employees can play a role in filling the gaps in federal environmental efforts. After tweets from the official Badlands National Park Twitter account were removed (presumably because they contained facts about climate change) an account called “AltUSNatParkService” was opened. The account has since gathered more than 80,000 followers. During the transition of executive agencies, EPA employees have been ordered not to post on social media or communicate with the press, and other departments with scientific duties have received similar but less harsh directives. The National Park Service’s unofficial Twitter account attracted significant media attention and helped raise public awareness of these social media bans. (Notably, limitations on media transitions are common for executive transitions, but this focus on science-related agencies is unique and concerning.)

Outside of the government, meanwhile, scientists and other concerned citizens are gearing up for a March for Science, scheduled to take place in Washington on April 22. The event was primarily organized over social media, but has since been publicly backed by major institutions, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Geological Union. These steps taken by governmental and non-governmental organizations are promising, and they help continue the discussion of climate issues even without the support of government agency heads. In particular, Thursday’s conference sent a powerful message that progress can be made regardless of the White House’s position on the environment. Now, more environmental groups must take their cue, maintaining momentum and following through on discussion with concrete action.

Hannah Dion-Kirschner is a junior in Weinberg and Bienen. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.