Part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Atlanta campus. Credit: James Gathany/CDC

George Luber headed the CDC’s Climate and Health Program before it was eliminated last year. He has filed a whistleblower complaint over what he says is unlawful treatment by the government. Credit: James Gathany/CDC

One of the federal government’s leading experts on the health impacts of climate change sought whistleblower protection on Friday because of retaliation he said he has faced for speaking out against the Trump administration’s efforts to end climate research.

George Luber, an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the latest of a string of federal scientists working on climate change who say that they have been silenced, sidelined or demoted.

The Trump administration’s drive to cut climate change out of federal research and policy has been underway at the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department since Trump took office. The scientists and their advocates say it has now spread to the U.S. Navy, the Department of Agriculture, and the nation’s premier health protection agency, the CDC.

Luber, who headed the CDC’s Climate and Health Program before it was eliminated last year, has been barred from speaking publicly about climate change and has been forbidden from entering the CDC campus without first getting prior permission and being subjected to a vehicle and body search, his attorney said. He also faces a potential four-month suspension.

The petition he filed Friday asks the U.S. Office of Special Council to grant him whistleblower status, the first step aimed at ending what he says is unlawful treatment by the government. If granted, the office would initiate an investigation. The office has the power to seek corrective action, disciplinary action against federal officials, or both. It also has an Alternative Dispute Resolution process in which parties can work toward a settlement with a mediator.

A CDC spokesperson said the agency does not comment on personnel matters.

“The administration has undeniably been carrying out a concerted and intentional assault on anyone in the federal government who has any expertise,” said Kevin Bell, staff counsel of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a nonprofit that is representing Luber.

“It’s not just because they disagree with climate change science, but they disagree with expertise in general,” Bell said. “George’s case is one of many—any program that looks like it hypothetically could be a threat to the narrative or to the president’s ego, people lower down in the bureaucracy think it’s good for their careers to do what they can to kill the programs.”

Ways Trump Has Shut Out Climate Science

Luber’s whistleblower action comes a month after Maria Caffrey, a former National Park Service geography specialist, filed a whistleblower petition and a lawsuit over her firing earlier this year. Caffrey said she was retaliated against for her work leading a study on the potential impacts of sea level rise and storm surge on coastal national parks under future climate change scenarios.

In July 2017, an Interior Department policy analyst, Joel Clement, invoked the whistleblower law after he said he was demoted for speaking about protections for native Americans in Alaska and risks they face from climate change.

Across the government, the Trump administration crackdown on climate science has taken different forms. For example:

  • The U.S. Navy shut down its 10-year-old Task Force on Climate Change.
  • The Department of the Interior (DOI) removed mentions of climate change from its webpage on water conservation, and the EPA removed several of its climate change-focused webpages from public access.
  • Lewis Ziska, a veteran scientist who worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 25 years, recently left the agency after officials there tried to censor an academic paper exploring the impact of climate change on rice. “Basically I was growing disillusioned with the inability to begin to address specific climate change-related issues in agriculture, and there are a lot of those issues,” Ziska said from his new office at Columbia University.

“It’s definitely been a multi-pronged attack,” said Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund in New York, whose group has been working with Caffrey on her case.

“Prohibiting people from speaking out about climate change, pressuring people not to study climate change, or terminating programs on climate–it’s been a very holistic approach to silencing science,” she said. Kurtz’ group and the Columbia University Sabin Center for Climate Change Law are keeping a running tally of such incidents on line.

CDC’s Sidelining of a Scientist

Federal whistleblower protection law that has been in place for 30 years prohibits government officials from retaliating against employees who disclose fraud, waste, abuse, mismanagement, or “substantial and specific” danger to public safety or health.

Bell said that Luber will petition that he deserves such protection on several grounds.

He was removed from his position and put on administrative leave in March 2018 soon after he objected to the agency folding the CDC’s climate and health program into its asthma program and using funds appropriated by Congress for climate other than for their intended purpose, Bell said.

George Luber headed the CDC's Climate and Health Program before it was eliminated last year, speaks at the Aspen Global Change Institute. Credit: Aspen Institute video