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White House 'eviscerated' climate testimony

The White House significantly edited testimony prepared for a Senate hearing on the impact of climate change on health, deleting key portions citing diseases that could flourish in a warmer climate.
Global Warming Health
Centers for Disease Control Director Julie Gerberding, seen here on Capitol Hill in Washington last June, was not allowed to submit a 14-page written testimony Tuesday at a hearing on potential health impacts from global warming.Dennis Cook / AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

The White House significantly edited testimony prepared for a Senate hearing on the impact of climate change on health, deleting key portions citing diseases that could flourish in a warmer climate.

The White House on Wednesday denied that it had “watered down” the congressional testimony that Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had given the day before to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

But a draft of the testimony submitted for White House review shows that six pages of details about specific disease and other health problems that might flourish if the Earth warms were not delivered at the hearing.

Her testimony had much less information on health risks than a much longer draft version Gerberding submitted to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review in advance of her appearance.

"It was eviscerated," said a CDC official, familiar with both versions, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the review process.

The official said that while it is customary for testimony to be changed in a White House review, these changes were particularly "heavy-handed," with the document cut from its original 14 pages to four. It was six pages as presented to the Senate committee.

CDC chief 'happy' with what she said

Gerberding on Wednesday downplayed the significance of the changes made in her prepared text saying she never felt she was being censored and that she was free to go beyond her text — and did when testifying. "I was absolutely happy with my testimony in Congress. We finally had a chance to go and say what we though was important," she said at a luncheon appearance in Atlanta.

Later, she added, "I don't let people put words in my mouth and I stand for science."

White House press secretary Dana Perino said the prepared testimony went through an interagency review process and the Office of Science and Technology Policy did not believe that the science in the testimony matched the science that was in a report by the U.N. International Panel on Climate Change.

"She testified yesterday. Her spokesperson said that she was able to say everything she wanted to say," Perino said Wednesday. "It was not watered down in terms of its science. It wasn't watered down in terms of the concerns that climate change raises for public health."

Dr. Michael McCally, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, also sat on a panel testifying before the committee and afterwards complained about the editing.

“It appears the White House has denied a congressional committee access to scientific information about health and global warming, McCally said in a statement Wednesday. "This misuse of science and abuse of the legislative process is deplorable.”

Most notably, he noted, was removal of the statement that “CDC considers climate change a serious public health concern.”

That was part of a deleted paragraph that included these statements: “scientific evidence supports the view that the earth’s climate is changing” and “despite this extensive activity, the public health effects of climate change remain largely unaddressed.”

OMB: Edits 'line up' with policy
The OMB had no comment on Gerberding's testimony.

"We generally don't speculate and comment on anything until it is the final product," OMB spokesman Sean Kevelighan said in reference to the draft testimony. He added that OMB reviews take into consideration "whether they ... line up well with the national priorities of the administration."

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the committee chairman, in a statement Tuesday night said the Bush administration "should immediately release Dr. Gerberding's full, uncut statement, because the public has a right to know all the facts about the serious threats posed by global warming."

The Bush administration has been trying to defend itself for months from accusations that it has put political pressure on scientists to emphasize the uncertainties of global warming. Earlier this year a House committee heard testimony from climate scientists who complained the Bush administration had sought frequently to manage or influence their statements and public appearances.

The White House in the past has said it has only sought to provide a balanced view of the climate issue.

The CDC is part of the Health and Human Services Department and its congressional testimony, as is normal with all agencies, is routinely reviewed by OMB.

Copies of the original testimony already had been sent to a number of associated health groups representing states, county and city health agencies that the CDC routinely coordinates with, a CDC official said.

CDC spokesman Tom Skinner sought to play down the White House changes. He called Gerberding's appearance before the Senate panel "very productive" and said she addressed the issues she wanted during her remarks and when questioned by the senators.

"What needed to be said as far we're concerned was said," said Skinner in a telephone interview from Atlanta. "She certainly communicated with the committee everything she felt was critical to help them appreciate and understand all the issues surrounding climate change and its potential impact on public health."

Details of deletions
The deletions directed by the White House included details on how many people might be adversely affected because of increased warming and the scientific basis for some of the CDC's analysis on what kinds of diseases might be spread in a warmer climate and rising sea levels, according to one official who has seen the original version.

Gerberding seems to have tried to address some of those issues during questioning from senators.

Boxer produced a CDC chart listing the broad range of health problems that could emerge from a significant temperature increase and sea level rise

They include fatalities from heat stress and heart failure; increased injuries and deaths from severe weather such as hurricanes; more respiratory problems from drought-driven air pollution; an increase in waterborne diseases including cholera, and increases vector-borne diseases including malaria and hantavirus; and mental health problems such as depression and post-traumatic stress.

"These are the potential things you can expect," replied Gerberding when asked about the items listed. "... In some of these areas its not a question of if, it's a question of who, what, how and when."