“I never wanted to be here. I don’t think I want to be here. I am frightened to be here.”
These are not words you would expect to hear someone say as he is about to be given a prestigious award honoring free speech.
But then, there is not much about George Luber’s situation that is normal.
Last week, Luber was in Washington, D.C., to accept one of six Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards. The prizes were established in 1979 by Christie Hefner and named for her father, who founded Playboy magazine. (I was a member of the 2019 judging panel.)
Luber, who won in the Government category, comes from a field far removed from the racy brand associated with the name Hefner. He is an internationally recognized epidemiologist. Until last year, he was head of the climate and health program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A researcher with the agency for 17 years, Luber focused on how a hotter planet will affect human health — including the potential for long heat waves that could kill tens of thousands and the likely spread of mosquito-borne diseases as waters where the insects breed grow warmer. Among climate scientists, Luber was something of a rock star, appearing with Matt Damon in Showtime’s “Years of Living Dangerously” series and frequently sought for media interviews and speeches.
These days, Luber lives in a professional limbo. He claims guards have stopped him when he has tried to enter the CDC’s Atlanta campus, where he used to work, because his photograph is on a BOLO (Be On the Lookout) list. So Luber is assigned projects that can be done from home, focusing on subjects that have little to do with his interests or expertise.
None of this could be confirmed with the CDC. “Unfortunately, we cannot comment on personnel issues,” a spokeswoman told me.
What is known is that Luber’s situation began to change shortly after the 2016 presidential election, which put Donald Trump, a vocal skeptic of climate science, in the White House.
With Trump’s victory, the CDC suddenly found itself with an awkward situation on its hands: Luber had been working for months to organize an agency-sponsored, three-day summit on the public-health implications of climate change. It was scheduled to be held just weeks after the presidential inauguration, and its keynote speaker was to be former Vice President Al Gore, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy on the issue.
After Luber’s bosses at the CDC overrode his objections and canceled the event, Gore prevailed upon CNN founder Ted Turner to donate $100,000 from his family foundation to fund a scaled-back gathering in February 2017. Former President Jimmy Carter offered to hold it in the nonprofit center he runs alongside his presidential library. “The CDC has to be a little cautious politically,” the former president said. “The Carter Center doesn’t.”
Within moments of Trump becoming president, references to confronting “climate change” disappeared from the White House website. Luber says the stifling effect became apparent at his own agency when one of his bosses asked him to refrain from using the phrase.
“Can you find some other way to talk about it? Call it ‘extreme weather,’ ” Luber recalls being told. “I thought this was ridiculous and refused.”
Not long after, Luber was given a termination notice based on anonymous — and, he says, fabricated — charges against him. The allegations included submitting falsified time cards, writing a book without authorization, and showing up late and hung over for a speech. The CDC backed off after the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility came to Luber’s defense and The New York Times started looking into the effort to fire him.
Luber, however, was not able to stop the CDC from quietly folding his 18-person program into a much larger section of the agency that studies asthma. He had protested that this was contrary to the wishes of Congress, which appropriated funds specifically for climate study. He also warned that researchers assigned to the new division would inevitably get diverted to other projects.
The CDC told me in a statement that its climate program “remains fully funded and supported” and that plans for reorganization predated Trump’s election. Still, it is hard not to notice that the word “climate” is not in the name of the division in which it is now housed, the Asthma and Community Health Branch.
Nor is Luber part of it any more. “While I’m still employed, I’m unable to continue the work that I’ve dedicated my career to,” he said. “I’ve been stuck in some dark corner of the agency, which is hoping I will eventually go away. I will not.”
Luber refuses to go away. So does the truth about what is happening to the planet, whether or not the government is willing to mention its name.
Karen Tumulty is a Washington Post columnist covering national politics.