One of the largest departments in the federal government says it has role to play in safeguarding American’s health from the effects of climate change, and argues this role is “firmly rooted in public health history.”
The Department of Health and Human Services is a $2 trillion entity that houses agencies like the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.
Last week, the department’s new Office of Climate Change and Health Equity said it was ready to tackle the challenges of climate-related health impacts, just as the government took on sanitation standards and air pollution in decades ago.
“The incredibly broad effects of climate change and the many ways it worsens existing inequities in the United States must be met with a swift and sustained public health response,” wrote John Balbus, the interim director of the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity. “Our country helped eradicate polio and sanitized our cities. Now we must rise to meet another challenge.”
Balbus said part of that work is ensuring the health of “disadvantaged” groups that would be most affected by climate change.
“Climate change does not affect all of us the same way. Just as unsanitary urban settings at the turn of the 20th century primarily affected low-income and immigrant communities, climate change likewise often hurts disadvantaged groups most,” he wrote. As one example, he said if global temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius, “Black and African American individuals are 34% more likely to live in areas with the highest projected increases in childhood asthma.”
The Office of Climate Change and Health Equity says it exercises the “power of convening, coordination and collaboration” to advance “climate change and health policy” as it pursues “environmental justice and equitable health outcomes.” Among its priorities are identifying communities with “disproportionate exposures to climate hazards and vulnerable populations,” and addressing “health disparities exacerbated by climate impacts to enhance community health resilience.”
HHS has also established an Office of Environmental Justice within the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity, which focuses on the “people of color, disadvantaged, vulnerable, low-income, marginalized, and indigenous peoples” who are “disproportionately burdened by environmental hazards.”
The new climate change mission at HHS was established by an executive order from President Biden that he released in his first week in office. That order created a special presidential envoy for climate, a role filled by former Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and gave most major federal departments a climate change mission.
It specifically instructed HHS to create its Office of Climate Change and Health equity to “address the impact of climate change on the health of the American people.” It also asked HHS to establish a working group to lower the risk of climate change to “children, the elderly, people with disabilities and the vulnerable.” Read more news at storifynews.