New US office to protect health from climate threats

By on 05/09/2021 | Updated on 04/02/2022
People gather in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida
People being rescued by boat in the badly flooded LaPlace, Louisiana, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. Image courtesy Louisiana National Guard via Flickr

The US federal government has set up a new office to tackle the impact of climate change on public health across the country.

The Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE) aims to protect vulnerable communities that are disproportionately affected by pollution and climate-driven disasters, such as drought and wildfires, at the expense of public health.

The OCCHE, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, was launched by HHS secretary Xavier Becerra, as Hurricane Ida ripped across Louisiana and Mississippi, knocking out power supplies, causing havoc and killing tens of people.

“The climate crisis is here, and the Department of Health and Human Services is rising to meet the challenge,” Becerra said at the launch. “We’re going to use every tool at our disposal.” 

After President Biden declared major disasters and pledged federal assistance to recovery efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi last week, Becerra went on to declare public health emergencies in the two states to enable providers to meet people’s urgent health needs.

At least 43 people have died from the category four storm, after it caused extreme flooding across four states in the Northeastern US and triggered the first ever flash flood emergency warning for New York City.

The OCCHE will identify vulnerable communities that are disproportionately affected by extreme weather events. It will work to address the health disparities that are exacerbated by climate change to help build community resilience and it will find ways of reducing carbon emissions produced by the health sector. It will also develop climate adaptation innovations for vulnerable communities and promote training to improve the climate and health workforce.

The office is the outcome of an executive order issued in January by President Biden, who has made tackling climate change at home and abroad a central plank of his agenda. In April, Biden set a target for the US to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050.

With plans to house the OCCHE within the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine, it will start small. However, HHS has requested US$3m from Congress to expand the office in 2022, and it is expected to play a key part in climate-related work across the department. It will also report on health adaptation under the United Nations Framework Convention on climate change.

“COVID-19 highlighted the inequities faced throughout our nation,” said Levine. “Unfortunately, some of the groups disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 will be struggling the most with the effects of climate change on our health. We will use the lessons learned from COVID-19 to address these disparities, prioritizing and protecting the nation’s health.”  

Dr John Balbus, senior public health adviser to the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, has been appointed as interim director of the new office. Arsenio Mataka, a former environmental adviser to Becerra when he was attorney general of California, is joining HHS as senior adviser for climate change and health equity.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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