As wild storms and raging fires devastate communities in the United States, the country’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has signalled the importance of addressing climate change as a critical health equity concern.
The Department has established an Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE), with a mission “to protect vulnerable communities who disproportionately bear the brunt of pollution and climate-driven disasters, such as drought and wildfires, at the expense of public health,” said an HHS statement.
The announcement came as a public health emergency was declared for the states of Louisiana and Mississippi due to Hurricane Ida. Public health teams that were responding to a COVID-19 surge in the Gulf states were standing ready to pivot to the hurricane response.
The OCCHE was established in response to President Joe Biden’s Executive Order Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, issued on 27 January, which stated that climate considerations shall be an essential element of US foreign policy and national security.
It said the US would work with other countries and partners, both bilaterally and multilaterally, to put the world on a sustainable climate pathway, and that “there is little time left to avoid setting the world on a dangerous, potentially catastrophic, climate trajectory”.
The OCCHE aims to identify communities at increased risk from climate hazards, and address health disparities exacerbated by climate impacts.
It will also promote and translate research on the public health benefits of multisectoral climate action, assist with regulatory efforts to reduce the healthcare sector’s greenhouse gas emissions, and foster innovation in climate adaptation and resilience for disadvantaged communities and vulnerable populations.
It will also report on health adaptation actions under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, help build the climate and health workforce, and seek partnerships with the philanthropic and private sectors to support innovative programs addressing disparities and health sector transformation.
HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said:
History will judge us for the actions we take today to protect our world and our health from climate change.
The consequences for our inaction are real and worsening.
We’ve always known that health is at the center of climate change, and now we’re going to double-down on a necessity: fighting climate change in order to help protect public health in our communities.”
HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Dr Rachel L Levine, who features in the video below, said COVID-19 had highlighted inequities across the US:
Unfortunately, some of the same groups disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 will be the same groups 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, prioritising and protecting the nation’s health.”
The group, Health Care Without Harm, welcomed the news, and pointed to its detailed submission to the Department in April on climate change, health and equity. This makes clear the scale of the challenges facing the new Office, stating:
There is a crucial role for the Department of Health and Human Services in confronting the climate emergency. HHS has the largest budget of any Federal Department (over $1.3 trillion) and has jurisdiction over nearly 20% of the US economy.
There are numerous essential roles for HHS in tackling the climate emergency. However, with COVID-19 dominating the health sector, and with access to health care an ongoing crisis for many Americans, HHS may not fully prioritise climate change.
Of the nearly 80,000 HHS employees, fewer than a dozen have expertise in climate and health.
Other than a small initiative at CDC (representing 0.0007% of the HHS budget), HHS has no formal programming on climate and health.”
Meanwhile in Australia….
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