The Biden administration means business on climate change. As its latest climate-friendly move, the administration formed the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE) on August 30. What does this new office mean in the fight against rising global temperatures?
The mission of OCCHE is to advocate for environmental justice and equitable health outcomes and use the regulatory and statutory powers of HHS to fight climate change. OCCHE will:
- Address health disparities made worse by climate change.
- Identify communities vulnerable to climate change.
- Promote training opportunities to build the climate and health workforce.
- Advance research on the public health benefits of addressing climate change.
Go deeper: Biden laid out his vision in a January 27 Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.
Why it matters: The health care industry accounts for 8.5% of the country’s carbon emissions. Climate change disproportionately impacts on vulnerable populations, making sick patients ever sicker. Thus, health care stakeholders should take seriously OCCHE’s intention to collaborate with business and industry groups for environmental justice and health equity outcomes. HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra predicted OCCHE “will become a permanent fixture within HHS.”
The Most Important Public Health Issue of Our Time
OCCHE’s Interim Director Dr. John Balbus, formerly of the National Institute for Environmental Health Science referred to climate change as the “most important public health [issue] of our time.” Yet, the administration’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget request for HHS only allocates $6 million for OCCHE. Additionally, Mataka said the office could issue new regulations or guidance, although OCCHE is unlikely to engage in regulatory action until it develops more knowledge about the relationship between climate change and wellness.
The Climate Change/Public Health Connection
The underlying causes of climate change – transportation, food, socioeconomic systems – are virtually the same as the underlying causes of health disparities. Climate change has also shown to be more impactful on disadvantaged communities, including low-income individuals, the elderly, and people with chronic illnesses. While the Biden administration is trying to address climate change on a large scale, they are sending a clear message by establishing OCHHE that the federal government has a specific role in protecting the health of vulnerable populations due to climate change. In turn, the administration is expecting health care providers to step up and examine their own role in contributing to climate change. Further actions that OCCHE and other public health organizations may take on include gathering data on climate-related health behaviors, analyzing the health impact of climate-related policies, and studying the health benefits of reduced carbon emissions.