HHS unveils office to treat climate change as a health issue

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The federal health department is creating a new office to address climate change as a public health issue, in an effort to tie growing environmental concerns to the administration’s broader health equity agenda.

The Office of Climate Change and Health Equity will take a wide-ranging approach to evaluating the impact that the warming planet is having on people’s health, including initiatives aimed at reducing health providers’ carbon emissions and expanding protections to the most vulnerable populations.

Senior National Institutes of Health official John Balbus will run the office on an interim basis, with plans to house it within the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health.

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

The added emphasis on climate change comes after Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana, knocking out power to New Orleans and sparking fears that, combined with the ongoing Covid-19 resurgence, it would leave a public health catastrophe in its wake.

The climate office will be small to start; HHS has requested $3 million from Congress to fund it next year, with plans to draw on existing resources until then. But Becerra insisted that it will play a central role in climate-related work across the department, characterizing it as an extension of the work he did as California attorney general to advance “environmental justice.”

HHS officials declined to offer specifics on how the office might rein in health providers’ carbon footprint, saying only that they’re still evaluating the federal government’s existing authorities.

“All the levers to encourage that would be on the table,” said Arsenio Mataka, a former environmental adviser to Becerra in California who is joining HHS as a senior adviser for climate change and health equity, adding that the office could issue new regulations or administrative guidance.

Becerra later added that HHS would seek to partner with the health care industry to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and build up hospitals’ resilience to climate change.

“We’re going to have to try to bring together all the authorities we have under our current jurisdiction to protect the health of Americans,” he said. “I don’t think this office is going to go away. This office will become a permanent fixture within HHS.”

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