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September 7, 2021

New Federal Office Will Tackle Climate Change as Health Threat Borne Unequally by Vulnerable Groups

Author Affiliations
  • 1Consulting Editor, JAMA Health Forum
JAMA Health Forum. 2021;2(9):e213351. doi:10.1001/jamahealthforum.2021.3351

Just a day after Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana on August 29 as a powerful category 4 hurricane—and as wildfires continued to ravage the West—the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the launch of a new office to address the health threats posed by hurricanes, flooding, fires, and other climate change–fueled disasters, especially to communities that are disproportionately affected by the effects of a warming planet.

The mission of the new Office on Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE), the first of its kind at the national level to address climate change and health equity, is to treat climate change as a public health issue and protect the health of vulnerable communities that are disproportionately affected by pollution and climate-fueled disasters such as wildfires, extreme heat, drought, hurricanes, and flooding. The establishment of the OCCHE is part of the response to President Joe Biden’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.

“In just the last few weeks, we have seen what climate change can do to the health of the American people,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, JD, said at a press briefing announcing the new office. “Farmworkers in the fields and elderly people in sweltering apartments are dying from severe heat. Wildfires are choking people, wiping out entire towns, worsening the risks of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said, also noting that floods from a series of tropical storms led to drownings in the Southeast and vanishing reservoirs in California.

“The alarm bells are ringing, and we can’t afford to ignore them any longer,” he said, noting that the consequences for inaction are real and worsening.

The World Health Organization estimates that from 2030 to 2050, the effects of climate change will cause least 250 000 additional deaths each year.

A new report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), released just days after the announcement of the OCCHE, examined how effects of a rise in global temperature of 2 °C (3.6 °F) (relative to the 1986-2005 average) or 50 cm of global sea level rise (relative to 2000) would affect 4 socially vulnerable groups—those with low incomes, racial and ethnic minority groups, those with less than a high school diploma or equivalent, and those aged 65 years or older.

The EPA analysis found that of the 4 socially vulnerable groups, racial and ethnic minority groups are the most likely to live in areas with the highest projected levels of climate change effects.

For example, the report notes that Black and African American individuals are 40% more likely than others to live in areas with the highest projected increases in mortality rates resulting from climate-driven changes in extreme temperatures, and they are 34% more likely to live in areas with the highest projected increases in childhood asthma diagnoses because of climate-related changes in particulate air pollution.

One of the OCCHE’s chief responsibilities is identifying communities with disproportionate exposures to climate change–related hazards and addressing health disparities exacerbated by the effects of climate to “enhance community health resilience” to help reduce the effects of climate change, said Rachel Levine, MD, Assistant Secretary for Health, at the press briefing. “We will work closely with our regional offices to help tailor solutions that meet each region’s unique needs.”

A second area of focus will be aiding regulatory efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution in the health care sector. The US health sector accounts for approximately 8.5% of US carbon emissions, whereas the global health sector accounts for just 4.5% of global carbon emissions, Levine said, noting that OCCHE will partner with hospitals and health systems “to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and make them more resilient to the impacts of climate change.”

Another priority for the new office is harnessing recovery and infrastructure funding to combine climate resilience with health equity, Levine noted.

“We are understanding more and more how the environments where people are born, live, work, play, worship, and age can either make people healthy and long-lived or contribute to illness and health disparities,” Levine said. The office will explore opportunities to partner with philanthropic entities and the private sector and support training opportunities to nurture “the next generation of climate change and health equity leaders,” she added.

The HHS has requested $3 million from Congress to fund its activities next year. John Balbus, MD, MPH, who previously served as Senior Advisor for Public Health to the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, will head the new office on an interim basis.

“We’re going to have to try to bring together all the authorities we have under our jurisdiction to protect the health of Americans,” said Becerra.

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Article Information

Published: September 7, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamahealthforum.2021.3351

Open Access: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the CC-BY License. © 2021 Stephenson J. JAMA Health Forum.

Corresponding Author: Joan Stephenson, PhD, Consulting Editor, JAMA Health Forum (Joan.Stephenson@jamanetwork.org).

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

1 Comment for this article
Oficina Pionera, un Paso Importante
Jeanette Rincon-Morales, MD and Journalist | Cáritas de Venezuela
La relación - directamente proporcional-   entre el cuidado del ambiente y el cuidado de la salud y la vida, no solamente humana, sino la vida en el planeta, es cada vez más evidente. Igualmente evidente se hace entonces la responsabilidad que debemos asumir quienes adoptamos el cuidado de la salud y la vida como profesionales. Esa responsabilidad debe traducirse en talento humano, estructuras, políticas, técnicas, procedimientos, así como en una ética y un ethos profesional renovado. Sin "medias tintas" y dirigido a resultados en beneficio preferencial de los más vulnerables del planeta.

Por eso aplaudimos la creación de la
Oficina de Cambio Climático y Equidad en Salud (OCCHE),

Cómo institución que valora laa iniciativas, posición y doctrina expresada por el Papa Francisco en su carta "Laudato Si" les saludamos y animamos a iniciar su labor, saludo que es a la vez clamor de quienes habitan en un país en Crisis Humanitaria, un país hambriento y enfermo entre otras cosas, por la devastación medioambiental de la que es objeto: Venezuela.

(English translation via Google Translate:

The relationship -directly proportional- between caring for the environment and caring for health and life, not only human, but life on the planet, is increasingly evident. Equally evident then becomes the responsibility that we who adopt the care of health and life as professionals must assume. This responsibility must be translated into human talent, structures, policies, techniques, procedures, as well as a renewed professional ethos and ethos. Without "half measures" and aimed at preferentially benefiting the most vulnerable on the planet.That is why we applaud the creation of the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE),As an institution that values the initiatives, position and doctrine expressed by Pope Francis in his letter "Laudato Si" we greet you and encourage you to start your work, a greeting that is at the same time the cry of those who live in a country in Humanitarian Crisis, a country hungry and sick among other things, due to the environmental devastation of which it is subjected: Venezuela.)