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HHS Puts Focus on Climate Change, Health Equity with New Office

Aug. 30, 2021, 4:19 PM

The Health and Human Services Department announced a new office to safeguard the health of people bearing the brunt of climate change, one day after Hurricane Ida hit the Gulf Coast.

The first-of-its-kind Office of Climate Change and Health Equity will focus on protecting “the health of people experiencing a disproportionate share of climate impacts and health inequities,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra told reporters Monday.

The announcement followed Hurricane Ida slamming into the Gulf Coast on the 16th anniversary of the first day Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

“Wildfires are choking people, wiping out entire towns, worsening the risks of the Covid-19 pandemic. Floods from a string of tropical storms have grabbed people in the Southeast, in my home state of California,” Becerra said. “People’s taps are running dry, reservoirs are vanishing. The alarm bells are ringing. And we can’t afford to ignore them any longer.”

The office will work to identify communities disproportionately harmed by climate hazards, address associated health disparities, and work with hospitals to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. health sector accounts for roughly 8.5% of all U.S. carbon emissions, HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine told reporters.

Levine, in a statement, said the HHS would use the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic, which highlighted U.S. health inequities, to address health-care disparities related to climate change.

“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,” Levine said.

Becerra said John Balbus, senior adviser for public health at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, would serve as the office’s interim director. The HHS was directed to create the office by President Joe Biden in an executive order signed Jan. 27.

“The new HHS Office of Climate Change and Health Equity is fulfilling President Biden’s vision to bring America’s world-class medical community into the fight against climate change,” Gina McCarthy, White House national climate adviser, said in a statement.

Reducing Hospital Emissions

To address the goal of reducing hospitals’ greenhouse gas emissions, the HHS has “been in touch with health systems and with hospitals about working together to decrease their carbon footprint,” Levine said.

Options for hospitals would include making their buildings more energy efficient and switching to renewable power, which the federal government doesn’t broadly mandate.

The department hasn’t yet set a goal for carbon emissions for hospitals but plans to develop them with stakeholders, Levine said.

“All the levers to encourage that would be on the table. Those include levers of incentives. We know that some folks—some health systems will require incentives or investments in order to achieve those goals,” Arsenio Mataka, HHS senior adviser for climate and health equity, said.

The federal government can order reductions in greenhouse gases in federally controlled hospitals. The White House is already at work on a project to improve efficiency in the buildings it owns.

—With assistance from Stephen Lee

To contact the reporter on this story: Shira Stein in Washington at sstein@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brent Bierman at bbierman@bloomberglaw.com; Melissa B. Robinson at mrobinson@bloomberglaw.com

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