Just seven days after being sworn into office, President Joe Biden issued an Executive Order, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, in which he announced a new presidential appointed position, the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, and a National Climate Task Force. The goal was to elevate the significance of climate change as an urgent issue and underscore the Administration’s commitment to address it.
Two directives in the Executive Order signaled that the President intends to tackle this global threat from both a health and a social justice perspective by mandating that the task force protect public health and deliver environmental justice.
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) took a big step to follow through by creating the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE). It is the first office of its kind at the national level to address climate change and health equity.
OCCHE’s mission is to protect the vulnerable communities who disproportionately bear the brunt of pollution and climate-driven disasters like drought and wildfires at the expense of public health.
The new office has a large remit which includes, among other things, identifying communities with disproportionate exposures to climate hazards and vulnerable populations; addressing health disparities exacerbated by climate impacts to enhance community health resilience; and assisting with regulatory efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and criteria air pollution.
“Climate change is fundamentally a health threat,” said Gina McCarthy, the White House national climate change adviser. According to the World Health Organization, at least 250,000 deaths will occur every year as a result.
Medical experts have urged the government to take it more seriously. Now, McCarthy says the office she oversees will flip the script by pressing doctors to talk to their patients about ways to protect themselves from climate-related threats like pollution, heat waves and wildfire smoke.
Establishing climate change as a health equity issue is a bold move. It is also a no-brainer. Climate change exacerbates existing health and social inequities by worsening environmental conditions associated with chronic illness and injury. The problem is rooted in the structures, systems, societal values that contribute to further social and economic dislocations of the most disadvantaged communities.
We already know that the risks and negative impacts of climate change are not equally or fairly distributed. Low-income communities, communities of color, native and tribal communities, the very young and very old, and those with chronic illnesses bear an unfair burden of these health harms.
Beyond its direct health impacts, climate change increases food insecurity, worsens air pollution, reduces our access to clean water, displaces people from their homes, and causes widespread social and economic disruption.
We can thrive in the face of this global crisis and recover in the aftermath of climate-related disasters but only if we act quickly, decisively and boldly to protect health, seek equity and deliver environmental justice.