Putting Health and Equity at the Center when Addressing Climate Change
By John Balbus, Interim Director of the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity within OASH and Christina Baghdikian, Acting Outreach and Engagement Lead, the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity within OASH, HHS
When many people think about climate change, they think about far-away places, like the Arctic, and far-away times in the future. But climate change is happening now, and the impacts on people in the United States (U.S.) are real. The face of climate change is a human face. In just this past year in the U.S.:
- thousands of people visited emergency departments and many lost their lives in record setting extreme heat events in the Northwest,
- whole communities were traumatized by record setting wildfires and the smoke from these fires spread across the country exposing people to particulate matter which is associated with cardiovascular and respiratory health impacts; and,
- dozens of people lost their lives in a string of hurricanes, including many people in the Northeast, who drowned in their basement apartments from unusual torrential rains fueled by the remnants of Hurricane Ida, many hundreds of miles away from the landfall.
While everyone is experiencing some exposures to health threats being made worse by climate change, the burden of impacts is not equally shared. Some people are more likely to suffer harm than others, and those most at risk from climate change are also bearing the health burdens of other hazards, from COVID to air pollution. According to the 4th U.S. National Climate Assessment, people experiencing greater health risks from climate change include people living with poverty or homelessness, some communities of color, especially those experiencing historic discrimination, indigenous people, people living with disabilities, as well as children, the elderly, and pregnant women. The close connections between existing health disparities and greater risks from the health threats of climate change is the reason climate change and health equity must be linked.
And while people are experiencing health risks now, as climate change continues, those risks will also grow. One example is air pollution. Assuming no change in the population and no change in policies, we can expect estimated “1,000 to 4,300 additional premature deaths nationally per year by 2050” due to health effects from exposure to both ozone and particle pollution. Another example is flooding. Nationally, we’ve already seen increases in the frequency of heavy participation events, and yet they’re still expected to increase across all regions. This means more flooding.
As you’ll see in the diagram developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) below, the changing climate (center) influences our environment and life supports (middle ring) and leads to various negative health impacts.
In 2021, President Biden’s Executive Order 14008, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad asked HHS to launch our new Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE). OCCHE is working with each Agency in the Department to make the connection between climate change and health equity and forge solutions that protect the health of all people in the U.S., especially those most vulnerable.
We are organizing our efforts into three broad areas:
- Climate & Health Resilience for Most Vulnerable
The Office is committed to building the resilience of communities to the health impacts of climate change, especially those communities experiencing a larger share of the climate change burden.
- Climate Actions to Reduce Health Disparities
The environments where we live, work, and play influences our health and can also introduce health disparities. These disparities can make people more susceptible to health threats of climate change. The Office is collaborating with HHS and other agencies to guide climate change investments in ways that reduce these health disparities and reduce people’s risks to health threats.
- Health Sector Resilience & Decarbonization
The U.S. health sector accounts for roughly 8.5% of U.S. carbon emissions and the global health sector accounts for around 4.5% of global carbon emissions. We’re partnering with the nation’s hospitals and health systems to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and make them more resilient to the effects of climate change. This effort is critically important towards meeting President Biden’s goal for economy-wide greenhouse gas reductions by 2030.
We invite you to visit our website www.hhs.gov/ocche and sign up for our listserv to stay up-to-date on opportunities to learn about opportunities to engage with us as well as receive information likes new reports, publications, data, tools, and other resources that we’ll share.
This article was originally published on the HHS blog and is republished here with permission.