US Health Department Sets Up Climate Change Office

Ahmed Aboulenein

September 01, 2021

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has established an office to address climate change and health equity at the national level, Secretary Xavier Becerra said on Monday.

The office aims to protect vulnerable communities disproportionately affected by pollution and climate-driven disasters, including drought and wildfires, he said.

"There is no doubt that America is experiencing climate change, and there is no reason for us to doubt that we must take this on immediately, because it's not just about the climate, it's not just about our environment. It's about our health."

Becerra spoke to reporters as Hurricane Ida knocked out power across Louisiana and Mississippi, killing at least one person and littering roads with downed power lines and debris.

President Joe Biden declared major disasters and ordered federal assistance to bolster recovery efforts in both states. Becerra declared public health emergencies there.

Biden has made tackling the climate crisis domestically and abroad a key part of his agenda. He ordered in May the creation of a comprehensive government-wide climate-risk strategy within 120 days. Establishing the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity is part of that strategy, Becerra said.

The office will identify communities disproportionately exposed to climate hazards, address health disparities resulting from climate change, and help with regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the healthcare sector.

Biden aims to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

The health sector accounts for roughly 8.5% of U.S carbon emissions, and the global health sector accounts for around 4.5% of the world's emissions, said Assistant Secretary for Health Dr. Rachel Levine.

The World Health Organization estimates that climate change will cause at least 250,000 deaths annually.

Dr. John Balbus, senior public health adviser to the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, is interim director of the new office.

Arsenio Mataka, formerly Becerra's environmental adviser when he was California attorney general, joined the department as senior adviser for climate change and health equity.

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