HHS Establishes the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity

By Rebecca Rehr

On Monday, August 30, the Department of Health and Human Services announced the creation of the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE). This is the first national office to address climate change and health equity as its core mission, and was created in response to President Joe Biden’s Executive Order Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.

ecoAmerica’s Executive Director, Meighen Speiser, said of the announcement, “The HHS establishment of the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity is a historic and exciting moment. We know Americans are personally concerned about climate change, and trust health leaders for information. We applaud the Biden Administration’s approach to lead climate solutions with health equity, and will be keeping an eye on the office’s activities and accomplishments to accelerate climate action.”

Climate for Health Leadership Circle Members reacted to this announcement with enthusiasm for the elevation of climate change as a top priority for HHS, and for the framing of equity as the core of climate solutions:

“Climate change has long impacted those who have contributed least to the problem. Seeing this commitment to equity at the highest level of federal government is an exciting opportunity to build resilience in communities and create a future worthy of our children.” – Leyla McCurdy, Climate for Health Leadership Circle Chair

“We were thrilled to see today’s announcement,” said Katie Huffling, Executive Director of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments and a nurse. “We know that climate change impacts some communities more than others and in order to truly tackle the health impacts of climate change, health equity needs to be a core component of climate action. Action to improve the health of those communities most vulnerable to climate change will improve health for all – a win-win for our nation and our health care systems.

“The American Public Health Association welcomes today’s announcement by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to establish the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity. We know that climate change is here today and threatening our health right now. We also know that the most vulnerable among us are being disproportionately impacted by extremes of weather, increased air pollution, poor water quality and climate related infectious diseases. This new office will play a pivotal role in working to elevate the health impacts of climate change across the department and the administration. It will also accelerate the administration’s efforts to protect vulnerable communities from climate threats, assist in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support efforts to strengthen climate change adaptation and resilience. We look forward to working with the administration to protect the public from the health threats of climate change and improve health equity which are among APHA’s top priorities.” – Georges C. Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association

“It is extremely heartening to see the administration elevate climate as a public health issue and acknowledge the disparate impacts it has on our population. We have everything to gain and everything to lose when it comes to combating global climate change and the HHS’ initiative to establish this office could not have come at a better time.” – Lori Tremmel Freeman, CEO, National Association of County and City Health Officials

“The announcement of the creation of the HHS Office of Climate Change and Health Equity comes at a critical time. As Louisiana recovers from Hurricane Ida, many hospital ICUs are at capacity with Covid patients. In California, patients are being evacuated from hospitals due to wildfires. We have to act quickly and ambitiously and we look forward to the central role this new office can play in building a nationwide climate-smart, climate-ready health care system that protects public health and improves health equity.” – Jessica Wolff, U.S. Director of Climate and Health at Health Care Without Harm

OCCHE is tasked with:

  • Identifying communities with disproportionate exposures to climate hazards and vulnerable populations.
  • Addressing health disparities exacerbated by climate impacts to enhance community health resilience.
  • Promoting and translating research on public health benefits of multi-sectoral climate actions.
  • Assisting with regulatory efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and criteria air pollution throughout the health care sector, including participating suppliers and providers.
  • Fostering innovation in climate adaptation and resilience for disadvantaged communities and vulnerable populations.
  • Providing expertise and coordination to the White House, Secretary of Health and Human Services and federal agencies related to climate change and health equity deliverables and activities, including Executive Order implementation, and reporting on health adaptation actions under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
  • Promoting training opportunities to build the climate and health workforce and empower communities.
  • Exploring opportunities to partner with the philanthropic and private sectors to support innovative programming to address disparities and health sector transformation.

You can read the full HHS press release here.

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