HHS steps up pressure on climate change with new office | Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP


[co-author: Sam Throm]

The Office of Climate Change and Health Equity

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently established the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE), reinforcing the Biden-Harris administration’s strong commitment to mitigate the damage inherited from change climate change and build resilience for the future. Created in response to President Biden’s decree in January, the office officially opened on August 1.

John Balbus has been appointed interim director and Garey Rice will be director of climate action. Despite opening with little fanfare and a planned budget of only around $ 3 million (enough for about eight employees), the office has far-reaching ambitions.

Echoing the efforts of the Treasury, Interior and Transport ministries, the OCCHE enables the HHS to tackle climate change from its corner of influence. OCCHE will leverage the existing regulatory authority to address the impacts of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and reduce waste from healthcare providers and suppliers, including system pressure from natural disasters and the impact of pollutants on public health.

The recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26) highlighted the relationship between health damage and climate change and prioritized the development of global mitigation efforts to address such damage . The creation of OCCHE supports the United States’ commitment at COP26 to develop climate-resilient and low-carbon health systems.

To achieve its objectives, the OCCHE uses a very broad definition of environmental justice, a definition more generally used in academic environments. According to the OCCHE, “environmental justice” is defined as “the equitable treatment and meaningful participation of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin or income, in the development, implementation implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. “

This broad definition will allow the office to oversee a wide range of interconnected issues. For example, the office recognizes that some communities, such as those with low income or people with disabilities, are more vulnerable to climate-induced risks. As such, OCCHE plans to coordinate directly with affected communities, non-governmental organizations and different levels of government to address these disparities.

The intersection between climate change and health

The creation of OCCHE highlights the critical intersection between climate change and health equity. As climate change-related disasters increase in frequency and severity, the implementation of climate action and environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives will increase. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated the relationship between climate change and health outcomes, as shown below.

The recent devastating hurricanes and wildfires in the southern Gulf and western United States, respectively, have led to the kind of health impacts that CCOHE seeks to address.

Hurricanes and Forest Fires: Case Studies of the Health Effects of Climate Change-Related Natural Disasters

Climate events such as hurricanes and forest fires have both direct and indirect effects on individual and community health. A natural disaster directly changes the physical environmental conditions, leading to increased water contamination or air pollution, for example. Critical infrastructure, such as transport systems or reliable housing and health care, can also be damaged or inaccessible. Direct health impacts include weather-related deaths (such as drowning) or water-borne illnesses, while indirect physical and mental health impacts may be associated with long-term exposure to environmental contaminants. term.


The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Global Climate Report for August 2021 indicated that the month was the sixth hottest August in 142 years. The report notes that “[g]Globally, nine of the ten hottest August months have all been since 2009. ”By assessing the relationship between global warming and hurricanes, NOAA predicts that man-made global warming will have an impact on sea level rise and will increase hurricane precipitation rates, hurricane intensity and the global proportion of hurricanes reaching Category 4 or 5 levels.

The southern Gulf has recently experienced many weather events that match these predicted increases. In August 2021, Hurricane Ida made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane with winds measuring up to 150 mph. Following the destruction of Ida, the HHS quickly declared public health emergencies for Louisiana and Mississippi and issued exemptions under Social Security law to support vulnerable populations affected by the storm . A year earlier, Hurricane Laura, also classified as a Category 4 storm, had killed 47 direct and 34 indirect deaths, with “major to catastrophic” wind and storm surge damage in southwestern Louisiana. The governor of Louisiana reported that 10,000 homes were demolished due to storms.

Forest fires

In addition to hurricanes, climate-related changes such as higher air temperatures, lower rainfall rates, and drought contribute to ideal conditions for forest fires. By the end of July, nearly 40,000 fires had burned in the United States during the first seven months of 2021. Forest fires have a negative impact on air quality, with smoke having effects on human health such as “Reduced lung function, bronchitis, exacerbation of asthma and heart failure, and premature death.”

Navigating Climate Change During COVID-19

There are also unique public health issues that arise when dealing with the increase in climate change-related events during a pandemic. Government officials responsible for emergency response planning and those directly affected by such emergencies face many considerations relating to disease transmission.

For example, Hurricanes Ida and Laura led to mandatory evacuation orders in some areas in addition to voluntary evacuations. Evacuation involves finding shelter outside of the anticipated major storm impacts. As a result, staying in a safe “bubble” against COVID-19 may not be practical or even possible for some people. When economically available, evacuees can leave their homes to seek refuge with friends, family or in public shelters, potentially increasing the likelihood of coronavirus exposure and rates of transmission. Individuals can be exposed to COVID-19 while traveling to their evacuation destination, or contract it while sheltering with others. As a result, cities hosting evacuees may experience unanticipated increased pressure on hospital and healthcare systems.

OCCHE and the health industry

In addition to climatic hazards and the health disparities associated with them, OCCHE emphasizes accelerating the energy and climate transformation of the health sector as one of its main priorities. The office’s initiatives advance President Biden’s commitment to cut U.S. GHG emissions by at least half by 2030 due to the potential to reduce the high GHG emissions rates of the industry. American health. The healthcare industry can anticipate the regulatory impacts associated with government efforts to achieve this goal. Hospitals, which represent a third of total GHG emissions in the health sector, are a real target for reducing emissions.

OCCHE will also play an important role in developing language on climate resilience and sustainability to be included in HHS grants. In addition to calling for the creation of the OCCHE in January, President Biden ordered major U.S. agencies to develop adaptation and resilience plans to respond to significant climate risks and vulnerabilities. The HHS Climate Action Plan directs OCCHE and the Deputy Secretary of Administration to develop climate resilient subsidy policies. As the largest grantmaking agency in the United States, HHS grant policies have a huge impact on players in the healthcare industry. There are many types of HHS grants, and the Climate Action Plan notes that “[m]Most HHS grants are provided directly to states, territories, tribes, and educational and community organizations, and then awarded to individuals and organizations eligible to receive funding. We anticipate that applicants for HHS grants may begin to prioritize applications that incorporate sustainability and climate adaptation actions into their operations to meet potential requirements of future grant guidelines.


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