Over 100 organizations urge HHS to integrate effects of global warming into health policies

Over 100 organizations and many individual scientists (including me) have written HHS Secretary Javier Becerra recommending specific actions that HHS and its agencies can take to better integrate climate change into developing research and policy.

Here is a summary of the recommendations:

Climate Change, Health and Equity at the Department of Health and Human Services , April, 2021

Climate change is both an unprecedented challenge to health, equity, and prosperity, and an unprecedented opportunity to create healthier, more secure, and more sustainable lives for all.

The urgent public health threat of climate change is increasingly clear. In recent years the nation has endured unparalleled hurricanes and tornados, heatwaves and wildfires, droughts and flooding. Overlapping disasters are stressing our infrastructure. Infectious diseases are expanding their ranges. Harmful algal blooms affect more of our coasts and inland waters. The allergy season is longer. Anxiety about the future, including the effects of climate change, undermines the mental health of many young people. Frontline communities, poor people, and people of color suffer disproportionately from these health hazards. If current trends continue,many of the health gains of the past century will be reversed. We face a true public health emergency.

The Biden Administration is moving to address the climate emergency through an all-of-government effort. A pair of Executive Orders on January 20 and January 27 laid out an ambitious agenda. Highly qualified and experienced leaders have been appointed across government. The American people can look forward to actions that will bring cleaner energy, zero-carbon transportation, more environmentally friendly industry, more sustainable agriculture, and well-paying, meaningful, clean jobs. Action on climate change will deliver dramatic, immediate health benefits.

There is a crucial role for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)in confronting the climate emergency. HHS has the largest budget of any Federal Department (over $1.3 trillion) and has jurisdiction over nearly 20% of the U.S. economy. There are numerous essential roles for HHS in tackling the climate emergency. However, with COVID-19 dominating the health sector, and with access to health care an ongoing crisis for many Americans, HHS may not fully prioritize climate change. Of the nearly 80,000 HHS employees, fewer than a dozen have expertise in climate and health. Other than a small initiative at CDC (representing 0.0007% of the HHS budget), HHS has no formal programming on climate and health.

The Administration’s initial climate actions involve HHS in several ways. The HHS Secretary is a named member of several relevant interagency efforts such as the National Climate Task Force. The Executive Orders directed the HHS Secretary to establish three entities: a) an Office of Climate Change and Health Equity to address the impact of climate change on the health of the American people; b) an Interagency Working Group to Decrease Risk of Climate Change to Children, the Elderly, People with Disabilities, and the Vulnerable; and c) a biennial Health Care System Readiness Advisory Council. This is a promising start, but much more needs to be done.

This document outlines eight critical roles for HHS in addressing the climate emergency and proposes specific actions across the Department and its component agencies to carry out these roles.

Critical roles for HHS:

1. Advancing knowledge on how to protect human health from climate change, equitably

HHS must help build evidence regarding a) current and future impacts of climate change on health; b) effective and cost-effective strategies for equitable health adaptation to climate change; c) climate change mitigation strategies that will best protect health and equity; d) strategies and methods for a net-zero, climate-ready health care system; and e) methods of health-based climate change communication.

2. Building health-based climate adaptation and resilience

HHS must impel the nation’s public health and health care systems to anticipate health hazards related to climate change in their localities, where Americans directly experience the impacts of climate change, to implement protective actions (public health adaptation),and to build equitable, healthy, and resilient communities.

3. Ensuring that the transition to a clean economy promotes health, especially for vulnerable populations

HHS must help assure that climate mitigation—the transition to a low-carbon economy in energy, agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, buildings, and so on—follows the healthiest, and most equitable paths possible.

4. Advancing health equity and climate justice

HHS must help empower climate-vulnerable, Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), and frontline communities, supporting full and meaningful participation of these communities in policy-making with implication for climate change adaptation and mitigation. This includes collecting, analyzing, and sharing data to provide the basis for characterizing inequities and disproportionate impact.HHS must also support communities impacted by the transition to clean energy,such as coal-mining communities and oil refinery workers.

5. Achieving a climate-ready, low-carbon-footprint health system

HHS is strategically placed to influence the U.S. health sector. HHS should work to reduce health care demand through disease prevention, to improve care coordination, and to reduce waste in health care delivery.HHS must also help identify strategies to advance climate readiness and resilience in the health care system,to reduce the carbon footprint of clinical services, the supply chain, and research, and to incentivize providers to adopt those strategies.

6. Building a health work force capable of understanding and responding to climate change and health

HHS must assure that the nation has a robust pipeline of clinicians, researchers, and public health professionals trained to protect and promote health in the context of climate change—filling roles from research to clinical care to health system adaptation and mitigation to disaster preparedness and response.

7. Educating the public and policymakers on climate change,health, and equity

As a leading source of health information for policymakers, health professionals, and the public, HHS must disseminate evidence-based, comprehensible, culturally informed, and solutions-oriented.information on climate change and health.

8. Linking climate change to US efforts in global health security

As the US rejoins the global community in fighting climate change, HHS must assure that climate change is a central focus of the Global Health Security agenda, and contribute expertise and health content to international engagements such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The full document is here and a page listing all the organizational and individual signatories is here, which includes contact information and the ability to sign on to the document.

An oped in The Hill summarizing the document is here.

Published by Stanton Glantz

Stanton Glantz is a retired Professor of Medicine who served on the University of California San Francisco faculty for 45 years. He conducts research on tobacco and cannabis control and cardiovascular disease/

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