February 29, 2024

WASHINGTON – Amid deadly heatwaves and new evidence that forest fire smoke can contribute to premature births, the Biden government is establishing a new federal agency to address the health impacts of climate change and its disproportionate effects on poor communities.

The Office of Climate Change and Health Equity, which government officials officially announce Monday, will be the first federal program specifically aimed at understanding how the planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning also affect human health . It is subordinate to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Medical professionals have urged the government to take this area more seriously, and public health leaders said the new office was long overdue.

“The health of the American people is faltering because climate risk has not been specifically brought into focus,” said Aaron Bernstein, interim director of the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard TH Chan School of Healthcare. “This is the opportunity to close this hole.”

In 2009, scientists in the medical journal The Lancet warned that global warming would affect crop yields, tropical diseases would emerge in new parts of the world and lead to water scarcity. In 2020, the Journal said these threats no longer belonged in the distant future.

“Climate change is fundamentally a threat to health,” said Gina McCarthy, the White House’s national climate adviser. She said part of the office’s mission is to encourage doctors to speak to their patients about protecting themselves from heat waves, forest fire smoke, and other air pollution.

Experts said more needs to be done to understand how extreme weather affects the elderly as well as communities of color, where families are more likely to live in areas hit hardest by disasters.

“There’s a saying that when whites catch a cold, blacks get pneumonia,” said Beverly Malone, executive director of the National League for Nursing. “Health equity has a lot to do with where you live, and we understand the context.”

President Biden has requested $ 3 million to fund the climate bureau for next year, a sum that has yet to be approved by Congress. Those who set up the office have been brought in by other agencies with existing funds. John Balbus, Senior Advisor to the Director of the National Institutes of Health on Climate Change, will serve as interim director.