“Many health and climate disasters are colliding all at once,” Biden said at the time, adding, “Just as we need a unified national response to covid-19, we desperately need a unified national response to the crisis. climatic “.
But nearly a year after the Department of Health and Human Services launched the Office for Climate Change and Health Equity, Congress has not provided any funding, forcing him to operate without full-time staff at a time of worsening climate disasters across the country, according to interviews with four officials there.
Nearly 1 in 3 Americans suffered a weather disaster last summer
“Right now, it’s an unfunded office,” said admirer Rachel Levine, the US assistant secretary for health. “What we really need are the funds to have permanent staff.”
In his budget plan released in March, Biden requested $ 3 million to support eight full-time positions in the climate office. The government funding package that passed the House last week would deliver the full $ 3 million. So would be the spending bill that the Senate Appropriations Committee unveiled Thursday.
However, the government spending accounts that lawmakers released last year also included $ 3 million for the climate office, until that money was withdrawn from legislation at the last minute as part of a agreement negotiated behind the scenes. This sparked concern among climate office officials.
“Funding is not final until it is final,” said a health and human services official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to lack of permission to comment publicly.
Senator Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), The top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, on Thursday accused Democrats of using spending accounts to pursue the Green New Deal, the liberal proposal to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. of the nation in 10 years while guaranteeing all well-paid jobs.
“Senate Democrat bills seek to use the appropriation process to promote radical environmental and climate policies,” Shelby said in a statement, citing proposals to subsidize the solar industry and reduce emissions of methane, a powerful gas. for global warming, from livestock.
A spokesperson for Republicans on the panel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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With no full-time staff, the climate office has received staff on loan from other federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. But those employees could be called back to their home agencies if the office doesn’t receive funding in the coming months.
John Balbus, acting director of the climate office, complained about the existence of a debate on funding his work in the first place.
“It shouldn’t be controversial to set up an office to make sure our communities and health systems are ready to face the extreme weather threats made more frequent and common by climate change,” Balbus said. “The world’s top 200 health journals have made it clear that climate change is the greatest public health threat of this century. This problem needs focused attention now. “
Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of Climate Resolve, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization, noted that $ 3 million pales in comparison to what some states are spending to tackle climate impacts. For example, California has agreed to spend $ 100 million over two years to create “community resilience centers” where people can cool off during a heat wave or access electricity during blackouts caused by extreme weather events. .
“When the state of California is spending more than the federal government on protecting public health associated with climate change,” Parfrey said, “it’s pretty scary.”
However, Levine said comparing the climate office to such state-level efforts is like “apples and oranges,” since the office aims to coordinate work across the federal government rather than creating resilience centers and related structures.
Inaction on climate change endangers millions of lives, doctors say
In recent years, the medical community has increasingly recognized climate change as a major threat to public health. The Lancet, a leading medical journal, warned last year that global warming is set to become the “narrative that defines human health” – triggering food shortages, deadly disasters and epidemics that would dwarf the pandemic toll. coronavirus.
Rising temperatures have led to higher rates of heat sickness, causing the collapse of farm workers in the fields and the deaths of seniors in their homes. Smoke from the fires has infiltrated the lungs and bloodstream of people hundreds of miles away. Extreme drought has caused crop failures, causing severe hunger and food insecurity for the world’s most vulnerable populations.
According to a growing body of research, these effects have fallen hardest on low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, which are disproportionately exposed to dirty air, contaminated water and other environmental threats.
In San Jose, for example, temperatures are 6 or 7 degrees higher in poor neighborhoods that lack tree cover, making it more difficult for residents to cool off during a heat wave. “We know these differences are widening over time and have a real impact on children, the elderly and others who may be vulnerable,” said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, a Democrat.
In Albuquerque, officials recorded a 17-degree difference between the coolest and hottest parts of the city on summer afternoons. Higher temperatures pose the greatest risk to homeless people and those without access to air conditioning, said Kelsey Rader, the city’s sustainability manager.
Biden has made addressing these inequalities a core of his climate agenda. As part of the Justice40 initiative, you pledged to “deliver at least 40% of the overall benefits of federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities.”
In May, as part of this initiative, Health and Human Services announced the formation of a new Office for Environmental Justice. He is housed within the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity, which means he also has no funding.
“Of course, communities on the front line – poor communities, communities of color – always seem to bear the brunt of pollution and health risks,” said representative Darren Soto (D-Fla.), Who attended a recent panel discussion with the climate office on protecting agricultural workers from extreme heat. “So that office needs the resources to speak out for those who historically have no say.”
If they receive funding, the climate office has a number of programs it would like to launch or expand, officials said. These include efforts to reduce hospital carbon emissions, fund internships in community health departments, and train community health workers to assess people’s vulnerability to heat or smoke from fires.
“I will be positive and optimistic that we will get funding for fiscal year 2023,” Levine said. “You know, hope springs eternal.”
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An earlier version of this article said the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity was launched over a year ago. In fact, it was launched almost a year ago. The article has been corrected.