Following through on one of President Joe Biden’s executive orders, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has launched the new Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE).
HHS officials claimed it would adapt “lessons learned” from the government’s COVID-19 response to address the effects of climate change on public health, in a message met with a mixture of approval and, in some quarters, deep concern about government overreach.
“We’ve always known that health is at the center of climate change, and now we’re going to double-down on a necessity: fighting climate change in order to help protect public health in our communities,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in a statement announcing the launch of OCCHE.
The OCCHE has been established as part of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health.
OCCHE’s interim director is Dr. John Balbus, whose background includes stints as HHS principal to the U.S. Global Change Research Program and as chief health scientist for the environmental activist group Environmental Defense Fund.
An HHS spokesperson said the office has a budget of $3 million with a staff of eight people.
In a statement, Assistant Secretary for Health Dr. Rachel Levine explicitly linked the new office to the government’s response to COVID-19.
“COVID-19 highlighted the inequities faced throughout our nation. Unfortunately, some of the same groups disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 will be the same groups struggling the most with the effects of climate change on our health,” Levine said. “We will use the lessons learned from COVID-19 to address these disparities, prioritizing and protecting the nation’s health.”
“COVID-19 demonstrated the vital importance of essential workers to the nation,” an HHS spokesperson told The Epoch Times in an email when asked to explain “lessons learned” from the pandemic.
“Many essential workers are in [low-income] jobs that make them more vulnerable to underlying health conditions related to deprivations in the social determinants of health. Additionally, these essential workers are more exposed to the effects of climate change,” the spokesperson said.
“The office will not only work to protect vulnerable populations from exposures to climate risks, but also reduce health disparities and the rates of underlying health conditions to lessen the health risks from the exposures these populations are likely to face with future climate change.”
The OCCHE was established in the Jan. 27 executive order “Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.” It stated that the office will “address the impact of climate change on the health of the American people.”
The new office’s responsibilities include supporting the establishment of new regulations on greenhouse gas emissions by the health care sector as well as “reporting on health adaptation actions under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.”
Climate change activists and public officials were among those to celebrate the launch of the new office.
“Protecting Americans’ health & well-being has always been at the heart of fighting climate change; now it’s being elevated!” EarthShare wrote in a tweet.
“I applaud this—and particularly the link with health equity. NYC neighborhoods that have been historically deprived of public resources—often low-income communities of color—are at greater risk from the health and economic threats from our climate,” wrote Dr. Dave A. Chokshi, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, in a tweet.
But the new office has met with skepticism and concern from others, including energy expert Alex Epstein, who highlighted its potential control over greenhouse gas emissions from hospitals.
“Is the Administration going to raise their prices so they use less energy? Is [the] Administration going to force respirators and incubators to run on unreliable solar and wind?” Epstein wrote in a Twitter thread outlining his objections to the OCCHE.
One of the country’s largest hospital networks didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on these concerns.
Others worried about the potential danger of extending public health-related powers, such as those exercised during the COVID-19 pandemic, to a new office.
“As predicted: ‘public health’ will be the tool of choice for other tyrannies,” Jay W. Richards, William E. Simon senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, wrote on Twitter.
“Americans were surprisingly compliant with unjustified and unprecedented restrictions in the name of public health,” Richards told The Epoch Times in an email. “As a result, any politicians wishing to increase their power would realize that is a proven way to get Americans to give up their freedoms without a fight. Therefore, there would be a strong incentive to frame other political issues in terms of public health. Hence, it will become a tool of choice.”
Richards said he predicted the reframing of climate change activism in terms of public health in his 2020 book, “The Price of Panic.”
“Even if human activity is causing catastrophic climate change, it’s a weird gerrymander to put a climate and energy policy issue into HHS and to describe it as a public health issue,” he wrote. “I would expect this new office to start promoting COVID-like restrictions on ordinary activities that involve the use of energy and hydrocarbons. In fact, that seems to be the very point of the office.”