SOMSERSET, Mass. — As deadly heat waves grip the world, the Biden administration is warning that its office tasked with dealing with the health effects of climate change is running out of money.
President Joe Biden, in his first year in office, created an Office of Climate Change and Health Equity within the Department of Health and Human Services, to prepare the nation’s health care system to cope with the growing and unavoidable health effects of extreme heat, dangerous storms and worsening air pollution. The Biden administration has asked Congress for $3 million to staff the office with eight staff, a paltry sum compared to the federal government’s multi-trillion-dollar budget.
But Congress never funded the office, leaving the fledgling unit with an uncertain future, lacking dedicated resources and dependent on a rotating team of staff borrowed from other government offices, even as the harsh summer temperatures clearly show the risks to human health: nearly 2,000 already killed in this heat wave in Spain and Portugal.
“Our hospitals are, for the most part, not completely ready,” Assistant Secretary of Health Rachel Levine, a physician, said in an interview with NBC News. “The health threats associated with climate change are very serious and they are increasing.”
The office’s empty bank account is the latest example of how, even as Biden promises to use all of his executive authority for climate action if the Senate does not, his hands are largely tied.
Last week, sweeping climate legislation collapsed in the Senate after Sen. Joe Manchin, DW.Va. – a key vote – said he would not back it unless data for the next few months showed inflation improving. The collapse of that effort, already scaled back several times, was the latest potentially fatal blow to Biden’s climate and emissions-cutting agenda.
On Wednesday, Biden sought to show he was acting on his own whenever possible, visiting a former coal plant in Somerset, Mass., which had been converted into a manufacturing facility for the offshore wind industry. . He announced $2.3 billion in funding through FEMA to help communities prepare for extreme heat and plans to allow America’s first offshore wind turbines in the Gulf of Mexico.
“This crisis is impacting every aspect of daily life,” Biden said, as temperatures in the waterfront city hit the 90s. He called climate change an “emergency” and added: “It is literally, not figuratively, a clear and present danger. The health of our citizens in our communities is literally at stake.”
House Democrats backed the administration’s request for $3 million for the climate health office, including funding for a proposed fiscal year 2023 budget that passed a key committee, said a spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee.
Still, it’s unclear whether the funding will survive the Senate. Congress could also choose to temporarily fund the government by passing a short-term extension of the previous budget, which would again leave the climate office unfunded.
With its limited resources and borrowed employees, the office has worked with federal agencies that provide medical services — such as the VA, the military and the Indian Health Service — to improve resilience to climate change, Levine said. The office is also pushing hospitals and pharmaceutical companies to decarbonize, asking them to commit to reducing their emissions by 50% by the end of the decade, in line with Biden’s economic goals.
Dr. Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician who directs the climate health program at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, likened the lack of a coordinated approach on climate to the failures that led the federal government to create the Department of homeland security after September 1. 11 terrorist attacks.
“We have realized in an extremely painful way how our fragmented approach to protecting our national security has allowed people to fly planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon,” Bernstein said, calling for the same level of urgency to respond. to climate change. “We don’t have such a response from our federal government at this time.”
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that approximately 1,300 people die each year in the United States from heat-related deaths, and hundreds more die from cold weather, severe storms and other weather-related events. A concerted government response, Bernstein said, could include measures such as working with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to encourage local health systems and frontline clinics to proactively contact patients before heat episodes. extreme, to make sure they have a plan to stay safe. The bureau could also work with the National Weather Service, part of the Commerce Department, to issue heat-based warnings, similar to tornado warnings, Bernstein said.
Over the past few weeks, Levine has traveled the country meeting with mayors and local officials about their efforts to make their communities more resilient to extreme heat and climate change, and to minimize negative health effects.
In Orlando, he was told of migrant farm workers unable to escape the heat outdoors, and in Seattle, of low-income families who cannot afford air conditioning. In the South Bronx, NY, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, she has heard of urban heat islands that have above-average temperatures due to lack of trees and shade.
In San Jose, Calif., Mayor Sam Liccardo said his city is getting “dryer and hotter,” fueling new medical issues as wildfires worsen respiratory issues. Wildfires and extreme heat have also triggered power outages in California in recent years, putting medically vulnerable people at risk, he said.
“We have a lot of medically vulnerable residents who rely on electricity for their ventilators and dialysis, other types of essential devices just to keep them alive,” Liccardo said.
Levine said the same communities disproportionately affected by pollution and health access disparities are also most at risk from the health effects of climate change: people of color, American Indians, people elderly and migrants.
“Local officials are stepping in and trying to solve this problem, but we need a national approach,” she said. “They all have the same messages: the challenge and health threats of extreme heat.”