The next administration will take office in the midst of two public health crises: COVID-19 and climate change. Biden’s Department of Health and Human Services must be the first to proactively address climate change as a public health issue. As Attorney General, Xavier Becerra led national legal efforts to defend the climate, filing more than 50 lawsuits against the Trump administration over its environmental assaults. President-elect Biden’s choice of Attorney General Becerra signals that HHS is prepared to prioritize climate like never before.
The climate crisis is a public health crisis, and it should be at the top of the agenda for the nation’s top health official. Every year, climate change causes thousands of deaths, costs billions to America’s healthcare system, and leads to increased illnesses, food insecurity, and spread of infectious diseases. These impacts fall disproportionately on communities of color and low-income communities. COVID-19 has only made this disparity more apparent. Air pollution in Black and Latino communities is responsible for extremely high illness and death rates during the pandemic. Many of these same communities also struggle to pay the excessive burdens of energy bills each month, which could be alleviated through critical programs inside HHS. The climate crisis is a threat multiplier set to exacerbate every existing public health disparity. HHS must play a critical role in the national climate mobilization through long-term research and intentional resource allocation to vulnerable communities. HHS must treat climate like the health crisis that it is.
As California’s Attorney General, Xavier Becerra has stood up for his state’s climate leadership in the face of continuous attack from the Trump administration. 51 out of 100 lawsuits by Becerra against the Trump administration focused on the environment. In particular, his office led a coalition to prevent Trump’s EPA from rolling back critical rules on HFCs, a powerful greenhouse gas. Becerra also played a critical role in defending bedrock environmental protections by challenging attempts to weaken the National Environmental Policy Act and stop federal agencies from considering cumulative aspects of infrastructure projects.
In order to realize Biden’s climate mandate, every federal agency must become a climate agency. The Department of Health and Human Services under Xavier Becerra will be critical in this effort. Today, Evergreen Action is releasing 5 concrete actions that the next Department of Health and Human Services must deliver in the all-out government mobilization to defeat the climate crisis:
1. Establish an Office of Climate Change and Health Equity to respond to the risks posed by climate change in exacerbating infectious diseases
The new HHS Secretary should establish an Office of Climate Change and Health Equity in the Office of the Secretary, as President-elect Biden pledged during his campaign. The office should invest in systems and research to reduce disparities in health care and access exacerbated by the impacts of climate change, and work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to evaluate infectious diseases’ risk of being exacerbated by the climate crisis. The office should also proactively develop and deploy mitigation efforts to reduce the harms of climate-amplified infectious disease, and use federal equity mapping tools to ensure that resources are deployed first to the most vulnerable and underserved communities.
2. Leverage the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to support more energy efficiency, weatherization, and renewable energy installation projects
HHS administers the LIHEAP program, which provides block grants to states in order to help low-income households pay energy bills or invest in cost-saving weatherization projects. As the nation braces for a new wave of evictions and utility shut-offs resulting from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, expanding LIHEAP assistance has never been a more urgent policy priority. Building on the successful use of LIHEAP weatherization funds in states like California and Minnesota to support energy efficiency and renewable energy projects for low-income families, the next HHS secretary should issue a rule clarifying that LIHEAP weatherization funds can and should be used for renewable energy installations, energy efficiency, and home electrification projects. This will provide permanent and ongoing stimulus for low income households through lower energy bills. The HHS Secretary should also grant waivers to increase the proportion of LIHEAP funding authorized for weatherization projects in cases where those funds would go toward renewable energy, efficiency, or electrification as well as public health measures. Further, the incoming Secretary should allow greater flexibility to address health and safety investments during this time of pandemic, so weatherization upgrades touch each building only once. The secretary should also prioritize working with Congress to implement a Low-Income Water Assistance Program (LIWAP), for which provisions in the HEROES Act of 2020 should serve as a model.
3. Establish a Climate Risk Task Force within HHS focused on addressing climate change-driven public health impacts on vulnerable populations
On the campaign trail, President-elect Biden pledged to establish a Task Force to Decrease Risk of Climate Change to Children, the Elderly, People with Disabilities, and the Vulnerable. This task force should be created, housed within HHS, and led by its new secretary. It should identify ways that climate change could create and exacerbate public health risks to vulnerable communities, including frontline and low-income communities. The task force should work across HHS programs and with other agencies to develop and implement plans to proactively address these health risks, which will include plans to ensure adequate housing and healthcare for vulnerable populations displaced by climate disasters.
4. Strengthen the resilience of healthcare systems and supply chains in the face of climate impacts, including worsening disasters
The new HHS secretary should also lead in the establishment of a new Health Care System Readiness Task Force, which will conduct comprehensive biannual evaluations of the risks posed to the healthcare system by worsening climate disasters, and develop recommendations to strengthen resilience and rapid response. This follows a pledge made by President-elect Biden on the campaign trail. The task force’s recommendations should encompass both physical healthcare infrastructure, like hospitals, as well as workforce development and training opportunities for healthcare workers, and the underlying national supply chains that ensure rapid availability of PPE and life saving treatments. The task force’s work can build from a set of one-time recommendations for enhancing healthcare resilience in the face of climate change developed under the Obama-Biden administration in 2014.
5. Prioritize National Institutes of Health grant funding for research on the intersections of public health and climate change
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) within the Department of Health and Human Services is the largest public funder of biomedical research in the world. The NIH’s vast resources could fund groundbreaking and necessary research about the impacts of climate change on public health — from new disease vectors to worsening impacts from climate disruptions of flooding, drought, and natural disaster — yet the Institute currently spends barely 0.02% of its budget on research related to climate change. The Biden administration should direct the NIH to reassess its grant funding priorities, and to allocate significantly more resources to research that will help healthcare workers and scholars understand and act on the implications of the climate crisis on our health.