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Biden’s 2022 Budget Earmarks $220 Million for Climate Health Preparedness

President Biden’s budget blueprint for 2022 is looking to prepare the U.S. for future climate impacts by earmarking at least US$220 million for federal climate and health research and an expanded framework to help states and cities generate adaptation plans.

Announced two weeks ago, the budget request got somewhat lost in the klieg-light glare of Biden’s $2-trillion green infrastructure plan, but it “packs its own climate punch,” writes Grist. The funding request for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) “has serious implications for the intersection of climate change and public health in years to come.”

Biden’s “quiet plan” to prepare his country for the public health impacts of the climate crisis will require convincing Congress to direct $110 million to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where Washington’s health research takes place, and an equal amount to the Climate and Health program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In keeping with his stated commitment to climate justice, Biden is also requesting funding to create a new Office of Climate Change and Health Equity at HHS. Citing the budget blueprint, Grist says the agency would focus on “decreasing effects of climate change on vulnerable populations.”

A recent report by WBUR, Boston’s National Public Radio news station, points to Imperial County, California, as a potential “poster child” for such vulnerability. With a majority-Latino population, the agricultural community near the Mexican border has some of the worst air in the country, according to the American Lung Association’s 2020 State of the Air report.

Imperial County resident Luis Olmedo, executive director of the environmental justice group Comite Civico del Valle, told WBUR the impacts of poor air quality can be seen clearly in the high medical bills faced by many people in his community. Still, he said, the connection “is not as clear and visible as we would hope it would be.”

WBUR says the poor air quality in the heavily industrialized region has been made far worse by toxic dust that gets whipped up in the winds that flow in from the dry bed of the massive—and rapidly evaporating—Salton Sea. After years of agricultural runoff, the ground around the remnants of the lake is heavy with pesticide and fertilizer residues which get blown into the communities with the dust, exacerbating the already-high rates of asthma.

It’s a “climate catastrophe,” Olmedo told WBUR.

The loose patchwork of existing air pollution controls in the U.S. compounds the problems faced by regions like Imperial County, with state districts each abiding by their own rules, for better or worse. But, “despite the grim scenario, Olmedo says he’s ‘optimistic’ the Biden administration will make air quality a priority and ‘bring some justice’ to the lungs of Imperial County,” writes WBUR.

Back in Washington, DC, the president’s request to funnel monies into the HHS comes as experts continue to warn of the multiple public health threats posed by the climate crisis, from drought to food insecurity to killing heat waves to insect-borne diseases. But, says Grist, the U.S. is in a position to avert a great deal of that suffering—as long as it moves aggressively into prevention mode.

The new HHS funding is “a good first step” in that prevention, said Kristie Ebi, professor of environmental and global health at the University of Washington. But “it is not sufficient” in the face of the long-term need, she told Grist.

Assuming the request makes it through Congress, the project that is likely best-positioned to “hit the ground running” is the CDC’s Climate and Health program. Grist explains that the program’s Climate-Ready States and Cities initiative helps “state and local health departments implement a framework called Building Resilience Against Climate Effects, or BRACE, a five-step program that requires departments to come up with a climate and health adaptation plan.”

Critically, the BRACE framework is designed to help states identify and rank public health threats at the local level, allowing officials to “address the direst risks first, and work across multiple state government departments to coordinate a response.”

Grist says Arizona’s climate and health adaptation plan, developed with the help of BRACE, now includes “specific policy recommendations, such as creating a medical surveillance program to track how environmental factors like heat affect maternal and child health outcomes and developing hazard response plans for extreme heat and poor air quality in schools.”

If they’re adopted, Biden’s budget proposals will “jumpstart” the CDC’s efforts by expanding its ability to administer the BRACE program from a current reach of only 18 city and state health departments to nationwide delivery.  

“Expanding funding to all 50 states is phenomenal,” said Surili Sutaria Patel, former director of the Center for Public Health Policy at the American Public Health Association.