Climate Change is the Greatest Public Health Challenge of Our Time

Climate Change is the Greatest Public Health Challenge of Our Time

By Sunita Sohrabi | Ethnic Media Services

NEW YORK — Climate change is a key social determinant of health, disproportionately impacting low-income communities and people of color.

The numbers of heat-related deaths has been steadily rising, according to data from Health and Human Services. There were an estimated 1,602 heat-related deaths in 2021, 1,722 in 2022, and 2,302 deaths in 2023. Globally, an estimated 5 million people die each year because of excessive hot or cold conditions.

“This planet is on fire,” said environmental journalist Melba Newsome, speaking June 7 during the annual meeting here of the Association for Healthcare Journalists. “It is so clear that communities of color are at the tip of this sphere.”

Heat and Health Index

“While climate change affects all of us, it does not affect everyone equally,” she said.

Ana Mascareñas, Senior Adviser to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, said the Biden Administration has prioritized the health-related impacts of climate change. “There’s been a huge investment from this administration,” said Mascareñas, the daughter of two California farm workers.

On May 31, the White House announced the Heat and Health Index. The new tool, which drills down by zip code, aims to help communities prepare for extreme heat and prevent heat-related illnesses. The heat index identifies several factors which make people more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses. Unemployment, poverty, and the inability to speak English well are among the major contributors to falling sick from heat. Elderly people, children under 5, and children with disabilities are also more vulnerable, as are people who work outdoors.


“All across the country, communities are battling to keep people cool, safe and alive in the face of dangerous, record-setting heat, made worse by the climate crisis,” said Becerra at the launch of the HHI. “Exposure to extreme temperatures can lead to serious illness and death, and the risks for people who are pregnant and those with pre-existing conditions like asthma or diabetes, are even greater.”

The Biden Administration has also rolled out Justice40, aimed at addressing environmental justice and equity concerns.

Energy Bill Aid

The goal of Justice40 is to ensure that at least 40% of the benefits from federal investments in areas like clean energy, climate mitigation, and environmental remediation are allocated to historically marginalized and low-income communities. Mascareñas said the Administration recognizes that low-income communities disproportionately bear the brunt of environmental pollution and climate change impacts. For example, 2 million people living in marginalized communities lack access to clean drinking water, she noted.

“Justice40 will help us reach our goals of equity,” said Mascareñas.

The Biden Administration has also rolled out the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, in the form of federal grants to state agencies to distribute directly to low-income households. “As the climate gets hotter, people are finding they can’t pay their energy bills. LIEAP helps people meet their needs,” said Mascareñas. She noted however, that the multi-billion dollar project is currently only reaching 17% of income-eligible households. Many states have not taken up the program.

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