Congress hasn’t funded a federal office focused on climate, health equity



Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! Happy Friday. As a scheduling note, the newsletter won’t be published next week, although we may have a special edition if the Senate passes the climate and clean-energy agreement between Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

More on that agreement below. But first:

Biden created a federal office focused on climate and health equity. Congress hasn’t funded it.

A week after taking office, President Biden signed a sweeping executive order that established a federal office focused on addressing the health consequences of climate change, which disproportionately affect poor communities and communities of color.

But nearly a year after the Department of Health and Human Services launched the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity, Congress has not provided any funding, forcing the office to operate without full-time staff at a time of worsening climate disasters across the country, according to interviews with four officials there, Maxine reports this morning.

Without permanent staff, the climate office has been loaned detailees from other federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. But those employees could be called back to their home agencies if the office does not receive funding in the coming months.

“Right now, it is an unfunded office,” said Adm. Rachel Levine, the assistant secretary for health. “What we really need is funding to have a permanent staff.”

The administration had grand plans for the office. It was tasked with marshaling federal assistance for Americans sweltering under deadly heat waves, breathing dangerous wildfire smoke, fleeing massive flooding and struggling to access clean drinking water amid a historic drought parching the West.

“Many climate and health calamities are colliding all at once,” Biden said before signing the executive order in January 2021. “Just like we need a unified national response to covid-19, we desperately need a unified national response to the climate crisis.”

But like much of Biden’s climate agenda, the success or failure of the office hinges on Congress. And so far, lawmakers have not filled its coffers.

  • In his budget plan released in March, Biden requested $3 million to support eight full-time positions in the climate office.
  • The government funding package that passed the House last week would deliver the full $3 million. So would the spending bill that the Senate Appropriations Committee unveiled on Thursday.
  • However, the government spending bills that lawmakers released last year also included $3 million for the climate office — until that money was stripped from the legislation at the last minute as part of an agreement behind the scenes. That has caused apprehension among officials in the office.

“Funding isn’t final until it’s final,” said a Health and Human Services official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.

In recent years, the medical community has increasingly recognized climate change as a leading threat to public health. 

  • The Lancet, a top medical journal, warned last year that global warming is set to become the “defining narrative of human health” — triggering food shortages, deadly disasters and disease outbreaks that would dwarf the toll of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • More than 100 doctors and nurses traveled to last fall’s United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, where the World Health Organization sponsored a health pavilion for the first time in the organization’s history.

John Balbus, the interim director of the climate office, lamented that there is a debate over funding his work in the first place.

“It shouldn’t be controversial to set up an office to make sure our communities and health systems are ready to face extreme weather threats being made more frequent and common by climate change,” Balbus said. “The 200 leading health journals in the world have made it clear that climate change is the greatest threat to public health this century. This issue needs focused attention now.”

Environmental justice implications

Under the Justice40 initiative, Biden has vowed to “deliver at least 40 percent of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities.”

In May, as part of that initiative, Health and Human Services announced the formation of an Office of Environmental Justice. It is housed within the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity — meaning that it, too, has no funding.

“Certainly front-line communities — poor communities, communities of color — always seem to get the brunt of pollution and health hazards,” said Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), who participated in a recent roundtable with the climate office on protecting farmworkers from extreme heat. 

“So that office needs the resources,” Soto said, “to speak up for those who have lacked a voice historically.”

The Manchin-Schumer deal could be the most significant climate bill yet

The $385 billion deal for climate and energy that Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) announced on Wednesday could sharply cut carbon pollution and lower Americans’ power bills, even though it falls short of what is needed for the nation to meet President Biden’s goal of slashing emissions in half by 2030, Anna Phillips reports for The Washington Post. 

The agreement — which includes generous tax credits for clean energy and electric vehicles — could put the United States on track to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, according to the Rhodium Group, a research firm.

A combination of executive action by Biden and state-led efforts to tackle climate change “can help close the rest of the gap,” said Ben King, an associate director at Rhodium.

The agreement includes $260 billion in clean energy tax credits and $80 billion in new rebates for electric vehicles and energy-efficient homes, Maxine and our colleagues Jeff Stein and Rachel Roubein report. But it includes some significant trade-offs that will probably increase greenhouse gas pollution by requiring the federal government to open up new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska. Although the concessions were probably necessary to gain Manchin’s support, some environmentalists criticized the measure. 

“If you look at the details, it’s a terrible deal,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “I don’t see frankly how the math even works, because the amount of leasing we would be locking in until 2032 would just be game-over for the climate.”

Meanwhile on Thursday, Senate Democrats forged ahead on a new, urgent push to finalize the economic package, hoping they might be able to bring it to the floor as soon as next week, Tony Romm, Mike DeBonis and Marianna Sotomayor report for The Post. 

Senate panel releases spending bills with big boosts for clean energy

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday released all 12 spending bills for fiscal 2023, proposing major increases for clean energy spending, E&E News’s George Cahlink, Sean Reilly, Scott Streater and Jeremy Dillon report. The House last week passed six spending bills for the next fiscal year.

  • The Energy Department would receive $49.3 billion, an increase of $4.5 billion compared with current spending and $1.1 billion more than the House plan.
  • The Biden administration would get $500 million to bolster domestic manufacturing of clean energy technologies through the Defense Production Act. The House allocated $100 million for the program.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency would receive $10.6 billion for its science and technology office, climate, water, and air quality programs, environmental justice initiatives, and regulatory work on toxic chemicals.
  • Most of the Interior Department’s top agencies, including the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service, would see modest funding increases, with the entire department receiving about $16 billion.
  • The Park Service would get $20 million for its work on a Civilian Climate Corps, which was cut from Democrats’ budget reconciliation package. Those investments are intended to “create jobs in the conservation workforce with the goal of expanding on-the-ground conservation work on park lands,” according to the Senate Appropriations panel.

Shell and Total extend share buybacks amid record profits

Shell and TotalEnergies extended share buybacks on Thursday after their second-quarter profits again shattered records, as the price of oil continues to climb, Shadia Nasralla and Ron Bousso report for Reuters

Taken together, the two largest oil companies in Europe are buying back $8 billion in shares for the third quarter, frustrating some investors. In the past year, Total and Shell shares have risen about 35 percent and 49 percent, respectively.

Other major fossil fuel companies — including Eni, ExxonMobil and Chevron — are set to announce their second-quarter results on Friday. BP will announce its results Tuesday.

Global warming made U.K. heat wave 10 times more likely, study says

The heat wave that stretched across the United Kingdom last week was made “at least 10 times more likely” by human-caused climate change, according to an analysis from the World Weather Attribution group, William Booth reports for The Post. 

The researchers concluded that the same heat wave that brought unusual triple-digit temperatures to Britain would have been “statistically impossible” in a pre-industrial world without global warming, based on two of the three meteorological stations in England it examined. 

If the world continues on its current emissions trajectory without taking bold action on climate change, such hot spells could happen every three or four years, according to models run by the British Meteorological Office.

Massive flooding in Kentucky invades homes, leaves at least 8 dead

Unprecedented flooding swept across eastern Kentucky early Thursday, submerging communities and leaving several people missing or trapped and at least eight people dead, Ian Livingston reports for The Post.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) called the event “one of the worst, most devastating flooding events in Kentucky’s history” and said “we expect double-digit deaths” at a news conference Thursday.

The state, which had already experienced heavy rainfall for 48 hours before the flooding event, was expected to receive 1 to 3 additional inches of rain Thursday. It could see rainfall rates as high as 2 to 3 inches per hour on Friday. 

The federal government’s National Climate Assessment shows that heavy rainfall, linked to human-caused climate change, is now about 20 to 40 percent more likely in and around eastern Kentucky than it was around 1900.

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