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National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

Your Environment. Your Health.

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NIEHS Advisor Tapped to Lead New Office on Climate and Health

By Natalie Rodriguez

John Balbus stands at a podium during a conference

Balbus at the launch of the new Office of Climate Change and Health Equity.
(Photo courtesy of HHS)

NIEHS Senior Advisor for Public Health, John Balbus, M.D., M.P.H., will serve as the interim director of the new Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE), established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on August 30, 2021. Housed within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Health, OCCHE was created to address the impact of climate change on the health of the American people.

“This outstanding opportunity will allow Dr. Balbus to amplify the impact of the work that he has done over his career to make sure that health impacts are part of the climate change discussion nationally and globally,” wrote NIEHS Acting Deputy Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D.

homes and street sign submerged in flood waters

"History will judge us for the actions we take today to protect our world and our health from climate change. The consequences for our inaction are real and worsening. We've always known that health is at the center of climate change, and now we're going to double-down on a necessity: fighting climate change in order to help protect public health in our communities," said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in a public statement.
(Photo courtesy of MDay Photography /

Balbus led NIEHS efforts on climate change and human health, including co-chairing the NIH-wide Climate Change and Health Working Group, and served as the NIH liaison to HHS on climate change and health for over a decade. He was also a lead author on the human health chapter for the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s 2016 Climate and Health Assessment and on the Fourth National Climate Assessment published in 2018 by the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

“It is a great privilege to make this transition from supporting research at NIEHS to helping HHS design and implement public health and health care programming in order to combat the health threats of climate change,” said Balbus. “The new office is empowered to demonstrate the place that climate change and health equity have at the core of the HHS mission. After 11 years leading climate change and health efforts across the federal government, I am excited to work with HHS to enhance health equity in the face of climate change.”

OCCHE is tasked with

  • Addressing health disparities exacerbated by climate impacts to enhance community health resilience
  • Assisting with regulatory efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and criteria air pollution throughout the health care sector, including participating suppliers and providers
  • Exploring opportunities to partner with the philanthropic and private sectors to support innovative programming to address disparities and health sector transformation
  • Fostering innovation in climate adaptation and resilience for disadvantaged communities and vulnerable populations
  • Identifying communities with disproportionate exposures to climate hazards and vulnerable populations
  • Promoting and translating research on public health benefits of multisectoral climate actions
  • Promoting training opportunities to build the climate and health workforce and empower communities
  • Providing expertise and coordination to the White House, Secretary of Health and Human Services, and federal agencies related to climate change and health equity

HHS established OCCHE in response to President Biden’s Executive Order 14008: Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. The order lays out a plan to increase resilience to the impacts of climate change, protect public health, conserve natural resources, advance environmental justice, and spur economic growth. It states that efforts should include projects that reduce emissions of toxic substances and greenhouse gases from existing and abandoned infrastructure that can harm communities and pose risks to public health and safety.

The core mission of OCCHE is to protect the health of people throughout the U.S. in the face of climate change, especially disadvantaged communities disproportionately affected by pollution and climate-driven disasters, such as drought and wildfires. The office will engage in research, regulatory efforts, innovation, and programmatic coordination with other federal agencies. Additionally, the office will work closely with community-based organizations, non-governmental organizations, academia, business, industry, along with, state, tribal, local, and territorial governments. In doing so, they aim to define and implement strategies, conduct strategic outreach and communications, and train and empower community residents to address the impacts of climate change on health.

“By working across all of HHS, the OCCHE has a unique opportunity to protect our most vulnerable communities from the impacts of climate change and also reduce the health sector’s contribution to the climate crisis at the same time,” Balbus said. “We are starting to build partnerships and capabilities to build more resilient communities, helping to translate some of the critical climate and health research NIEHS has helped support over the years.”