HHS official: Climate health work will survive if Trump wins

By Ariel Wittenberg | 04/12/2024 07:12 AM EDT

The government’s public health response to rising temperatures isn’t “partisan,” the leader of the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity said.

John Balbus

John Balbus runs the climate office at the Department of Health and Human Services. Steve McCaw/Department of Health and Human Services

The federal official in charge of addressing the effects of climate change on public health said Thursday his office could weather a potential election victory by former President Donald Trump.

John Balbus is the civil servant leading the Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Climate Change and Health Equity, which was established three years ago by President Joe Biden. The office has helped streamline efforts within the department to address the health effects of climate change and has led major initiatives to encourage the health sector to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

“I’m very optimistic that whichever party is in charge of the White House, that the work we are doing will speak for itself,” he said, referring to the presidential race between Biden and Trump, the likely Republican nominee.


Environmental health advocates have raised concerns that a second Trump presidency could gut climate programs at HHS, with some House Democrats introducing legislation aimed at protecting climate funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But Balbus, speaking at a Kaiser Permanente Health Summit panel hosted by POLITICO on Thursday, tried to frame his office’s work as noncontroversial because it focuses on issues like “fighting for improved efficiency of care.”

“We are fighting for going to the people who are the sickest and making them as equitably healthy as we can. I don’t think that’s a partisan issue,” said Balbus, who is not a political appointee.

Other panel members were similarly optimistic that federal climate work would continue, even though Trump has called global warming a myth.

Matthew Tejada, senior vice president for environmental health at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said “everybody is feeling” the effects of climate change.

“It is becoming real for folks because they are going to want answers and they will hold people accountable,” he said. “The process has started and I do not think that a single election is going to just roll it all back.”

Victor Dzau, president of the National Academies of Medicine, expressed concern about what a Trump presidency could mean for the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity, calling himself “a worry wart.” He noted the office has helped jump-start initiatives within the health sector to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

“You have started the movement and many of us are working along with you, and whether you’re here or not, we will keep working on it,” he said.

Balbus also addressed concerns about his office’s tiny budget. Congress has never granted Biden’s budget requests for $6 million to fund the office. It is largely staffed by political appointees and career staff on loan from other areas within HHS, including Balbus, who previously was a senior adviser for public health at the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences.

“It’s taken a long time for the health world to recognize that climate change is something that they have to worry about,” he said.

“I think eventually our decision-makers will catch up and realize that health is part of the climate solution space,” Balbus said. “Climate solutions are health solutions and vice versa.”