PC Profile: John Balbus OPC '78

PC Profile: John Balbus OPC '78

As acting director of a new federal office responsible for addressing health inequities in our response to climate change, John Balbus OPC ’78 already has a lot on his plate.

Penn Charter Alumn John Balbus OPC78

Rising temperatures, severe floods, rampant wildfires and deadly hurricanes affect people the world over but especially those who already lack access to basic services and reliable healthcare. Balbus’s job has been made even harder, though, because he has been operating with only a minimal staff and no congressional funding. He is making do without them.

President Biden created the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE) by executive order in 2021, and Balbus, a longtime advisor for public health at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, became the acting director. Last year he was supposed to have a $3 million budget and a full-time staff of eight, but Congress has yet to appropriate any money. He has big plans but has been forced to improvise through volunteer staff and partnerships with other, better funded agencies.

“It’s a huge mandate for an unfunded office,” Balbus said, “but we’ve had great success and we have passionate people. There’s a lot that you can do if you understand how the government works.”

The OCCHE is the first agency of its kind at the national level to address climate change and health equity. Its mission is to protect vulnerable communities who disproportionately bear the brunt of pollution and climate-driven disasters. The need for action is growing; the World Health Organization estimates that climate change will contribute to 250,000 deaths from malnutrition, malaria, heat stress and other causes.

Even when fully funded, the OCCHE must rely, as its website says, on the “powers of convening, coordination, and collaboration.” To pick just one example: Last summer Oregon suffered under a record heat wave which killed more than 115 people, many of them poor. To combat this, the Oregon Health Authority obtained a Medicaid waiver from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to purchase 3,000 portable air conditioners to be sent to the state’s most vulnerable people. Balbus’s office is now working with CMS and with other states to make this option better known and available throughout the country. “It’s not the solution to heat and climate change,” Balbus acknowledged, “but it’s one immediate way that a climate change-related event that’s killing people can be addressed with an equity lens.”

Hurricanes, another manifestation of climate change, are also on the OCCHE’s agenda. Balbus’s office is looking to partner with the Urban Sustainability Directors’ Network, a group of local government officials, to help incorporate health services into their “climate resilience hubs,” community-designed and maintained structures that provide services in normal times but can help inform residents about weather emergencies and remain open during them to provide basic services such as shelter, clean water or power. As Balbus explained it, “Everybody will benefit if we can find a way to protect those people in greatest need of a safety net.”

One other project Balbus points to is the Climate and Health Outlook, which is posted on the Health & Human Services website. The outlook takes seasonal forecasts from various government agencies for events such as droughts, heat waves and wildfires, and looks at their effects on health. “It is the nation’s first seasonal forecast for health,” Balbus said.

In the fall of 2021, just a few weeks after moving into his new job, Balbus traveled to Glasgow, Scotland as part of the American delegation to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP26. The United States joined 51 other countries in making a broad commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions from their healthcare systems and make them more climate resilient. “We hope that such policies — and additional actions to be identified — will inspire the sector to address the health threats associated with climate change in an equitable, inclusive manner,” he wrote in a paper he co-authored for the New England Journal of Medicine afterward.

Balbus majored in biochemistry at Harvard, earned his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University. After teaching at George Washington University for seven years, he worked as chief health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund before joining the National Institute of Environmental Health Science in 2009.

Before all that, though, Balbus was also a PC lifer, as were his older brothers, Steven OPC ’71 and Peter OPC ’75. He credits former Penn Charter chemistry teacher, Richard V. Pepino, for pointing him towards his future career path. “Rich was a huge influence on me,” Balbus said.
“As a high school teacher, he developed an innovative biochemistry class, which was a phenomenal and, for me, inspirational thing back then.”

He also credits the spiritual lessons he learned as a student. “As a Quaker school, Penn Charter has an ethos of service and commitment to the rights of all people and to equity,” he said. “Growing up in that environment had a big influence and set a foundation for other experiences I had later in life.”

– Mark Bernstein OPC '79

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