Policy: Environment & Energy

Obama issues order to strengthen defenses against climate change

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President Obama issued an executive order Friday that encourages state and local governments to strengthen their resilience to climate change and the extreme weather events associated with it.

The order aims to improve coordination between federal agencies and local and state governments for boosting defenses against extreme drought, flooding and storms that scientists believe might become more common because of climate change.

It also calls for a task force of state and local officials to improve planning and coordination with the federal government.

That effort will look at ways to provide incentives, grants and federal guidance for boosting resiliency. For example, governments looking to tap federal dollars for building roads, bridges or other projects might be compelled to consider the future effects of global warming.

"The impacts of climate change ... are already affecting communities, natural resources, ecosystems, economies, and public health across the nation. ... Managing these risks requires deliberate preparation, close cooperation, and coordinated planning," the order says.

The order is the latest move in the climate plan Obama rolled out in June, in which the president said he would bolster federal, state and local collaboration to improve defenses and planning against extreme weather.

The overall plan calls for slashing greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020 compared with 2005 levels. Its centerpiece is carbon emissions rules for new and existing power plants, which have generated backlash from Republicans, centrist Democrats and industry officials who say the regulations will hurt the economy.

Those emissions rules, which have been cheered by Democrats, green groups and public health organizations, are the most significant piece of getting to the president's reduction target.

But the order issued Friday is in some ways an indication that the White House is preparing for the potentially catastrophic conditions scientists say would occur if global temperatures rise more than 2 degrees Celsius.

That's because global emissions are not falling fast enough to keep temperatures in check, scientists say.

While scientists have been reluctant to link any one event directly to climate change, they agree that its effects — such as warming waters, higher sea levels, heavier rainfall — could become staples of a warming planet.

Scientists say those factors fed the intensity of Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast in October 2012. The storm cost tens of billions of dollars in damage, with Congress chipping in a $60 billion relief package to help restore the region.

"The recent anniversary of Superstorm Sandy serves as a stark reminder of how disruptions to our nation’s critical infrastructure have far-reaching economic, health, safety and security impacts. That event has propelled the Obama administration to focus on infrastructure issues," said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

The order is the latest example of that focus. While much of it centers around state and local efforts, it also pushes federal agencies to make better use of watersheds, ecosystems and natural resources as natural defenses to climate change and extreme weather.

The president has recently worked with electric utilities to better coordinate emergency response in the case of another natural disaster. The Energy Department has started a four-year review of energy infrastructure that will include an extreme weather component.

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