Obama admin shifts strategy on battling warming

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Obama administration in recent days has increased its focus on the need to combat climate change, announcing new action plans both at home and abroad.

President Obama said he will ask Congress for $1 billion in new spending for climate research and adaptation and tied warming temperatures to the drought in California, while Secretary of State John Kerry half a world away in Asia denounced climate deniers and revealed a new joint emissions plan with China.

Together, the actions represent a shift in strategy on climate change and a renewed emphasis on the issue as one of the administration’s top priorities.

The $1 billion fund is a departure from Obama’s prevailing efforts on climate change, which have been to find ways to use existing authority to reduce emissions while criticizing Congress for its continued inaction on the issue. He will ask for the money as part of his fiscal 2015 budget request to Congress early next month.

And Kerry’s words marked a turn toward sharper rhetoric on the world stage.

He and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced Friday that their two countries would share information about their emissions reductions as part of a post-2020 U.N. agreement to be negotiated in Paris late next year. Kerry, a careerlong champion of climate action, continued to Indonesia, where he made waves back home by declaring that man-made warming is “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.”

The actions generated significant attention over the weekend and drew condemnation from Republicans.

New fund

Obama said in Fresno, Calif., on Friday that the new fund would go for research into the effects of climate change and to help local communities prepare for them. It would also help develop technologies and infrastructure suited to manage the risks of man-made warming, which scientists say will alter precipitation patterns and usher in more severe and frequent storms.

Adaptation will be necessary even as the United States continues to draw down emissions, Obama said.

“The planet is slowly going to keep warming for a long time to come,” he said. “So we’re going to have to stop looking at these disasters as something to wait for; we’ve got to start looking at these disasters as something to prepare for, to anticipate, to start building new infrastructure, to start having new plans, to recalibrate the base line that we’re working off of.”

He said the fund would include new challenges under the Climate Data Initiative, a program he launched last year as part of his climate plan that was initially charged with analyzing the effect of sea-level rise on coastal communities. The initiative will now expand its focus to include the threat of climate change to inland communities, he said.

Obama also pledged that the fund would help local communities plan and “set up incentives to build smarter, more resilient infrastructure.” The fund’s relatively modest size and the wording of the White House’s announcement last week hint that local governments would bear most of the cost of making those infrastructure improvements.

Ever since Obama released his Climate Action Plan last June, the administration has been moving ahead with new greenhouse gas rules for the power sector, energy efficiency standards for appliances and renewable energy policies for public lands — all efforts it could make without asking Congress for its approval. But the proposed fund for research and adaptation would rely on money appropriated by Congress, and thus its fate is less certain.

Capitol Hill Republicans hurried to signal their opposition. Many criticized Obama for tying the funds to California’s devastating drought, which has affected more than 90 percent of the state.

“In order to push his costly climate change agenda, the President is once again linking extreme weather to climate change — with no scientific support,” Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said in a statement Friday. The House Science, Space and Technology Committee chairman noted that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last year that man-made warming did not play a “significant” role in Texas’ record 2012 drought.

“Drought is a serious problem that should not be used to justify a partisan agenda or a new billion dollar climate change fund,” he said.

Fellow Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who faces a primary challenge this year, kept up a steady stream of tweets on the president’s proposal this weekend. On Friday, he noted that Obama’s appeal for climate adaptation funds came as much of the country was living through a harsh winter. “Snow on the ground in 49 of 50 states and POTUS thinks global warming should be an urgent priority,” he said.

But Democrats applauded the president’s proposal. Cornyn’s new Senate colleague, Sen. Ed Markey (Mass.), said a similar fund was included in the climate change bill he sponsored five years ago with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), which passed the House but not the Senate.

“This fund will help prepare America and is further proof that the administration is dedicated to addressing the challenge of our time,” he said, pledging to help see that the funding passes the Senate.

The president’s announcement generated media coverage of the link between the California drought and climate change, which made at least one senator happy.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who like Markey is a member of the newly formed Senate Climate Action Task Force, praised the three major television networks in tweets and on his website yesterday for Sunday talk show coverage of the president’s trip.

CBS, NBC and ABC all ran segments on climate change yesterday, Sanders noted.

“Now that’s news,” the senator said. Sanders and eight colleagues sent a letter to networks in January blasting their scant coverage of the issue in 2013.

Kerry takes a sharper tone

Obama took a conciliatory stance in his remarks in Fresno, saying again that climate change should not be a political issue and calling on congressional Republicans to join him in supporting adaptation. Not so Kerry, who said in Jakarta that “shoddy scientists” and “extreme ideologues” in the developed world are intentionally fostering confusion.

“We just don’t have time to let a few loud interest groups hijack the climate conversation,” he said.

Kerry also jabbed at climate deniers.

“The science is unequivocal, and those who refuse to believe it are simply burying their heads in the sand,” Kerry said. “We don’t have time for a meeting anywhere of the Flat Earth Society.”

That remark echoed Obama’s when the president rolled out the Climate Action Plan, saying that “we don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.”

Kerry noted that countries like Indonesia stand to lose the most from sea-level rise, extreme weather events and other results of warming. He put man-made climate change on a par with global threats like terrorism, epidemics and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

“The reality is that climate change ranks right up there with every single one of them,” he said.

This conviction has led him to raise the issue at almost every high-level meeting he has attended since he was confirmed as secretary of State, Kerry said.

These talks have led to several U.S.-China agreements over the last year, including a pledge to collaborate on reducing heat-trapping hydrofluorocarbons. Last week’s accord between the world’s two top greenhouse gas emitters included agreements on how to implement initiatives on heavy-duty vehicle emissions, smart grid technology, carbon capture and storage, emissions data, and energy efficiency of buildings and industry.