Obama Seeks to Boost Resilience to Climate-Driven Drought, Fires

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A firefighter uses a hose to douse the flames of a wildfire on August 24, 2013 near Groveland, California. Close

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Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A firefighter uses a hose to douse the flames of a wildfire on August 24, 2013 near Groveland, California.

President Barack Obama, who has vowed to make fighting global warming a focus of his remaining years in office, yesterday unveiled initiatives to mitigate what aides say are the effects of an already changing climate.

The proposals, spread throughout Obama’s 2015 budget blueprint to Congress, include an overhaul of the way the government pays for fighting wildfires, more money for satellites to track extreme weather and a $1 billion resiliency fund to help communities deal with heavier rainstorms, higher storm surges or more intense droughts.

“We are beginning to recognize that the climate is changing, despite the efforts we are taking to affect the trajectory,” Gina McCarthy, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, told reporters. “The president has great hope that the Congress will see the resiliency fund as having great impact on communities across the United States.”

While scientists debate the link between the number and severity of droughts, hurricanes or wildfires and global warming, Obama and his advisers say the connections are clear -- and the impacts will grow even as they take steps to stop it. Last year, Obama announced new rules to limit emissions from power plants, the biggest source of carbon dioxide. He has also said he wants to secure an international accord to address the issue before leaving office.

What’s not clear is if Congress will go along with any of yesterday’s funding requests. Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter criticized the resilience fund proposal as part of a pattern of spending that “wastes taxpayer dollars.”

Talks Begin

“It’s a great place to begin this discussion, but will the Republican-led House of Representatives fund anything with the word ‘climate’ in it?” asked Daniel J. Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “It’s unlikely.”

The resilience fund was first proposed by the Center for American Progress when White House adviser John Podesta was the group’s president. Weiss said the best way to establish the fund would be to create an independent revenue source, such as a fee on imported oil or on fossil-fuel electricity generation.

The White House included the climate fund as part of a larger $56 billion infrastructure plan that includes spending on upgrading the electric grid, training teachers, researching the brain and refurbishing the national parks. The climate piece, at $1 billion, would be used help coastal communities at risk of storm flooding, researching sea-level rise and improving building codes to boost energy efficiency, according to administration documents.

Create Jobs

“We need to start investing in ways that help communities protect themselves from the impacts of climate change, like extreme weather,” Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers union, said in a statement lauding the budget plan. “Doing so now will create jobs that will save money and lives in the future.”

The spending plan also seeks $2 billion to fully fund the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s new weather satellites, which will help make the nation “more resilient to extreme weather events.” The U.S. Forest Service would get 4.7 percent boost in funding, to $2.3 billion, for wildfire suppression and research.

The Department of Homeland Security would get $400 million to analyze “critical infrastructure vulnerabilities” to climate change. And the National Science Foundation will spend $362 million researching clean-energy technologies. And EPA will fund local communities to help curb storm water runoff, which may increase.

Electric Grid

The Energy Department’s $27.9 billion budget request includes $355 million to study and implement ways to minimize the disruptions to the electric grid and fuel transportation networks from the effects of climate change. Some of the money will go to states and local governments so they can make their energy systems more robust.

“Preparing for the impacts of climate change will be a fundamental challenge over the coming decades for every community, economic sector and level of government in America,” Michael Boots, the acting chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said in a blog post.

One of the ideas that may get a more receptive hearing in Congress is a change in steps to prevent wildfires and funding for emergency forest-fire fighting.

To deal with a fire season that has become longer, drier and hotter, the Interior Department is proposing to create a $240 million emergency fund similar to programs that fund the federal response to tornadoes and hurricanes, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said.

Fighting Fires

In 2012, fire suppression costs were 23 percent higher than the 10-year average. The following year the department redirected about $650 million from other accounts to meet its firefighting costs, she said. This year could be risky too, as the U.S. West had been gripped by drought, with California hardest hit.

“We can suppress about 99 percent of all of fires within a reasonable, annual budget,” Jewell said on a teleconference with reporters. “But there’s 1 percent of fires, like for example the Yosemite rim fire last year, that truly are emergencies.”

White House science adviser John Holdren has said that climate change can’t be blamed for any specific event, but it’s influencing recent weather extremes including the recent droughts in the Colorado Basin and California.

“We’ve always had droughts in the American West, of course, but now the severe ones are getting more frequent, they’re getting longer and they’re getting drier,” Holdren told reporters on Feb. 14. “A substantial part, at least, of the reason that that is happening is a warming world.”

Not all scientists share Holdren’s views.

“It is misleading, and just plain incorrect, to claim that disasters associated with hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or droughts have increased on climate timescales,” Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, told a Senate panel in July. That “does not mean that human-caused climate change is not real or of concern.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Drajem in Washington at mdrajem@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at jmorgan97@bloomberg.net

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