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Federal report warns of dire climate consequences, but will action follow?

Obama administration says the US is already grappling with climate change; experts warn federal action is needed now

Climate change is real and has the potential to catastrophically affect every aspect of American life, Barack Obama’s administration said Tuesday in a report, prompting immediate calls for a national response akin to a “wartime effort.”

The White House said the report is “the most comprehensive scientific assessment ever generated of climate change and its impacts across every region of America and major sectors of the U.S. economy.” Its findings are expected to be a launching pad for Obama’s climate change policy in the last two years of his presidency.

The report, the National Climate Change Assessment, outlines dozens of recommendations for reversing the effects of climate change and adapting to the ones already happening — from capping carbon emissions to building storm-surge barriers along the U.S. coastline.

While climate change experts and environmental activists have applauded the assessment, they warn that words alone won’t be enough. They say they’re worried the dire predictions in it won’t be matched by the gargantuan policy effort needed to address them.

“The climate message is ominous, and now we’re able to start pointing to possible solutions,” said Radley Horton, one of the lead authors of the report and a scientist at the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University. “It’s the implementation that’s going to be the problem.”

The assessment — the third of its kind to be produced by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a federal program made up of experts from 13 U.S. agencies, including the Department of Agriculture and NASA — is by far the most extensive and ominous in tone to be endorsed by the federal government.

It warns that “climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present” and that without drastic action, millions of U.S. citizens will experience negative health effects from more frequent heat waves, infrastructure will crumble in the face of stronger storms and the economy will suffer because of unpredictable and extreme weather.

In a first, the report emphasizes that these changes are happening now and that every state in the nation is already grappling with the effects of climate change — from heat waves in New York to droughts in the Midwest to the rising sea level in Florida eating away at land.

While most of the science in the 1,000-plus pages of the assessment isn’t new, the fact that it’s being issued with the federal government’s stamp of approval is.

“They’re endorsing it, and that’s what makes this significant,” said Jamie Henn, a co-founder of global climate activism group 350.org.

But he and others warn that there’s still a lot of work to be done. Issuing a report is one thing; following it up with actions meant to address the assessment’s warnings is another.

The administration has a mixed record when it comes to climate action. Obama rode to victory in 2008 with the promise to make carbon emission reductions a central part of his presidency, but after Democrats took a battering in the 2010 midterms, he hardly mentioned climate change during his 2012 re-election campaign and was criticized by many, including Al Gore, for not following through on his rhetoric.

But in the past year climate activists and experts say he has made big strides toward a more comprehensive climate policy. In September he announced plans to cap emissions on new power plants, and the Environmental Protection Agency is drafting rules to limit emissions for existing power plants. Henn said the administration’s delay in deciding whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline last month was a sign Obama is “beginning to show he’s serious about keeping carbon in the ground.”

Environmentalists point out that progress on climate change is being made at the local level. New York City, for example, released a landmark report on climate change’s effects in 2011, directing every city agency to factor climate change into its plans. 

That kind of local action can provide a road map for how the federal government could act, said Kevin Kennedy, director of the U.S. climate initiative at the World Resources Institute.

“It’s one thing if environmentalists are saying it. It’s another thing if mayors are saying that climate change is costing them billions of dollars and something needs to be done.”

But many are worried that, despite Obama’s renewed focus on the climate, not enough will be done to significantly protect Americans from the consequences of climate change. With a gridlocked Congress, experts say, passing comprehensive climate legislation will be a nearly impossible feat in the coming years.

“Regrettably, the members of Congress who oppose climate regulation are impervious to science,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. “They won’t even read the report.”

Scientists believe the window for action on climate change is rapidly closing. Experts have warned for years that without drastic action, the world’s ecosystems will dramatically change, with drought, extreme weather, food shortages and increased public health problems becoming the new normal.

“The science has been in for years. The science has essentially hit a rock wall, but our political system has been in the throes of dysfunction,” said Mary Wood, founding director of the environmental and natural resources law program at the University of Oregon. “It’s dangerous at this point to think that incremental action will work.”

She said the assessment is a good first step in setting up a platform for the U.S. government to address climate change, but she worries that the report won’t be accompanied by the massive legislative effort required to address the assessment’s recommendations.

“The report and all these lovely press conferences for it are great, but now there needs to be a sense of urgency that matches the tipping point we’re at,” Wood said. “We need a national effort on the scale of a wartime effort.”

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