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Obama’s Plans for Adapting to Climate Change Rely On Local Action

The EPA may not have many friends in Congress, but the Obama administration is focused on making them where it counts when it comes to advancing the president’s climate agenda: at the local level.

Since President Barack Obama outlined his plan to address climate change, the EPA’s proposals to restrict power plant emissions of greenhouse gases have drawn most of the attention. But a second pillar of the president’s agenda centers on adapting to the impacts of climate change and making infrastructure more resilient.

Those concepts will be implemented largely by local governments. That gives the White House the opportunity to work on the ground with communities to deliver the message that proactively addressing the effects of global warming can produce tangible improvements in the daily lives of Americans.

“We know that climate change is real — the science is there — but I honestly think that if you start working on adaptation and resilience issues community by community with mayors that are being really aggressive on these issues, it not only makes climate come alive for people in a way that our lofty discussion of science in China doesn’t make it for communities across the U.S.,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said last week. “And it also brings to life the fact that the actions you need to take to address climate can be important steppingstones for local economies, for job growth, also for water issues that have been so plaguing us.”

Communicating about climate change in a way that helps citizens understand how it affects them is one challenge inherent in the Obama administration’s three-pronged climate action effort. But when it comes to implementing preparedness policies, the larger challenge is coordination among different levels of government. Many of the decisions about local infrastructure — such as siting new structures in areas where they will be at less risk of flooding or wildfires — are ultimately influenced by both state and federal policies.

As a prime example of how local communities are impacted by federal policy decisions about infrastructure resiliency, Cindy Lerner, mayor of Pinecrest, Fla., in Miami-Dade County, cited a proposal before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to allow expansion of a nuclear power plant on Biscayne Bay in South Florida — where sea level rise is regarded as inevitable.

“My hope is, at the federal level, that the EPA and climate action task force and others will start paying attention to those kind of infrastructure needs and the responsibility that we should all have to stopping stupid,” Lerner said.

Obama established a state and local government task force on climate preparedness in November with the goal of identifying how the federal government can effectively complement community responses to climate risks that different localities face, said Susan Ruffo, deputy associate director for climate change adaptation at the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality.

Information sharing and making climate data accessible to local governments is also likely to be a significant focus of the panel, which is composed of 26 governors, mayors, local officials and tribal leaders.

“It’s meant to be cooperative and to really show that this is something none of us can do alone,” Ruffo said.

That said, the federal government can only do so much when decisions about such things like zoning and building codes are mostly the responsibility of local governments.

“Each location is going to have to deal with this in their own way, and a lot of these decisions really are local decisions,” Ruffo said. “They’re not federal decisions.”

Meanwhile, many municipal leaders are doing what they can to shore up their communities against weather events that will become more frequent and more severe as the Earth’s atmosphere warms. For Salt Lake City, that means focusing on the impact of climate change on its water supply.

Explaining the phenomenon’s threat to the area’s watershed, most of which is derived from its snowpack, makes the issue more tangible to constituents, said Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, a member of the presidential task force.

“Talking in abstract terms does not seem to work for people who live in an ideological spectrum,” Becker said.

The EPA is working closely with the United States Conference of Mayors on climate change, McCarthy said, noting that more than 1,000 mayors across the country have signed an agreement pledging to achieve or beat Kyoto Protocol carbon emission targets in their communities — and to support congressional efforts to pass legislation establishing a national emissions trading program.

Becker, a Democrat, said he walks away from meetings with most members of the conservative Utah congressional delegation astonished at the differences between how local and federal policymakers discuss climate change.

“It’s incredible to me because there is such a disconnect between the reality of what we are working with in our communities and what people are talking about and how they are addressing things” in Washington, he said.

For now, local officials will need to respond to a global dilemma without any guidance from the legislative branch, the mayor added.

“We can’t wait for Congress to get its act together,” Becker said.

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