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Science Will Protect Us from Climate Change, Obama Says

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Science can save us from the next Hurricane Sandy. That’s what President Barack Obama will say today when he releases his Climate Action Plan, during a highly anticipated speech at Georgetown University.

The plan, which consists of a long list of actions the executive branch can take with no help or hindrance from Congress, has three “pillars.” One is to cut carbon dioxide emissions, two is to “prepare the U.S. for the impacts of climate change,” and three is lead international efforts to achieve the same two goals.

Many of the preview stories streaming across the media focus on the first goal, which includes a reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions of 17 percent by 2020, below 2005 levels. The big provisions there are to have the Environmental Protection Agency limit CO2 emissions from power plants, especially coal-fired plants, and from heavy trucks, buses and vans. But little is being written about how the plan intends to reduce death and destruction from the ravages of climate change, including heat waves, more severe storms, storm surges and sea level rise—what Obama calls “American’s climate resilience.”

The plan, released to the media before the speech, calls for conserving land and water, making agriculture more sustainable, reducing the effects of drought and wildfires, improving flood protection, and hardening power plants, hospitals and fuel-supply channels against extreme weather of all kinds. The key to all of that, the plan notes in surprising detail, is more science.

For example, to ensure that flood barriers provide protection long-term, federal agencies will update their standards to account “for sea-level rise and other factors affecting flood risk. This effort will incorporate the most recent science on expected rates of sea-level rise (which vary by region)…” Another example: The Department of Agriculture will create seven new “regional climate hubs” to deliver “tailored, science-based knowledge to farmers, ranchers and forest landowners.”

More generally, the plan says that the Administration “will continue to lead in advancing the science of climate measurement and adaptation, and the development of tools for climate-relevant decision-making.”

Specific actions include $2.7 billion in the president’s 2014 budget to increase understanding of climate-change impacts and to establish a public-private partnership to explore risk and catastrophe modeling. Also, in the spring of 2014 Obama will release the third U.S. National Climate Assessment, which among other things will assess how extreme weather will impact the nation’s transportation, energy supply, agriculture, ecosystems and biodiversity. And Obama will launch a Climate Data Initiative that will make all sorts of federal climate data easy to access, in hopes of stimulating innovation.

Federal agencies, furthermore, will create “a virtual climate-resilience toolkit that centralizes access to data-driven resilience tools, services and best practices.” It will include new, interactive sea-level rise maps and a sea-level-rise calculator to aid post-Sandy rebuilding. Web-based tools will allow developers to integrate NASA climate imagery with U.S. Geological Survey data tools, as well as storm surge models from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Obama hopes that these kinds of tools will help city and state planners figure out how best to adapt to climate change. To help them actually implement actions, Obama will direct federal agencies to remove barriers and policies that make it hard for cities and states to invest in climate adaptation measures. The Administration will also make more grants and technical assistance available to them.

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Cromwell on Wikimedia Commons

Mark Fischetti About the Author: Mark Fischetti is a senior editor at Scientific American who covers energy, environment and sustainability issues. Follow on Twitter @markfischetti.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. ultraharder 2:01 pm 06/25/2013

    I think that’s all good, EXCEPT environmental
    solutions that burden the economy are the hardest
    to get compliance because of their cost. The best
    solutions to environmental problems are those that
    strengthen the economy while solving the problem.
    A solution that works better for the environment
    and reverses America’s economic losses is a win-
    win solution. There are now hundreds of companies
    manufacturing diamonds; mostly in China. If
    Americans find a way to make diamonds to pract-
    ically any size, cheaply enough, it would be the
    material of choice, not only for most machines,
    but roads and buildings. That would be turning
    the liability of high atmospheric & oceanic CO2
    into the asset of a superior material that would
    make new technologies possible. The USA, with
    the synthesis process, would reverse it’s debt
    to income ratio and regain it’s budget surplus,
    if we manufacture construction-scale diamonds
    onshore, with participation on all levels only
    by US citizens. Diamond made on that scale
    would not only enlarge the US economy, it
    would sequester carbon for the life of the
    planet, on an effective scale to reduce or even
    reverse global warming. The country that leads
    in ultrahard crystals and their applications and
    manufactures them exclusively onshore will lead
    a trillion-dollar industry. The USA’s history of
    leading in invention and manufacture shows what
    we can do, IF we stop committing economic treason
    by outsourcing manufacture of our best inventions
    in key, developing technologies!

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  2. 2. tgrondahl2004 3:19 pm 06/25/2013

    The environment will not be fixed; we will have to adapt to the changing environment. If science had the ability to help then science would have helped stop things like Hurricane Sandy or the Moore Town Tornado. Lets be real about this and help people do what they can to survive the next round of problems. Science has come a long way but we are still trying to understand climate change and storms. We can start by pulling our heads out of the sand and out of the clouds and get down to working.

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  3. 3. bongobimbo 9:29 pm 06/25/2013

    Baloney. In fact it smells like BAD baloney. For “science” read “technology, for “technology” read “Big Chemicals”, then “Monsanto” and so down the line–until the last bee is dead.

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  4. 4. sault 11:40 am 06/26/2013

    Science is the ONLY tool we have to adequately inform our decision-making on climate change mitigation and adaptation. It sure beats listening to the denial and delaying tactics employed by the fossil fuel industries and their propaganda machine, though! When all they care about are increasing their profits as much as possible (which they are legally required to do as corporations), they are GUARANTEED to miss out on considering the long-term well being of humanity as they load the atmosphere with carbon and then try to confuse people about what the effects will be. Good thing the Obama administration is at least putting up a backstop on this problem. It’s the best he can do considering that Congress is paralyzed on Climate Change due to all the political spending fossil fuel companies lay on them.

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  5. 5. sault 12:49 pm 06/26/2013

    In addition, incorporating the costs of pollution into the price of fossil fuels is a good way to align the profit-maximizing interests of corporations with the long-term well being of humanity. The costs don’t show up at the gas pump or in your electricity bill, but they DO show up in your health and property insurance bills! They also rear their ugly heads as reduced GDP and wages and correspondingly higher yearly deficits as we deal with the symptoms of pollution instead of the causes. Clamping down on polluters is the best way to solve a good chunk of our massive healthcare and productivity problems.

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  6. 6. CiaranJ 5:41 pm 06/26/2013

    Hang on as a member of the denier group I am a bit lost here. Are we still sticking to the story that climate is not in fact changing or are we now moving to the story that climate is in fact changing but there is nothing we can do about it so we might as well do nothing as it is the cheapest option?

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  7. 7. CurrentOutlook 12:47 pm 06/29/2013

    @5. Sault,

    “… Clamping down on polluters is the best way to solve a good chunk of our massive healthcare and productivity problems.”

    Were one to follow your reasoning, one might conclude that increasing the cost of resources will reduce the cost of doing business.

    If nothing else, your arguments do provide a measure of entertainment.

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