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The loudest climate change wake-up call

On Tuesday, the White House unveiled a 1,300 page report on climate change in advance of a new push for environmental regulations.
A gas and oil refinery is seen in an aerial view in the early morning hours of July 30, 2013 in Bismarck, North Dakota.
A gas and oil refinery is seen in an aerial view in the early morning hours of July 30, 2013 in Bismarck, North Dakota.

Climate change has officially arrived, and it is wreaking havoc across the United States -- draining water supplies, throwing off sea levels and affecting the health of millions of Americans, according to a significant new government report.

"Residents of some coastal cities see their streets flood more regularly during storms and high tides. Inland cities near large rivers also experience more flooding, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. Insurance rates are rising in some vulnerable locations, and insurance is no longer available in others. Hotter and drier weather and earlier snow melt mean that wildfires in the West start earlier in the spring, last longer into the fall and burn more acreage," the U.S. National Climate Assessment report found.

Climate change effects every part of daily life, including major sectors of the economy -- the growing season is getting longer, which could be considered a positive effect in the short term, according to the report. But, "our society and its infrastructure were designed for the climate that we have had, not the rapidly changing climate we now have and can expect in the future."

The report, released Tuesday by the White House, seeks to quantify and illustrate the huge impact climate change has had and will have on the country, from the catastrophic and devastating -- rising sea levels threaten millions of homes in coastal communities as hurricanes, wildfires, and other extreme patterns ravage communities -- to the subtle but pervasive growth in allergies.

Reacting to those findings, President Obama emphasized that climate change is "not some distant problem of the future."

"This is a problem that is affecting Americans right now," he told NBC News' Al Roker. "Whether it means increased flooding, greater vulnerability to drought, more severe wildfires -- all these things are having an impact on Americans as we speak."

The report, which comes on the heels of the United Nation’s latest assessment of climate change’s global impact, is not all doom and gloom: it also highlights various solutions the country can take to reduce human effect on global warming and adapt to the changing climate. It attempts to turn the conversation away from whether global warming is happening and man-made and toward how it can be addressed, diving into solutions ranging from reducing emissions and mitigating disaster risks. 

The last national climate assessment was released in 2009. Vicki Arroyo, the executive director of Georgetown Law School’s non-partisan Georgetown Climate Center, said the new report is different partly because it includes chapters on climate change mitigation policy. The fact that climate change’s ground-level effects are more observable than they were five years ago has also made a difference, she said.

“We’re seeing those impacts in every state and locality,” she said. “We’re already seeing a lot of actions to respond to the impact people are seeing on the ground. We’re also seeing more interest in how to curb the emissions that are contributing to climate change in a lot of regions of the country.”

The Obama administration is taking advantage of the report’s release to launch a new PR offensive in favor of policies intended to reduce fossil fuel emissions. President Obama will spend the day discussing climate change with the press and pressing his administration’s environmental strategy. White House officials have spent the past several months delivering increasingly urgent public statements on the necessity of climate change mitigation, but the release of the NCADAC report seems to coincide with a redoubling of their efforts.

Bill McKibben, the president of, said that President Obama’s environmental record has been pretty spotty thus far, in large part because of the White House’s support for domestic fuel production.

“The president made it through the 2012 campaign without mentioning global warming, so it’s a good sign he’s started talking about it,” said McKibben over email. “Though at this point, given Mother Nature’s ongoing educational efforts, it’s pretty hard to avoid. At the moment his biggest climate legacy is the US passing Russia and Saudi Arabia in oil and gas production, but if he works very hard there’s still time for the record to at least even out.”

White House officials have often referred to the administration’s energy strategy as an “all of the above” approach, supporting domestic fracking and other forms of fossil fuel production even as it funds solar power development projects and invests in nuclear energy. Groups like have criticized this approach as counterproductive and confused.

There are indications, however, that President Obama may be growing a little more aggressive in his efforts to curb domestic carbon emissions. During a Tuesday press briefing shortly after the release of the 2014 climate assessment, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney affirmed that the president would use executive authority to act despite the reluctance of Congressional Republicans.

"He is going to move forward using his executive authority, and this is an area I think many people recognize as one where a president can have a significant impact using his executive powers," said Carney.

The centerpiece of that strategy: New EPA regulations on power plants, set to be introduced at the beginning of June.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy dropped a few hints about what those regulations might look like on Friday, during an appearance at the National Wildlife Federation’s annual meeting in Baltimore, Md. She said they would likely be “controversial,” but also suggested the EPA would offer states and municipalities some flexibility in how they choose to curb emissions. One example of how to do that would be through something like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative—called RGGI and pronounced “Reggie”—a program based in the northeastern United States. McCarthy, who helped develop RGGI when she was policy undersecretary for Massachusetts’ Executive Office for Environmental Affairs, said on Friday that she was “pretty excited” by the initiative’s progress.

RGGI is a regional cap-and-trade program which operates through the cooperation of nine northeastern states: all of New England, plus Delaware, New York and Maryland. Under the program, states auction off carbon “allowances” to power plants in the region. One allowance is equal to a single ton of carbon emitted over the course of the year, and total emissions for power plants in the region are capped at 91 million tons annually. Power plants effectively buy permission to pollute from the state, with the market setting the price of the permit. RGGI then reinvests the proceeds from the auction into alternative energy resources and energy efficiency programs.

Maryland Public Service Commissioner Kelly Speakes-Backman, who also chairs the RGGI Board of Directors, said she thinks the program’s success could set an example nationwide.

“It’s market-based,” she said. “It’s got these economic benefits that are just so distinctly American, quite frankly. We’re making an investment, we’re letting the markets work, and we’re taking advantage of that to do some good.” She said that across all nine states, power plant emissions have dropped 40% since 2005, while the program’s auction-and-reinvestment model has added roughly $1.6 billion to the regional economy.

Beyond the shape of the EPA’s new power plant rule, the big question hanging over the White House’s environmental policy is whether it will approve the Keystone pipeline extension. Last month, the Obama administration announced that it would not make a final ruling on the pipeline until after the November elections, further drawing out a years-long, feverish political battle between environmental activists and the natural gas industry.

Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu is evidently not willing to wait. This week, she’s expected to introduce legislation that would automatically approve the pipeline, taking the decision out of the White House’s hands.

Elsewhere in Congress, House Science, Space and Technology Chair Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, accused the White House of fear-mongering over climate change.

"This is a political document intended to frighten Americans into believing that any abnormal weather we experience is the direct result of human CO2 emissions," he said in a statement regarding the climate assessment. "In reality, there is little science to support any connection between climate change and more frequent or extreme storms. It's disappointing that the Obama administration feels compelled to stretch the truth in order to drum up support for more costly and unnecessary regulations and subsidies."

White House counselor John Podesta, who advises the president on matters relating to the environment, rebuked climate change deniers during a Tuesday speech about the 2014 climate assessment.

"What this report actually tells us is that there is no debate," he said. "The reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that came out earlier this year told us there is no debate, and and an overwhelming majority of scientists, frankly, tell us there is no debate."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said the 2014 climate assessment report includes policy recommendations for how to mitigate climate change. It does include data on climate change mitigation, but makes no policy recommendations.