White House hopes report will create ‘sense of urgency’

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The White House upped the ante today on its bet that Americans will care more about climate change if they understand its costs for their own communities, throwing resources and presidential star power behind the release of a new scientific report on the regional effects of warming.

In a call this morning with reporters, White House senior adviser John Podesta said the National Climate Assessment, released today, would have “a natural public education effect.”Americans already accept that climate change is happening and driven in part by human activity, Podesta said. And polls show support for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

“But they don’t feel that sense of urgency,” he said. “And I think this report can help influence that.”

The White House plans to promote the report beginning today with President Obama granting one-on-one White House interviews to television meteorologists — including Al Roker of NBC’s “Today” show.

“We chose that because we think they have particular credibility to do public education in their communities,” Podesta said.

“Hopefully if people begin to understand the real-world public impacts that are occurring right now, they’re going to be prepared to take more action both in mitigation — to reduce the emissions that are causing climate change — as well as to build resilience into their communities,” he continued.

Obama administration officials will then “fan out across the country,” Podesta said, to highlight the effects the report shows climate change is already having on local communities and their economies — and projected future effects.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will tout the report during a swing through California, which is experiencing droughts and wildfires the report shows are likely exacerbated by warming. U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy will make a series of appearances, including an interview today with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell to discuss the report.

While the report was compiled by scientists and underwent extensive peer review, Podesta and White House science adviser John Holdren said repeatedly on the call that it was about “actionable science” and would galvanize public support for the president’s climate agenda.

Holdren acknowledged that polls consistently show that voters care significantly more about the economy, job creation and other issues than they do about climate change, but he said the newest assessment could help change that.

“I think that salience is going to go up, and we’re going to see it in the polls,” he said. “We’re going to see it in what people communicate to their elected representatives in Congress about what they expect the government to do to address this challenge.”

Voters will come to insist that their federal representatives find ways to reduce the heat-trapping emissions responsible for climate change, Holdren said, and will support “U.S. leadership in the international arena.”

The White House is currently vetting an EPA rule for existing power plant emissions that is due to be proposed next month and is likely to face considerable industry push-back. The administration is also plotting a U.S. commitment for post-2020 emissions reductions — an offering that must be released well before next year’s U.N. climate talks in Paris but that is already arousing the suspicions of Capitol Hill Republicans.

But while the battle lines are drawn in the Washington, D.C., standoff over these and other aspects of the president’s Climate Action Plan, the White House has spent much of the last year trying to circumvent the inside-the-Beltway logjam and make its case directly to the voters.

Last summer, Cabinet members visited local communities that had been hit by the storms, droughts, floods and other effects the report warns are on the rise to deliver the same message (E&E Daily, July 29, 2013). And earlier this year, Obama used his own trip to California’s parched Central Valley to challenge Republicans in Congress to provide $1 billion for climate change adaptation as part of its fiscal 2015 appropriations.

Podesta himself referenced the rollout of the Climate Data Initiative in March, which seeks to give local communities better access to federal and private data on their projected climate vulnerabilities — again driving home the message that those vulnerabilities exist and could be costly to local governments and municipalities (Greenwire, March 19).

Help wanted

Cabinet members and other top administration officials — including Holdren and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Kathryn Sullivan — will maintain busy schedules in the hopes of lifting climate change onto the nation’s front pages and nightly news shows. But the White House is also looking for partners in spreading the word — and it is not the first administration to light on the idea of trying to deputize weather forecasters.

Former Vice President Al Gore also invited television meteorologists to the White House in 1997 to listen to his “Inconvenient Truth” PowerPoint presentation. Some who went complained later that the move inappropriately politicized the issue, making it harder for nonpolitical communicators to engage on climate change (Greenwire, March 5, 2012).

Ed Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, who has worked for years to increase coverage of climate change on television weather broadcasts — said the White House’s outreach was a “fantastic idea.”

“Weathercasters are highly trusted, they’ve got incredible access to the public, they are fantastic communicators, and they focus on things that Americans care about most — namely what is happening to their local communities,” he said.

Maibach will speak today during an afternoon briefing Podesta is hosting at the White House, focusing his remarks on George Mason’s work on developing materials to help integrate climate science into forecasts.

“The third climate assessment report is going to be an important asset in helping us firm up that science base so that weathercasters can use it to educate their viewers,” Maibach said.

A look ahead

Today’s is the third such report released since Congress authorized the National Climate Assessment in 1990, and it paints a stronger picture than the two previous versions about the link between human emissions and warming. It also states that climate change is happening and will continue to pose a threat to the entire country — though it will affect different regions and different economic sectors in different ways (ClimateWire, May 6).

“All Americans will find things that matter to them in this report, from impacts in their own regions to those elsewhere that affect the air we breathe and our food, water and energy supplies,” said Jerry Melillo, a distinguished scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory and chairman of the advisory committee responsible for overseeing the report.

Melillo ranked sea-level rise along the nation’s long coastlines, more frequent and severe droughts in the Southwest, and extreme precipitation events nationwide as the three worst climate-driven threats facing the United States.

Sea-level rise will be a serious issue for many coastal states, he said, but he singled out the low-lying coastal cities of Miami; Norfolk, Va.; and Portsmouth, N.H., as particularly at risk from encroaching seas — which could rise as much as 4 feet by 2100.

Droughts in states like California will drive more frequent wildfires — an increasingly expensive problem as growing populations build ever closer to the urban-forest interface, he said.

And Tom Karl, director of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center and a member of the National Climate Assessment team, said that man-made warming could contribute to a 70 percent increase in heavy precipitation events in the northeastern United States and 30 to 60 percent increases in the Midwest and South.

The report also details the effects of climate change on the agricultural and energy sectors and on public health, among other impacts.