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Obama targets US public with call for climate action

Climate impacts report warns of flooding, heat waves, drought and loss of wildlife that will occur if Americans fail to act on global warming

The Obama administration is poised for its most forceful confrontation with the American public on the sweeping and life-altering consequences of a failure to act on global warming with the release today of a long-awaited scientific report on climate change.

The report, produced by more than 30 scientists at 13 government agencies dealing with climate change, provides the most detailed picture to date of the worst case scenarios of rising sea levels and extreme weather events: floods in lower Manhattan; a quadrupling of heat waves deaths in Chicago; withering on the vineyards of California; the disappearance of wildflowers from the slopes of the Rockies; and the extinction of Alaska's wild polar bears in the next 75 years.

Today's release is part of a carefully crafted strategy by the White House to help build public support for Obama's agenda and boost the prospects of a climate change bill now making its way through Congress.

For many Americans, the report released today, entitled Global climate change impacts in the United States provides the most tangible evidence of the economic costs of climate change - from the need to relocate airports in Alaska built on permafrost, to the increased need for pesticides in agriculture, to an electrical grid straining to meet the increased demand for air conditioning in summer and ageing sewer systems brought to bursting point by heavy run-off in 770 American cities and towns.

Scientists and environmentalists who had seen today's report praised the breadth of its science as well as its accessible language.

"It's a clarion call for immediate action," said Amanda Staudt, a climate scientist at the National Wildlife Federation who has seen advanced drafts of the report but not the version released today. "This report basically describes a state of emergency. It says we need to act quickly and decisively. Every state is going to be affected, and every sector of the economy."

The final draft of today's report uses climate models to map out starkly different futures if the current generation of Americans fails to act to reduce the carbon emissions that cause global warming.

If today's generation acts on climate change, the average US temperature will rise 0.4C-1.83C (4-6.5F) by the end of this century, said the draft, which was finalised in April.

If it does not, average temperatures could rise by about 2.1C-4.3C (7-11F) with catastrophic consequences for human health and the economy.

Americans have already been living with evidence of changing climate, the report said. Over the last 30 years winters have grown shorter and milder, with a 2.1C (7F) rise in winter temperatures in the midwest and northern Great Plains. Hurricanes have become deadlier.

If climate change is left unchecked, the future promises to bring even more ferocious hurricanes to coastal regions - in the Pacific as well as the Atlantic, punishing droughts to the south-west, and increasingly severe winter storms in the north-east and around the Great Lakes.

The human consequences, as envisaged by the draft, are similarily catastrophic: potential food shortages because of declining wheat and corn yields in the breadbasket of the mid-west, increased outbreaks of food poisoning and epidemic diseases.

US cities will be choking because of deteriorating air quality; leisure pursuits will disappear. The report predicts that the ski season in the north-east will be 20% shorter. As for summer holidays, 14 of 17 North Carolina beaches will be permanently underwater by 2080, the draft forecasts.

Today's release of the report was part of a methodically planned media roll-out by the Obama administration.

Scientists who have seen the report said the administration spent several weeks honing the language and graphics to make it accessible to non-scientists and to sharpen its core message: America must act now on climate change.

As part of the PR surrounding the release of the report, the administration approached the San Francisco consulting firm, Resource Media, which specialises in environmental campaigning, to oversee the release, and produce a shorter and more digestible brochure of today's report for wider public distribution.

On the morning of 16 April, at a meeting in Washington (pdf), more than 30 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administratation scientists, climate change experts from a number of universities, environmental activists and media strategists discussed how to engage various communities with the findings of the report - town mayors, religious groups, even kindergarten pupils.

Suggestions raised at the meeting for key messages from the White House included "green jobs", "middle class initiative" and "energy independence".

"The implied message here is that we can either pay in a more controlled way to bring about changes in our energy system which we can do in a way which will benefits for jobs ... or we can do nothing now but we are still going to have to pay in the longer term and the damages are far less controllable," said Richard Moss, a former director of the US climate change science programme and vice-president for the World Wildlife Fund.

The release appeared timed to help Democratic leaders in Congress meet an ambitious target of passing a climate change bill through the house of representatives by 26 June. The Democratic speaker, Nancy Pelosi, wants to hold a vote before the house breaks up for the 4 July Independence Day holiday.

But the bill has run into strong opposition from some Democratic members of Congress, especially those from agricultural states who say that putting limits on greenhouse gas emissions will hurt farmers' economic interests. That could complicate Pelosi's plans of getting the bill passed through various committees by this Friday, 19 June, and put to a vote next week.

The report represents the combined expertise of more than 30 scientists working at 13 government agencies dealing with climate change. Although Congress had mandated annual updates on the science of climate change, the Bush administration failed to produce a comprehensive report on climate change impacts. Today's document is the first such exercise of this magnitude in eight years.


Marc Morano
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Fifth Floor
Washington, D.C. 20006
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