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Obama’s Commencement Speech on Climate Change: A Graduation Day to Remember

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Commencement speakers have mostly been in the news lately for the speeches they didn’t give. Most of the speeches are dull and formulaic. President Obama bucked the trend and made headlines with a speech at UC Irvine laying out an impassioned case for action on climate change.

“We know what we see with our own eyes. Out West, firefighters brave longer, harsher wildfire seasons; states have to budget for that. Mountain towns worry about what smaller snowpacks mean for tourism. Farmers and families at the bottom worry about what it will mean for their water. In cities like Norfolk and Miami, streets now flood frequently at high tide. Shrinking icecaps have National Geographic making the biggest change in its atlas since the Soviet Union broke apart.”

The president not only noted these realities, he introduced a new policy to help: a $1 billion fund for communities preparing for the impacts of climate change.

A tale of two resilience funds

President Obama rallies UC Irvine graduates around climate action. Image: UC Irvine

President Obama rallies UC Irvine graduates around climate action. Image courtesy of UC Irvine

The president and his administration have been talking for a while about the need to invest in climate preparedness and resilience. The National Climate Assessment said that climate change has ceased to be a problem of the future and has now “moved firmly into the present.”

The president is acting on the reality that a certain level of future warming is already locked in by current emissions. The rising sea levels, heavier rains, and stronger wildfires that communities across the nation are already facing will only continue, so investing in preparedness and resilience now to prevent future damages makes good sense. Investments in preparedness pay dividends, with $4 in benefits for every $1 in costs.

The president’s proposed budget, released earlier this year, called for a $1 billion climate resilience fund spread across multiple federal agencies. Sadly, though, the president’s resilience fund is not likely to pass. Why? The president had an amazingly insightful answer for that in his commencement speech too:

“And today’s Congress, though, is full of folks who stubbornly and automatically reject the scientific evidence about climate change. They will tell you it is a hoax, or a fad… Now, their view may be wrong — and a fairly serious threat to everybody’s future — but at least they have the brass to say what they actually think. There are some who also duck the question. They say — when they’re asked about climate change, they say, “Hey, look, I’m not a scientist.” And I’ll translate that for you. What that really means is, “I know that manmade climate change really is happening, but if I admit it, I’ll be run out of town by a radical fringe that thinks climate science is a liberal plot, so I’m not going to admit it.”

Resilience in action

HUD recently announced funding for six projects in New York and New Jersey that will make the area more resilient to future storms.

HUD recently announced funding for six projects in New York and New Jersey that will make the area more resilient to future storms. Image: Rebuild by Design

The proposal the president announced at UC Irvine bypasses Congress altogether. It is overseen by the Department of Housing and Urban Development through existing Community Development Block Grants—Disaster Recovery funding. It will make competitive grants to state and local governments in presidentially-declared disaster areas from 2011, 2012, and 2013, funding projects to help those communities rebuild and improve their resilience to future disasters. About $820 million dollars of the resilience fund will be available nationwide, while $180 million will be reserved for areas affected by Hurricane Sandy.

So what could the new National Disaster Resilience Competition actually fund? In response to Hurricane Sandy, HUD launched the Rebuild by Design competition that will help communities prepare for extreme weather events. Communities across the nation that are also confronting other kinds of climate impacts might have some ideas for how these new resources could be put to use.

  • Keene, New Hampshire, has faced three 100-year floods in the past decade. Local officials have been frustrated in their rebuilding efforts by the fact that FEMA will not make funds available to expand the capacity of culverts. The new resilience fund could help fill that need.
  • The Santa Fe National Forest, the Valles Caldera, and Bandelier National Monument have all implemented fuels treatments over the years and many of those treated areas fared well in the fire; it was the virtually untreated areas that burned with the greatest intensity. Image: Flickr, lasconchasfire3

    The Santa Fe National Forest, the Valles Caldera, and Bandelier National Monument have all implemented fuels treatments over the years and many of those treated areas fared well in the fire; it was the virtually untreated areas that burned with the greatest intensity. Image: Flickr, lasconchasfire3

    In the aftermath of the Las Conchas fire, Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico has faced repeated flooding due to fire damage in the watershed. With its budget strained by the expense of rebuilding from the fire and flooding, the Pueblo has been unable to build the emergency dam necessary to prevent future flood damage. The new resilience fund could provide the necessary resources.

  • Rising sea levels threaten to render Florida’s water infrastructure inoperable. The necessary responses, whether replacing flood gates built for lower sea levels or drilling new wells in response to saltwater intrusion, are a heavy burden for the already strained budgets of local governments. The new resilience fund could help fund these vital projects.

More action needed

While the president’s announcement is a welcome step in investing in climate preparedness, a one-time infusion of $1 billion will not be enough to meet the nation’s growing resilience needs.

Congress’s climate deniers will eventually have to pull their heads out of the sand. A permanent climate resilience fund with annual funding is needed to ensure that every community is able to take the necessary steps to protect itself from fires, flooding, and the other dangerous impacts of climate change. Permanent steps to reduce emissions that make these disasters worse must be taken as well.

Posted in: Global Warming Tags: , ,

About the author: Angela Anderson is the director of the Climate and Energy Program. She leads UCS efforts to persuade government officials to enact policies that encourage clean energy and result in global warming emission reductions. Ms. Anderson advocates on international policy responses to the threat of global climate change. See Angela's full bio.

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