Thursday, January 3, 2013

Top 5 weather and climate challenges for the White House

by Andrew Freedman

As President Obama approaches the start of his second term, the country faces a growing list of climate and weather-related challenges. Some of these, like addressing global warming, are long-term and high-profile challenges that have only grown more urgent during the past four years. Others, such as grappling with how to improve weather and climate forecasting despite limited resources, are newcomers to the agenda.
How the Obama administration handles these issues, and more, will help determine how resilient the U.S. will become in the face of weather and climate extremes, two of which – the year-long drought, and Hurricane Sandy – were center stage in 2012. Some of these kinds of events are already becoming more frequent and severe due in part to global warming.
Hurricane Sandy's impacts were exacerbated by climate change-related sea level rise, and the storm was powered in part by warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures. Sandy's final price tag may exceed $100 billion.
In addition, the costs of the worst U.S. drought since the 1950s, which has earned comparisons to the infamous 1930s "Dust Bowl" era, also might exceed the $100 billion mark, and its impacts are already being felt worldwide through higher food prices. The drought was most likely triggered by natural climate variability, but global warming-related heat waves exacerbated the drought conditions, making it a more severe event than it otherwise might have been.
With a satellite infrastructure that is set to atrophy over the coming decades -- which may make weather forecasts less accurate -- and a budget crunch that is already squeezing the main federal agency responsible for weather and climate forecasting, it will require strong leadership and a wise investment strategy to keep the U.S. at the forefront of international weather and climate science.
Here then are the Top 5 weather and climate challenges facing the Obama administration in a second term:
1) Building a More Weather and Climate Resilient Society
Hurricane Sandy, which killed 85 people in the U.S. and caused at least $72 billion in damage in New York and New Jersey alone, highlighted the need to bolster the resilience of coastal cities so that they can withstand the increasing threat posed by the 1-2 punch of global warming-related sea level rise and major storms.
Steps that may need to be taken include installing sea walls or storm surge barriers to better protect populated areas, as well as potentially retreating from some vulnerable locations that are almost certain to flood again, given current sea level rise projections. It could also involve reforming the federal flood insurance program, which currently provides incentives to rebuild in vulnerable areas.
While Hurricane Sandy revealed the work that needs to be done in coastal areas, other recent extreme events, some bearing the fingerprints of climate change, have also shown that the U.S. is not nearly as resilient in the face of extreme weather events as it needs to be.
At the federal level, the Obama administration established a climate change adaptation task force in 2009, which has sought to integrate adaptation planning into the activities of federal agencies. However, as Hurricane Sandy demonstrated, there is much work yet to be done. Bolstering societal resilience will require extensive coordination between federal, state, and local agencies. It will also necessitate working with the many private sector companies that play a role in weather and climate forecasting and research.
So far, though, there hasn’t been a strong leader at the forefront of climate adaptation efforts. Instead, such work has been routed through interagency committees. It’s possible that more progress could be made in the next few years if a cabinet-level official were assigned to oversee climate adaptation.

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