Even the State Department has reached out. Two days after Secretary of State John Kerry was confirmed in his post, his undersecretary, Robert Hormats, phoned Holland’s group to ask how the foreign-policy department could help local governments in the U.S. prepare for climate change—a sign of Kerry’s particular passion on the issue.
Among the climate-planning tools the federal government is offering to share is a digital “sea-level rise” planner created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Officials in coastal cities can plug their coordinates into the mapping software to determine how rising sea levels could harm their region. They can then use that mapping data to site future roads and structures away from harm.
“It changes the debate from whether climate change is happening to how we can best protect ourselves by creating more resilient communities,” Holland said.
Mayor Frank Cownie of Des Moines, Iowa, agrees. In 2010, his city was hit with three devastating floods as heavy downpours caused the Des Moines River to overrun its banks. Last summer, record drought destroyed the region’s corn crop. The weather keeps getting worse, climate science shows it’s going to keep happening, and Cownie says his city officials want to plan for it—with the welcome help of Washington.
“Ten years ago, eight years ago, six years ago, people were a little slow to talk about this, but now we’re saying, ‘Yeah, there’s a problem,’ ” he said.
“We have to figure out, how do we protect against extreme events in terms of flooding, and how do we capture water to use when there’s another drought? There’s been an upswing of outreach by the federal government on resiliency, and we’re having the conversation at the city, state, county, and suburb level to figure out what we’re going to do.”
Meanwhile, as climate-policy conversations are taking place in EPA’s offices and Iowa’s town halls, advocates in Congress are also keeping up the drumbeat. In the Senate, Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Bernie Saunders, I-Vt., have introduced, with much fanfare, a sweeping climate-change bill. And Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., has joined forces with Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., to create a bicameral Safe Climate Caucus that will keep the issue alive with a stream of hearings and floor speeches in both chambers. But it’s almost certain that Boxer’s bill—which she has said she hopes to bring to the floor by this summer—will die in the Senate and be dead on arrival in the Republican House.
But that rejection could actually help the White House. In his State of the Union, Obama declared that if Congress won’t act on climate change, he will. The failure of a high-profile bill would create the opportunity for the administration to roll out its new regulations.
This article appears in the Feb. 25, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as Obama’s Quiet Strategy on Climate Change.