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White House Environmental Expert Sees Hope Amid Sea-Level Rise

David Burdick / National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

National, state and local leaders recently gathered in South Florida to discuss climate change at the Southeast Florida Climate Leadership Summit Program. Mike Boots, director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, was the keynote speaker.

Boots is also chair of a new task force on climate preparedness. While he was here, he toured parts of South Florida to see firsthand what could be ground zero for issues like sea-level rise.

Below is an edited version of our conversation.

What are the real threats of climate change to this region?

Earlier this year, hundreds of scientists put out what is the most comprehensive summary of climate impacts in this country, something called national climate assessment. It looked at impacts nationwide but it also drilled down region by region, and what it said about the Southeast, in particular about Florida, is that climate change is leading to sea-level rise -- to greater storm surges and to greater frequency and intensity of major storms.

I was able to be at this conference and out on the ground a bit, and you can see evidence of all three of those things and the direct impact it’s having on homes, businesses and communities throughout South Florida.

What were a couple of the biggest questions or concerns you heard while on this trip?

I had the opportunity to meet with a whole host of civic and business leaders and what I heard from them is honestly what I hear from folks around the country. Decision-makers are really hungry for the best science and data and information that can inform the decisions they make every day -- where they’re going to site that next energy substation, where they’re going to put a road or that evacuation route.  

All those decisions need to be informed by... the latest science is tailored to the specific region in which they work. ... So, we’re doing our best at the federal level partnering with state and local governments and the private sector to really to be able to deliver some of that data.

In recent years, what have we accomplished of significance that will really slow down climate change?

The first thing to remember is that it took decades and decades to get to where we’re at, and it will take some time to get out of that. But we’re very committed to tackling it today and have seen a host of real action and change in the last few years.

The president put out a comprehensive climate action plan more than a year ago that focuses significantly on reducing carbon pollution, which is the primary source of climate change, and we have been making real progress there in terms of reducing carbon emissions in this country.

That comes from things like investing in energy efficiency in our buildings and our homes. It comes from advancing renewable energy, things like wind and solar, in ways this country hasn’t invested in previously. It comes from things like really transforming the transportation sector.

One of the things the president did was double the fuel efficiency that our cars and trucks run on. That means less pollution on the streets and in the air, and people are able to go twice as far on a gallon of gasoline than they did before this president took that action. So collectively we are making really good progress in trying to tackle what is the main source of these impacts.

The White House has established the  State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.  Mayor Kristin Jacobs of Broward County is on this list. Why aren't there more South Florida leaders on the list?

I’ll say real quickly, Kristin Jacobs deserves a whole lot of credit for her work on the task force. She is one of 26 people that the president appointed from all corners of the country. I will say each of them have been very helpful in bringing in the input from others in their communities.

The president asked each of them to think about ways in which we can modernize the federal government's approach to tackling climate change, and being a partner to state and local and tribal governments in making their communities more resilient to these impacts.

The White House has set up a billion-dollar competitive fund. What is the competition?

It’s the national resilience competition. It’s meant to provide $1 billion to states and communities around the country that meet two specific criteria. One is that they have, unfortunately, endured a natural disaster sometime in the last few years and received a federal disaster declaration. And the second thing is that they are committing to rebuilding in a smarter and a stronger and a safer way, so that they’re anticipating the next storm and the future impacts rather than trying to building to the past.

So this competition is meant to generate the best ideas from around the country. To generate and really foster a culture of resilience in places that have experienced these natural disasters, and getting local officials at every level of government to put forward the best ideas that we can shine a light on as models for other places to take on.

What happens if this administration puts into effect a whole bunch of policies and the next administration tries to scrap them? 

Well that is the challenge in any administration, at any level of government. The one constant is that there will always be change in who the leaders are at the top, and we can’t focus on that. This president is focused on getting as much done as he can in the years that he has left.  

What we are focused on... is to highlight the specific areas within the federal government that are in need of change... so that we are prioritizing climate resilience in a way that the federal government hasn’t before. And quite honestly, the president is forcing each of the agencies and all of his cabinet members to ask a series of questions that have never been asked before.

By doing that and taking on the recommendations that task force is giving us, we think we’re going to have some real durable change that will outlast us, and we’re really transforming the way the federal government does business on this front.

You can talk about reducing carbon and making our cities more energy-efficient, but in the end you have to convince a majority of the population to change their lifestyles -- to change the technology they use. How will you get ordinary people to make those changes?

I think once you get away from the crazy and frustrating political polarization in Washington around this issue -- where folks are debating the cause of this rather than what to do about it -- and you get out to real American communities like here in South Florida, you actually see that more and more people understand that climate change is a serious issue than you were led to expect, and it’s impacting their lives right now, today.

Americans are dealing with these impacts right now. They have more severe droughts and wildfires in the West. They have more damaging storms throughout the country. It’s damaging their homes and infrastructure. Its devastating crops. It’s disrupting local economies.

I think the more that happens, the more folks see this affecting their daily lives from an economic perspective, or an environmental perspective, or from a public-health perspective, where more and more people are vulnerable to asthma and other illnesses from these impacts, you see a change.

There’s a growing recognition that we have to take action to address that, especially among the younger generation. I think that really points to some really great promise for us to make progress now and in the future.

Luis Hernandez is an award-winning journalist and host whose career spans three decades in cities across the U.S. He’s the host of WLRN’s newest daily talk show, Sundial (Mon-Thu), and the news anchor every afternoon during All Things Considered.
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