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New Obama order aims to prepare communities for severe weather

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the SelectUSA 2013 Investment Summit in Washington October 31, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the SelectUSA 2013 Investment Summit in Washington October 31, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Environment Correspondent Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In another move to address the impact of climate change, President Barack Obama ordered a bipartisan task force on Friday to help U.S. communities brace for longer heat waves, heavier downpours, more severe wildfires and worse droughts.

Friday's executive order set up a panel of governors, mayors, county officials and tribal leaders to advise the White House on how the federal government can respond to communities hit by the effects of a changing climate.

Federal agencies were also directed to modernize their programs in ways that will support investments that will help cities and towns gird against extreme weather. More than two dozen agencies will form a council on climate preparedness.

Because no federal legislation to curb climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions is likely to get through Congress due to widespread Republican opposition, the president has been using his executive authority as an alternative to new laws.

Friday's White House order builds on a Climate Action Plan unveiled in June, the centerpiece of which was new regulations to be applied to power plants, and comes three days after the anniversary of the landfall of Superstorm Sandy, which caused more than $60 billion in damage along the U.S. Atlantic coast.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on Friday cited the damage caused by Sandy as a "stark reminder of how disruptions to our nation's critical infrastructure have far-reaching economic, health, safety and security impacts."

The task force is to report to the White House within a year on how the government can best "remove barriers, create incentives and otherwise modernize federal programs to encourage investments, practices and partnerships that facilitate increased resilience to climate impacts, including those associated with extreme weather."

No new federal funds were offered to support the task force.

Eight Democratic but no Republican governors are on the bipartisan panel, even though some of the states hardest hit by extreme weather conditions, including New Jersey, Florida, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, are governed by Republicans.

States like Florida and Texas face acute financial exposure from extreme weather and climate-related events, according to a report this week by Ceres, a coalition of investors, companies and public interest groups that advocates for sustainable business practices.

Extreme weather events in 2012 cost U.S. taxpayers more than $300 apiece, or $100 billion in total, most of it to pay for federal crop, flood, wildfire and disaster relief, Ceres President Mindy Lubber said in a statement.

Daniel Weiss, a climate strategy expert at the Center for American Progress, said the task force should assess future costs to make communities better prepared and less vulnerable to extreme weather.

"This bipartisan group of state and local officials could be persuasive advocates to an otherwise recalcitrant Congress that federal investments in community resilience will reduce spending on disaster recovery," Weiss told Reuters.

The progressive think tank estimates that in fiscal 2011-2013, the U.S. government spent $6 on disaster recovery for every dollar on community preparedness.

A fact sheet on the new task force is available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/11/01/fact-sheet-executive-order-climate-preparedness

Separately on Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency released its draft climate change adaptation plan and called for public review and comment.

"EPA must help communities adapt to a changing climate," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. "These implementation plans offer a roadmap."

(Editing by Ros Krasny and Philip Barbara)

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