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An executive order puts climate change up front

November 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Margaret Talev, White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, assesses a new executive order by President Obama requiring federal agencies and local governments to account for climate change when undertaking big new projects.
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HARI SREENIVASAN:   We want to turn now to an important story that got very little attention this week. We are talking about a new executive order by President Obama requiring federal agencies and local governments to account for climate change when undertaking big new projects.

For more, we are joined from Washington by Margaret Talev. She covers the White House for Bloomberg News.

So if we’re just catching up here – what were those changes? What was that executive order saying?

MARGARET TALEV: So the executive order is telling federal agencies and local governments, but especially federal agencies to analyze all of the risks that climate change may have to their missions and what they do and to talk about what they are already doing and what they should be doing. And it sets up a task force to put all of these suggestions and recommendations together and analysis over the next nine months.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Does the task force have any teeth? How does it work across different agencies?

MARGARET TALEV:  What’s really interesting about this task force is that it is really codifying, it’s laying down the policy for the Obama administration for the sort of stuff that he can’t do though Congress because Congress will not cooperate with his policy goals on this front.   And so, the real question becomes one of funding. If these agencies said we need x amount of dollars to rebuild this bridge; shore up this shoreline; work on roads and infrastructure and be prepared for wildfires and excessive heat; it will still be up to Congress to decide how to appropriate. But to the extent that he can use executive power to further his policy goals and say ‘hey, I believe climate change exists and we need to take it seriously. ‘This is his effort to do that.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  So what does it mean for local governments – all those things that you outlined – raising bridges and so forth? That all costs money.

MARGARET TALEV:  It could be a good thing for local governments or a bad thing depending on how they’re inclined to prepare for this. In other words, if local governments want to make the case that they need added infrastructure dollars they can certainly do it in this context. They can say we’re coastal or we’re in a tornado zone or what have you. But to the extent that local governments don’t want to actively participate the questions then becomes is the federal government as least under the Obama administration going to be quoting this executive order and holding that over their heads to withhold funding? But for the most part this is an opportunity for local governments to assess how climate change may affect their infrastructure and to make that added case for funding and federal assistance.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  There was a recent report out by the Army Corps of Engineers, a three-year-long study that looked at how climate change could affect the Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia. And they said within 50 years with storms surges that parts of that naval base could be under water. When we look at communities, military communities – is the Department of Defense affected by this too?

MARGARET TALEV:  That’s absolutely right. So among the agencies that are tasked with coming up with an analysis in the course of the next nine months is front and center the Department of Defense along with Housing and Urban Development and the EPA and such. So the DOD is very much one of the focuses of the folks who are being asked to assess how climate change may affect their mission and what they do.

HARI SREENIVASAN:   So now there’s an executive order for nine months. What happens next?

MARGARET TALEV: Well the nine month period is very interesting because it is widely considered to overlap with the time during which the Obama administration is to be making a decision over the Keystone Pipeline out of Canada, which is an issue that the Canadians want approved and the environmental community has rallied against to a large extent.  So for the Obama administration the timetable is going to overlap or coincide very likely with that decision.  So a lot of this nine months may be political. Who is joining the task force? What are they asking for? How does that dovetail with what the President is asking Congress for in terms of future appropriations?  How does this dovetail with the political case that he is making that he is the steward of the environment?

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Margaret Talev thank you very much.