With another massive drought in California as the backdrop, the Obama administration this week announced the creation of seven regional “climate hubs” to assist farmers and rural communities prepare for severe water shortages, invasive pests, floods and other disasters associated with climate change.
The hubs will serve a broad swath of the country’s rural regions – including Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Colorado, Oklahoma, Oregon and New Mexico.
While relatively modest in scope and cost, the hub concept is the latest effort by President Obama and his advisers to skirt a politically deadlocked Congress and address urgent issues such as climate change and income equity and fairness without the help of lawmakers.
“It’s not a massively ambitious proposal, but it’s perfectly plausible and potentially constructive – and the kind of thing that really is an administrative decision about clustering resources in ways that advance planning for climate change,” said Thomas Mann, a government expert with the Brookings Institution.
Each hub will focus on the specific traits and problems of its regions. And administrators will partner with land grant universities, the private sector and other sister federal agencies to devise strategies to strengthen and maintain agriculture production in the face of changing climate, according to the Department of Agriculture.
California was granted a “sub hub” based in Davis, Calif., that will focus on specialty crops and Southwest forests. California is coming off its driest year in history and faces potential losses this year of $5 billion or more in farming, processing, trucking and other related industries, according to one estimate by The California Farm Water Coalition.
Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency on Jan. 17 as arid conditions he called “unprecedented” continued well into the annual rainy season that runs from October through March.
In announcing the program on Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack described the hubs as part of “our broad commitment to developing the next generation of climate solutions.”
The action is also part of a drive to build political support for the administration’s more controversial moves on climate change – particularly the Environmental Protection Agency’s restrictions on emissions from coal-fired power plants, according to The New York Times. The farm belt suffered severely during the record drought of 2012, and the government estimates that the US. economy lost $50 billion because of drought from 2011 to 2013, much of that from the agricultural sector.
“Nearly 16 million people are employed as a result of agriculture and forestry, and so the concern we have is that with severe droughts and massive snowstorms, destructive tornadoes and other strong storms, we've seen a potential for crop losses, a potential for intense forest fires, increase in pests and diseases,” Vilsack told National Public Radio. “We need to really be focused on how the changing climate is impacting agriculture and forestry pursuant to the president's climate action plan.”
The climate hubs are part of a series of executive actions – both big and small bore – from a chief executive who has seen his popularity plummet after repeated clashes with congressional Republicans who have blocked many of his initiatives and have tried to undermine his greatest legislative achievement – passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
In his State of the Union address Jan. 28, Obama essentially declared independence from Congress in tackling urgent economic and environmental problems. Promising “a year of action,” Obama outlined a new path that relied largely on his own executive authority, as was the case last June when he announced sweeping measures to reduce greenhouse gas pollution from the nation’s power plants.
“I’m eager to work with all of you,” Obama told the senators and congressmen of both parties gathered in the House chamber. “But America does not stand still — and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
This isn’t the first time Obama has experimented with the role of the go-it-alone president.
Back in 2012, the administration began seeking ways to act without Congress. Branding its unilateral efforts “We Can’t Wait,” the White House rolled out dozens of new policies that dealt with creating jobs for veterans, preventing drug shortages, raising fuel economy standards, and curbing domestic violence.
Congress has thwarted Obama’s efforts to sharply reduce carbon emissions from the start of his presidency – including his cap-and-trade proposal for restricting the amount of carbon dioxide from power plants and manufacturers. Yet Obama has probably done more on his own than any of his predecessors in reducing greenhouse gases.
As Michael Grunwald wrote in Time Swampland last year, Obama “doubled fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, which by 2025 should erase an entire year worth of U.S. emissions. He enacted a series of new efficiency standards for dishwashers, refrigerators and other appliances, which by 2030 should save enough electricity to power every American single-family home for two years. He approved 45 renewable electricity projects on federal land, producing 10 gigawatts of clean power; his predecessors approved a grand total of zero.”
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