Through the stroke of a pen, President Obama on Friday used his executive powers to elevate and take control of climate change policies in an attempt to streamline sustainability initiatives – and potentially skirt legislative oversight and push a federal agenda on states.
The executive order establishes a task force of state and local officials to advise the administration on how to respond to severe storms, wildfires, droughts and other potential impacts of climate change. The task force includes governors of seven states — all Democrats — and the Republican governor of Guam, a U.S. territory. Fourteen mayors and two other local leaders also will serve on the task force.
All but three of those appointed are Democrats. The task force will look at federal money spent on roads, bridges, flood control and other projects. It ultimately will recommend how structures can be made more resilient to the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels and warming temperatures.
“We're going to need to get prepared. And that’s why this plan will also protect critical sectors of our economy and prepare the United States for the impacts of climate change that we cannot avoid,” Obama said last June, when he first launched a Climate Action Plan.
“States and cities across the country are already taking it upon themselves to get ready… And we’ll partner with communities seeking help to prepare for droughts and floods, reduce the risk of wildfires, protect the dunes and wetlands that pull double duty as green space and as natural storm barriers.”
The White House added in Friday’s statement that even as the United States acts to curb carbon pollution, officials also need to improve how states and communities respond to extreme weather events like last year’s Superstorm Sandy. Building codes must be updated to address climate impacts and infrastructure needs to be made more resilient.
Critics of the order charge, among other things, that it groups together everything from forest fires to heavy rains as evidence of climate change - despite scientific testimony from both sides of the debate.
“The devil is in the details,” a former senior government official said to FoxNews.com earlier this month, referring to a recently released study that proposed the streamlining between federal and state agencies. “Who gets to decide what sustainability is? Or what its outcome means?”
The chair of the study, Thomas Graedel, a professor of chemical engineering, geology and geophysics, and currently head of the Center for Industrial Ecology at Yale University, said at the time of its release that the study “provides encouragement for parts of the government to get together on projects of concern. There is no formula for how it all works out.”
Officials for the EPA released a statement on Friday afternoon praising the order, saying it will be vital in their attempts to help local-level communities “adapt to a changing climate.”
“To meet our mission of protecting public health and the environment, EPA must help communities adapt to a changing climate,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in the statement. “These Implementation Plans offer a roadmap for agency work to meet that responsibility, while carrying out President Obama’s goal of preparing the country for climate-related challenges.”
But critics say the order has the potential to do much more, including:
• Hold back money to communities unless they meet new standards on various items and agendas set by the federal government. For example, using new policies that will encourage communities to rebuild to pre-disaster standards instead of stronger ones.
• A possible mandate to bring sweeping new changes to land use and resource policies.
• More control and refocus of climate change data and use of it to push a new agenda into every priority of the federal government.
• Create the need for a new internal organization for coordination efforts during a government sequestration and possible future shutdowns.
The task force includes Govs. Jerry Brown of California, Jay Inslee of Washington and Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, as well as Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn. The panel also includes several big-city mayors, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Houston Mayor Annise Parker. All three are Democrats.
The task force builds on efforts Obama announced for his Climate Action Plan last June, which include the first-ever limits on climate pollution from new and existing power plants.
The plan is intended to reduce domestic carbon dioxide emissions by 17 percent between 2005 and 2020. The plan also would boost renewable energy production on federal lands, increase efficiency standards and prepare communities to deal with higher temperatures. The 12 hottest years on record all have occurred in the past 15 years.
Climate change skeptics, as well as scientists, argue there is no proven link between extreme events and global warming. Indeed, Roger Pielke, Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research who has called for climate mitigation, argued recently that -- heat waves aside -- there is little evidence for an increase in extreme events themselves.
Others find small links between climate change and some specific natural disasters, saying storms like Sandy were worsened by rising sea levels. But for other events, notably droughts and downfalls, there’s no evidence of a global warming effect.
A Sept. 2012 editorial in the prestigious journal Nature urged caution in drawing any such connection: “Better models are needed before exceptional events can be reliably linked to global warming.”
Fox News' George Russell and The Associated Press contributed to this report.