Climate change: National Climate Assessment cites looming risks for US, White House calls for action

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Flooded rail lines. Bigger, more frequent droughts. A rash of wildfires.

Those are some of the alarming predictions in a White House climate change report released Tuesday, part of President Barack Obama's broader second-term effort to help the nation prepare for the effects of higher temperatures, rising sea levels and more erratic weather.

"Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present," the National Climate Assessment says, adding that the evidence of man-made climate change "continues to strengthen" and that "impacts are increasing across the country."

"Americans are noticing changes all around them," the report says, echoing a draft version from last year. "Summers are longer and hotter. ... Rain comes in heavier downpours."

In a statement released to coincide with the report's publication, the White House called for a rapid response.


"The findings in this National Climate Assessment underscore the need for urgent action to combat the threats from climate change, protect American citizens and communities today, and build a sustainable future for our kids and grandkids," the White House said.

Obama and his administration have long said that climate change is already affecting communities.

More than 300 experts helped produce the report over several years, updating a previous assessment published in 2009.

The President will help mark the release of the new National Climate Assessment by speaking with meteorologists about the report's findings, which his counselor John Podesta said Monday would offer "a huge amount of practical, usable knowledge" for communities as they cope with risks like longer dry spells and increased risk for wildfires.

"It begins to take the climate discussion down to a regional level, so it breaks the country apart, anticipates what's going to happen in each region," Podesta said. "That kind of information will help communities plan."

The report breaks the country down by region and identifies specific threats should climate change continue.

In the densely populated Northeast, flooded rail lines and other infrastructure are named as a concern if sea levels rise. The Great Plains could experience heavier droughts and heat waves with increasing frequency. And more wildfires in the West could threaten agriculture and residential communities.

The weeklong focus on climate change continues Wednesday, when the White House convenes a summit focused on green building tactics. Later in the week, Obama will announce new solar power initiatives, Podesta said.

Obama has pledged to renew his efforts on climate change during his second term, including using executive actions that bypass Congress. He's introduced new regulations on truck emissions and created "climate hubs" that help businesses prepare for the effects of climate change.

Obama and his administration are also approaching a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Environmental groups say the project would contribute to climate change since it wouldn't help reduce the nation's dependence on fossil fuels.

Podesta, who advocated against approving the pipeline before he joined the Obama administration last year, has recused himself from internal discussions on the matter and has declined to answer questions about the project.

But Podesta did say that the recent energy boom in the United States -- powered by increased extractions of oil and natural gas through a controversial process known as fracking -- could reduce American dependence on fossil fuels.

"We think it's a practical and viable way to reduce emissions in the short run," Podesta said. "Obviously, there are environmental issues around the production of gas and oil. But, again, in the administration's view, those can be -- those can be dealt with through the proper application of the best practices to produce that oil and gas."

CNN's Kevin Liptak reported from Washington, and CNN's Jethro Mullen reported from London.


 5 things you can do about climate change

By Elizabeth Landau/CNN

(CNN) -- Climate change isn't something in the far-off future: It's a potentially disastrous reality that's already starting to have effects that are expected to worsen, experts say.

Longer summers and heavier rainfalls are some of the impacts Americans are already seeing, according to the National Climate Assessment. We should expect more flooding, wildfires and drought.

The report calls for urgent action on climate change.

So what can you do at home to take action?

1. Become informed

The most powerful way that the average person can combat climate change is to become informed about it, says J. Marshall Shepherd, former president of the American Meteorological Society and professor at the University of Georgia.

"Obviously, it makes sense for people to be as efficient and green as possible in their thinking on a day-to-day basis,"

he said. "But where I think the biggest impact that individuals can have is: Becoming climate literate."

If you educate yourself about what's going on with climate change and what can be done about it, you can make more informed choices when it comes time to vote for the people with the power to make big decisions.

"Where the biggest impacts on our planet will be, will come from large-scale policy changes and solutions that are influenced by who's in office," he said.

Only read trusted and verified sources of information about climate change, Shepherd said. He recommends the websites and Climate Central (of which he is a board member) for essential facts and resources.

Learn about various responses to climate change that policy makers are discussing:

-- Mitigation means lowering carbon dioxide levels -- for instance, by instituting carbon taxes or taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

-- Adaptation means responding to the consequences of climate change -- for instance, building seawalls to prepare for rising sea levels around vulnerable cities.

-- Geoengineering means changing the Earth itself to counteract climate change -- which would include hypothetical technological interventions such as putting large mirrors in space or changing our oceans to absorb more carbon dioxide, Shepherd said.

Beyond reading up on the issues, you can still do a small part to influence the big environmental picture.

2. Make changes at home

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists steps to limiting your greenhouse gas emissions, which would also save you money. These include:

-- Changing your five most-used light fixtures or bulbs to products that have the EPA's Energy Star label;

-- Heat and cool more efficiently, such as by using a programmable thermostat, changing air filters and replacing old equipment with Energy Star products;

-- Seal and insulate your home;

-- Make use of recycling programs, and compost food and yard waste;

--Reduce water waste;

--Use green power, such as solar panels;

--Estimate how much greenhouse gas you emit with the EPA's calculator.

The U.S. Department of Energy has an online guide to buying green power.

Check out clean energy resources and financial incentives in your area through the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.

3. Be greener at the office

If you have a desk job, there are plenty of things you can do to reduce your emissions while at work. The EPA advises:

-- Set computers and other office equipment to power down during periods when you're not using them;

-- Use Energy Star equipment;

-- Recycle and reuse whenever possible;

The David Suzuki Foundation, an environmental nonprofit organization, additionally recommends using video conferencing to reduce air travel for business.

4. Reduce emissions in transit

Whether it's taking a vacation or doing your daily commute, you can reduce your carbon footprint in simple ways that also save money. The EPA's recommendations include:

-- Rely on public transportation, biking, walking, carpooling or telecommuting instead of driving;

-- Use the EPA's Green Vehicle Guide to help you make an informed choice about buying a car;

-- While driving, try not to do hard accelerations, don't spend more than 30 seconds idling, and go easy on the gas pedal and brakes;

-- Make sure to regularly check your tire pressure.

When you have to take an airplane, the David Suzuki Foundation recommends:

-- When flying, consider packing lighter because less fuel is consumed with less weight on the plane;

-- Fly during the day because night flights have a bigger impact on climate;

-- Buy carbon offsets -- or credits -- to compensate for the emissions on your flight .

5. Get involved and educate others about the big picture

Your green strategies in your daily life can have a small impact, but the whole planet has to be on board for dealing with climate change in order to instigate global effects. Even if everyone in the United States reduced their emissions, other countries that continue to dump carbon dioxide into the air would still contribute to warming temperatures and rising sea levels.

Spread the word about climate change and educating people. The EPA recommends that students give presentations on climate change and encourage their institutions to increase energy efficiency.

Find out if your community has a climate action plan. There may be ways you can contribute to local efforts to be greener and adapt to potential changes that a warming world would bring.

Bottom line: Most of the public will never read the full National Climate Assessment, Shepherd said. But if you arm yourself with correct information, you can make informed choices that could affect your community and the planet at large.

CNN's Kevin Liptak, Jethro Mullen and Tom Cohen contributed to this report.


Mark Perry with the Florida Oceanographic Society says the report

shows climate change is happening.  For South Florida the biggest concern is the ocean.

We're dealing with erosion, rising sea levels along the coast and an increase in acidity which has gone up 30% in the last 100 years. That will impact people who fish for a living.

"The ocean acidification we'll start to see is the basic crabs, lobster, shrimp will not be able to make their shells," says Perry. 

Those small changes will add up. Perry says we'll start to see population changes over time. 

"What we're gonna start to see is that dramatic all the way up the food chain kind of thing," says Perry, "The basic food source of whales and other things isn't going to be as present as it was."

The study did find some positive things. For example, America has reduced its emissions about 6% in the last 10 years. ​

WPTV's Elizabeth Harrington contributed to this story.