Obama Sounds Alarm Bell On Climate Change. Is Anyone Listening?

President Obama is touting a government report on climate change. He's taking steps to limit the greenhouse gases that contribute to a warming planet, but he faces political heat on Capitol Hill.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Everybody makes conversation about the weather. And today that includes President Obama. He's appearing on three network TV shows to discuss a new government report on climate change. It's on a day when the president also visits Arkansas to survey the damage from last week's tornadoes.

The president says he wants to do more than talk. He is taking steps to limit gases linked to climate change, but when it comes to this issue, Congress is no more active than it's ever been. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: In addition to his network interviews, President Obama spoke yesterday with five local TV forecasters. The broadcast blitzkrieg, dubbed Weather from the White House, is designed to highlight the new National Climate Assessment. The Administration calls it the loudest alarm bell to date about the way heat-trapping gases are already re-shaping weather patterns around the country.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This isn't something in the distant future. Climate change is already affecting us now.

HORSLEY: Obama told WLTX television in South Carolina there are steps we can take to prepare for the droughts, floods and severe storms that come with a changing climate. But just trying to adapt is not enough, he says. We also need to get control of the carbon pollution that's fueling climate change.

OBAMA: That's something we can do, but only if the American people push Washington to do it. Because typically politicians are wary about doing something on their own, particularly if they're not sure that the public supports it.

HORSLEY: Polls suggest for now that support is tepid at best. When NBC and the Wall Street Journal asked Americans to rank 15 possible priorities for the government this year, climate change was dead last. Democratic political consultant Chris Lehane says in trying to change that, the administration is wise to bring the issue to people's doorsteps.

CHRIS LEHANE: Climate change is not some abstract, faraway concept, but something that's happening right now in your daily lives. And you see what the president is doing to not only bring this to the local level in terms of impact on local communities, but actually talking through a medium that impacts local communities, which is their local weatherman, or woman.

HORSLEY: Lehane has been active in one of the most high-profile climate fights: the battle over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf Coast. Opposition to Keystone has become a rallying cry for some climate activists. But former White House climate advisor Jason Bordoff says it's not the biggest policy decision facing the administration.

JASON BORDOFF: Rather than focus on a single piece of infrastructure whose climate change impact is likely to be quite limited, as the State Department's environmental review recently found, I think it's important that we focus on those other actions that are going to make the biggest dent in carbon emissions.

HORSLEY: And Bordoff, who now runs the Center for Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, says by far the biggest dent would come from new EPA rules aimed at limiting pollution from coal-fired power plants. The EPA is expected to unveil those rules next month. But Congressional Republicans are trying to block them. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell represents Kentucky, the nation's third biggest coal producing state.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Our constituents are being hurt because of a cynical political agenda, because of a war on coal and other sources of American energy that the far left flank of the Democratic Party is simply demanding.

HORSLEY: McConnell and other Republicans want to amend an energy efficiency bill now before the Senate to limit the EPA's regulatory powers. Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid says no way.

SENATOR HARRY REID: What are the Republicans' answer to this climate change which is real? More oil production? Block regulations that protect health and environment. Deny climate change is happening at all.

HORSLEY: The fight over amendments could derail both the energy efficiency bill and a separate measure designed to give a green light to the Keystone pipeline. The pipeline measure has the backing of some Senate Democrats, including Mary Landrieu, who's facing a tough re-election bid in her home state of Louisiana. Last month the State Department said it was postponing a decision on Keystone, most likely until after the November election. Scott Horseley, NPR News, Washington.

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