Ahead of Hurricane Season, Obama Warns Climate Change Will Worsen Storms

President Obama speaks about climate change at Everglades National Park, on Earth Day. President Obama speaks about climate change at Everglades National Park, on Earth Day. Lynne Sladky/AP

The combination of stronger storms and rising seas from a warming planet have the potential to wreak havoc on America's coastlines, President Obama said Thursday during his visit to the National Hurricane Center in Florida.

Obama received the annual briefing on hurricane preparedness from federal science agencies ahead of hurricane season, and stressed the importance of preparing the country's infrastructure for the impacts of climate change.

"The best climate scientists in the world are telling us that extreme weather events like hurricanes are likely to become more powerful," Obama said. "When you combine stronger storms with rising seas, that's a recipe for more devastating floods."

"Climate change didn't cause Hurricane Sandy, but it might have made it stronger," he added, pointing to the 2012 storm that caused more than $68 billion in damage and was tied to 233 deaths on the East Coast.

After the briefing, Obama took to his @POTUS Twitter account to field questions from the public about climate change. In response to a question about dealing with climate change deniers in Congress, Obama said the public should put pressure on them to act.

As it steps up its climate change agenda in Obama's second term, the White House has cautioned that failing to act on climate change will exacerbate storms, floods, droughts, and wildfires.

It's a potentially potent message, especially in Florida, where Republican Gov. Rick Scott has denied the link between human activity and climate change and has even reportedly barred state officials from using the term. In an Earth Day speech in the Everglades, Obama said that climate change "cannot be omitted from the conversation" and linked it to "stronger storms, deeper droughts, longer wildfire seasons."

In March, the Federal Emergency Management Agency unveiled a policy requiring states to consider climate change in order to get disaster preparedness funds. Starting next March, states would have to incorporate climate change in their hazard mitigation plans, which are required to get a share of the roughly $1 billion a year in mitigation funding.

The policy doesn't affect the federal funding that goes to states after disasters, but would effectively bar climate-denying states from getting federal grant funding for projects that prepare infrastructure for extreme weather, such as reinforcing buildings, constructing safe rooms, and relocating destroyed structures.

The move has attracted the ire of Republicans, who say the White House is injecting ideology into a valuable grant program. Seven Senate Republicans, including Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, sent a letter to FEMA administrator W. Craig Fugate saying "the scientific debate around the role of climate change … is ongoing."

"Planning and preparing for disasters should be focused on strengthening and protecting local communities from inevitable weather events and not about falling in line with the president's political agenda," they wrote.

Although climate change alone does not cause a weather event, scientists have said that the a warming planet can make extreme weather worse. Studies have said that events such as the massive drought in California and Superstorm Sandy were exacerbated by climate change. A February NASA study warned that rising emissions would mean a "megadrought" for the American west in the second half of the century.

Republican presidential contender Ted Cruz has found himself caught in the political fallout of the link. In press conferences about the deadly floods in his state, the Texas senator hasfielded questions about the impact of climate change on natural disasters, which he's dodged by saying, "it's wrong to try to politicize a natural disaster."

Obama on Wednesday also praised the coordination between federal and state officials in responding to the Texas floods, cautioning that "there's going to be a lot of rebuilding.

"It does remind us that it is never too early for disaster preparation," he added, saying, "we are better prepared than ever for the storms of today."

The president typically gets the annual hurricane briefing in Washington, but the White House said he traveled to Miami this year to see the National Hurricane Center's facility. White House officials, including senior adviser Brian Deese, toured a Miami Beach project to prepare the city's infrastructure for more intense storm surges.

Obama was joined for the briefing by Florida freshman Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who is one of the rare elected Republicans to urge action on climate change.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that the 2015 Atlantic hurricane season will be below normal, continuing a trend of light hurricane seasons. There's a 70 percent chance of six to 11 named storms developing in the Atlantic between June 1 and November 30, with between three and six of those becoming hurricanes. The projection says that zero to two of those would become Category 3 hurricanes or higher.

But a below-normal season does not mean at risk states should sit on their heels, NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan cautioned.

"As we've seen before, below-normal seasons can still produce catastrophic impacts to communities," Sullivan said, pointing to the 1992 below normal season that produced Hurricane Andrew, which wreaked havoc on South Florida.

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