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Obama plan offers help to U.S. cities on climate's front lines

By Environment Correspondent Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's climate plan on Tuesday offered help to U.S. cities dealing with natural disasters and specifically for the region slammed by massive Superstorm Sandy in October.

For Dawn Zimmer, mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey the plan came not a moment too soon.

Hoboken, across the Hudson River from Manhattan, was in the bull's eye of Sandy last October, when storm surges flooded 80 percent of the city, causing $100 million in property damage to 1,700 homes and hundreds of businesses. Since then, the city of 52,000 has weathered three more major flood events.

"For me, this is an emergency," Zimmer said. "Whether you believe in (climate change) or not, and I definitely do, we're seeing the impact of it on the local level."

In addition to proposals to cut pollution from power plants and boost fuel efficiency, the White House on Tuesday directed federal agencies to cut bureaucratic red tape to support local climate-resilient investment.

Obama's plan also sets up pilot projects for areas hit by Sandy to make communities better able to deal with extreme weather and other climate impacts.

Zimmer is among dozens of U.S. mayors who have taken on the challenges of climate resilience - to heat, drought, flood and extreme weather - as an economic and public safety necessity.

Last week, more than 50 elected officials from localities as diverse as Washington D.C., Des Moines, Iowa and Santa Barbara County, California, released a plan (online at http://www.resilientamerica.org/) to make communities better able to deal with climate impacts that included using more renewable energy and making buildings and infrastructure more energy-efficient.

"NO-BRAINER"

This initiative was launched less than a week after New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a $20 billion plan to prepare his city for rising sea levels and hotter summers.

Rosina Bierbaum, an expert on climate change adaptation at the University of Michigan and a member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, said local leaders have consistently been at the forefront on these issues.

"The rubber really hits the road in cities...Mayors are having to deal with heat waves, droughts, floods, all of the above, and they're making adjustments in real time," Bierbaum said by telephone.

While the required action may be local, some of the data communities need, such as climate projections, can only be done at the federal level, Bierbaum said.

Bierbaum and other climate experts have long maintained that climate resilience, or adapting to altered conditions, must be done along with mitigation of climate change, which aims to curb the rate at which the global temperatures rise.

In the absence of mitigation, though, working to adapt to changed circumstances "is a no-brainer," said Stuart Gaffin, a research scientist at Columbia University's Earth Institute.

"It's amazing how much more traction (climate resilience) has on all levels," Gaffin said by phone. This is especially true in cities, he said, because urban areas are already dealing with the effects of a changing climate, and Superstorm Sandy was a wake-up call for many cities.

(Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)

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