EXCLUSIVE - Less fortunate in U.S. hit hardest by extreme weather - report

WASHINGTON Sat Nov 17, 2012 12:06am IST

A warning sign saying ''This Building Is Declared Unsafe for Human Occupancy'' is posted on the front of a boarded up building, destroyed by flooding from the storm surge during Hurricane Sandy, in Sea Bright, New Jersey, November 15, 2012. REUTERS/Chip East

A warning sign saying ''This Building Is Declared Unsafe for Human Occupancy'' is posted on the front of a boarded up building, destroyed by flooding from the storm surge during Hurricane Sandy, in Sea Bright, New Jersey, November 15, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Chip East

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. droughts, floods and heat waves likely fueled by climate change in the last two years hit the people who can afford it the least - the poor and middle class, a report published on Friday said.

In affected areas of U.S. states hit by five or more extreme weather events in the last two years, the median annual household income was a bit over $48,000, or 7 percent below the national median, according to the report by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank with close ties to the White House.

Floods hit lower-income households particularly hard. Families in areas hit by the largest floods this year and last, many near the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, earned an average of 14 percent less than the U.S. median, said the report called "Heavy Weather: How Climate Destruction Harms Middle and Lower Income Americans."

"These findings reflect a cruel phenomenon sometimes called 'the climate gap' - the concept that climate change has a disproportionate and unequal impact on society's less fortunate," said the report, which tapped U.S. data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Census and other agencies.

Droughts and heat waves hit households that earned an average of $49,300, about 5 percent less than the U.S. median annual income, sometimes hurting the people least able to afford air conditioners or the electricity to run them, it said.

Scientists say it is difficult if not impossible to pin individual storms entirely on climate change. But conditions caused by global warming, including higher ocean temperatures and rising seas, can make storms stronger and floods worse.

Even with the Northeast still cleaning up after Superstorm Sandy that killed at least 120 people, damaged billions of dollars worth of property, and brought new focus on climate change, wide-ranging action by Congress to tackle global warming will be an uphill battle.

FOCUS ON ECONOMY AND JOBS

President Barack Obama told a news conference on Wednesday it was unclear what Democrats or Republicans are prepared to do to fight climate change.

"If the message is somehow, we're going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don't think anybody's gonna go for that," he said. "I won't go for that."

Still, Daniel Weiss, an author of the report, was optimistic Obama could take action at federal agencies to cut carbon emissions and help people protect themselves.

"As Obama himself has said, presidents have to do more than one thing at a time. That applies here," Weiss said.

The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, should finalize proposed rules on carbon reduction standards for new power plants this year, he said. The rules were staunchly opposed by some coal-burning utilities that say the rule would effectively kill any new coal-fired power plant, because it requires them to invest in unproven technology to capture carbon and store it underground.

The EPA should also propose and finalize such standards for existing power plants, the source of about a third of all U.S. greenhouse gas pollution, Weiss said. He recognized that is a higher hurdle.

But he took heart in Obama saying on Wednesday that he plans conversations with scientists, engineers and elected officials to find out about making short-term progress in reducing emissions, and he would work in coming months and years on building bipartisan support for tackling climate change.

The report also recommended that the government fully fund the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to provide people with resources to pay for cooling and heating during extreme weather events, at a cost of about $5 billion a year.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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