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Obama: It would be a "dereliction of duty" to ignore climate change

President Obama took on climate change skeptics during a commencement speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy on Wednesday, saying it would be a "dereliction of duty" for policymakers to ignore the threat to global prosperity and stability posed by the changing climate.

"I know there are still some folks back in Washington who refuse to admit that climate change is real, and on a day like today it's hard to get too worried about it," the president said during his speech, which took place on a brisk spring day at the service academy in New London, Connecticut. "There are folks who will equivocate - they'll say, 'You know, I'm not a scientist.' Well I'm not either, but the best scientists in the world know that climate change is happening...and our Coast Guard knows it's happening."

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The president told the graduating cadets the issue "cuts to the very core of your service. "

"Here at the academy, climate change - understanding the science and the consequences - is part of the curriculum, and rightly so, because it will affect everything you do in your careers. As America's maritime guardian, you've pledged to remain always...ready for all threats, and climate change is one of those most severe threats," he said. "And so we need to act, and we must act now...anything less is negligence. It is a dereliction of duty."

The president said climate change poses a threat to global order, highlighting the instability that could result when people are displaced by rising sea levels, or when droughts exacerbate shortages of water and food, prompting fights over scarce resources.

"Climate change did not cause the conflicts we see around the world," the president said, but he argued it helped contribute to resource scarcity in places like Syria and Nigeria that are now riven by conflict.

He framed climate change as a threat to homeland security as well, highlighting flooding in places like Miami, Florida and Charleston, South Carolina to underscore the vulnerability of America's coastal infrastructure. He touted an estimate that an additional one-foot rise in sea levels would cost $200 billion.

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Mr. Obama also said the changing climate poses a threat to military readiness, citing the damage extreme weather patterns are already levying on some military installations across the country.

"Politicians who say they care about military readiness ought to care about this as well," the president argued. "Just as we're helping American communities prepare for the impact of climate change, we have to help our bases and ports as well."

Still, he warned, "preparation and adaptation alone will not be enough." He said the U.S. must lead a global effort to stave off the most harmful impacts of climate change, taking aggressive steps to reduce its own carbon emissions and encouraging other countries to follow suit.

"Some warming is now inevitable, but there comes a point where the worst effects will be irreversible and time is running out," he said. "The world has to finally start reducing its carbon emissions now."

Mr. Obama's administration has seen mixed results in its efforts to reduce America's carbon footprint. A 2009 "cap and trade" proposal that would have put a price on companies' excess carbon emissions passed the House but died in the Senate.

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In the absence of legislation, though, the president has aggressively used his executive authority to cut emissions. He's significantly tightened fuel efficiency standards for cars and heavy trucks. He's encouraged greater use of clean energy sources like wind and solar power in both the public and private sector. In 2014, he announced a first-of-its-kind bilateral agreement between the U.S. and China under which both countries will seek to curb their emissions over the next several decades. And last June, in his most significant executive action to date, the president directed the Environmental Protection Agency to place a cap on carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Many of those moves have been met with resistance by Republicans. Some in the GOP dispute the science behind climate change, questioning whether human carbon emissions are really to blame for the global warming effect that has climate scientists so alarmed. Others have quibbled not with the science, but with the president's proposed solutions - they argue that Mr. Obama's efforts to reduce emissions will only increase energy costs for businesses and consumers without making a sizable dent in global carbon pollution.

The president said Wednesday that the U.S. simply has no other choice - that we must act now to stave off the most severe effects of climate change, or we'll regret it later.

"It will not be easy. It will require sacrifice, and the politics will be tough, but there is no other way," he said. "This cannot be subject to the usual politics...when storms gather, we get ready."