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WRI established its U.S. office in 1982. We work to improve water quality, increase awareness of local climate change impacts, and identify cost-effective emissions-reduction opportunities in the United States. Learn more about our Eutrophication and Hypoxia, Water Quality Trading, U.S. Local Climate Impacts Initiative, and U.S. Climate Action projects.

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America is blessed with abundant energy sources, from an array of traditional fuels and natural gas to solar, wind, and other renewable resources. But as the pressure on these resources grows, the United States must have a plan to ensure a stronger and more sustainable future. In today’s world, any smart and effective energy strategy must take into account the risks of climate change.

Climate change impacts are already here. They do not have a political affiliation, nor are they constrained by state boundaries. Moreover, climate impacts are taking a serious toll on America’s infrastructure and economy.

Let’s look at some examples:

America’s coastal areas are particularly vulnerable, as rising sea levels and heavier precipitation are increasing the impacts of hurricanes and other storms. More than 58 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, some $8.3 trillion, is generated in coastal areas (including the Great Lakes). This accounts for some 66 million jobs. Florida, in particular, faces significant threats due to rising seas.

Temperatures hit an unseasonably warm 61˚F in Washington D.C. earlier this week. The Middle East is blanketed in record rainfall and rare heavy snowfall, ending a nearly decade-long drought. Australia witnessed its hottest day on record this past week, stoking wildfires. And China is experiencing a bitterly cold winter, where temperatures are the lowestthey’ve been in almost three decades. We’re only two weeks into 2013, and already we are getting a reminder of the extreme year we just emerged from.

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The national conversation around climate change has resumed. In both the Inauguration and State of the Union addresses, President Obama devoted considerable time to the issue, including his declaration that “we must do more to combat climate change.”

For some, this call to action may come as a surprise, as multiple recent reports have hailed falling U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Bloomberg New Energy Finance, for example, found that carbon dioxide emissions in the United States dropped 13 percent over the past five years.

However, the story is not as simple as it seems. By taking a closer look, it becomes clear that the United States needs to do more to shift to a safer pathway.

Here are three popular misconceptions about U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and the underlying truth behind them:

President Obama made it abundantly clear during the State of the Union address last night that he will direct his Administration to take on climate change. The president reiterated the urgency for action, citing climate impacts we’re already seeing like record high temperatures, heat waves, drought, wildfires, and floods. “We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence,” he said. “Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science--and act before it’s too late.”

The president urged Congress to rise to the challenge by pursuing a “bipartisan, market-based solution,” but he also noted that the Administration will take action—with or without Congress. “I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy,” the president said.

This statement is especially significant because the Administration can take meaningful actions right now even without new legislation. WRI recently released a report detailing the immediate steps federal agencies can take to combat climate change. The four greatest opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the short term include:

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Tonight, President Obama will address the nation at the State of the Union, laying out his priorities for his second term. Climate change is expected to be high on the list, especially following the Inauguration when the president declared that a failure to respond would "betray our children and future generations."

The president has set a goal for the U.S. to reduce emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020; however, the country lacks a clear national plan to get there- and to go even further.

This puts the U.S. out of step with most major countries. For instance, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, and South Korea are moving ahead with ambitious emissions targets backed by strong national policies. Even China - which faces real challenges due to its heavy dependence on coal - has targets to rein in carbon emissions and increase its share of renewable energy under its 12th Five Year Plan.

What, then, can the United States achieve, especially with a Congress that is reluctant to act?

The World Resources Institute just released a comprehensive analysis that finds that the Administration can achieve its 17 percent goal by 2020. But, it will take strong leadership and ambitious action.

Lisa Johnston

Research Analyst

Lisa is the Project Coordinator II / Research Analyst for Project POTICO at WRI’s People and Ecosystems Program.

Can The U.S. Get There From Here?

The WRI report, "Can The U.S. Get There From Here?" examines pathways for United States greenhouse gas reductions that can be taken at the federal and state levels using existing authorities.


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