U.S. launches 'climate hubs' to help farmers face climate change

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By Jeff Mason WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's administration announced the formation on Wednesday of seven "climate hubs" help farmers and rural communities adapt to extreme weather conditions and other effects of climate change. The hubs will act as information centers and aim to help farmers and ranchers handle risks, including fires, pests, floods and droughts, that are exacerbated by global warming. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, briefing reporters at the White House, said the country's experience with extreme weather patterns recently underscores the need for taking steps now to address the impact of climate change on agriculture and forestry. As an example of extreme weather, Vilsack cited a winter storm that struck South Dakota in October and killed thousands of cattle. "When you take a look at the intensity of the storms that we have seen recently, and the frequency of them, the length of drought, combined with these snowstorms and the subzero weather that we've experienced, the combination of all those factors convinces me that the climate is changing," he said. The hubs will be located in Ames, Iowa; Durham, New Hampshire; Raleigh, North Carolina; Fort Collins, Colorado; El Reno, Oklahoma; Corvallis, Oregon; and Las Cruces, New Mexico, the official said. Additional "sub hubs" will be set up in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico; Davis, California; and Houghton, Michigan. The hubs are an example of executive actions Obama has promised to take to fight climate change. The president has made the issue a top priority for 2014 and has the authority to take many measures that address it without congressional approval. Environmentalists want big economies such as the United States and China to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that scientists blame for heating the planet, but they have urged policy makers around the world to take action as well to help communities adapt to rising temperatures now. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the effects of climate change have led to a longer crop growing season in the Midwest, a fire season that is 60 days longer than it was three decades ago, and droughts that cost the United States $50 billion from 2011-2013. The Obama administration is expected to announce new rules later this year limiting carbon emissions from existing U.S. power plants, a major polluter. The president is also under pressure from environmentalists to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude oil from Canadian oil sands in Alberta to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Climate activists argue the project would exacerbate global warming because of the carbon emissions involved in extracting the oil. Proponents say the project would create jobs and boost U.S. energy security. A State Department report released last week played down the project's impact on climate change. (Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Ken Wills and Cynthia Osterman)

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