The Obama administration is set to issue climate change adaptation guidance to all federal agencies in early February. As highlighted in my previous post, the guidance was called for by the Interagency Climate Adaptation Task Force.
Climate change poses profound challenges to the missions and programs of many federal agencies. Already, many of the federal natural resources agencies, which are currently dealing with the effects of prolonged drought, floods, fires, forest change, and species movements are taking a hard look at how climate change is affecting their programs. It is vital that all federal agencies begin looking at these changes seriously, and planning response programs to reducetheir risks.
As the administration finalizes agency climate adaptation guidance, it should consider:
- Establishing a core climate change consultation team comprised of leading technical agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which provides “climate services”. Most agencies do not have this expertise and won’t be able to adequately address climate change without the help of the experts within the federal government.
- Gearing the guidance to the agency-level, not the Departmental level. Unlike reducing greenhouse gas emissions which have common strategies applicable to all agencies (e.g. purchasing more efficient vehicles and other equipment), adapting to the impacts of climate change is dependent on an agency’s mission, goals and mandates. For example, the risks posed by climate change, and thus the necessary response strategies, to the missions of the Food and Nutrition Service, which administers the federal School Lunch Program and other nutrition programs, and the U.S. Forest Service, both within the Department of Agriculture, are profoundly different. The Food and Nutrition Service programs may be affected by higher food prices due to climate change-induced impacts to crops. The agency may contemplate longer-term food contracts to average out greater year to year variation in food prices as an adaptation strategy. The Forest Service on the other hand is more directly impacted by the impacts of climate change, which are changing the very nature of the forests they manage. The Forest Service may have to consider large-scale habitat treatments to make forests more resilient to climate change, alter tree species composition when replanting forests, and restoring habitat connectivity to allow species to move in response to climate change.
- Instructing agencies on the use of ecosystem-based approaches to climate adaptation in achieving their mission. The Adaptation Task Force Report states: “Adaptation should, where relevant, take into account strategies to increase ecosystem resilience and protect critical ecosystem services on which humans depend to reduce vulnerability of human and natural systems to climate change.” Maintaining and restoring ecosystem services is often cheaper to achieve adaptation goals and has benefits far beyond adaptation. For example, restoring natural flood plains to better absorb flood waters is a proven strategy to ameliorate the impacts of increased rain events and is a more sustainable strategy than engineering new or higher levees. Agencies, in particular agencies that do not normally work on natural resource conservation, will need additional guidance on how to benefit from ecosystem-based adaptation.
- Providing consistent data and sources of climate change information in designing individual adaptation strategies. For instance, two agencies working on our coasts should be using similar estimates for sea level rise, based on the best available science.
- Prioritizing programs and projects that are sensitive to the current climate and weather conditions (e.g. agriculture programs), that make long-term commitments (e.g. new highways), or that have broad-reaching, system-level effects (e.g. decisions that affect land use planning).
- Mainstreaming adaptation into existing programs. Though there may be special needs that require new, focused adaptation programs, most strategies to ameliorate an agency’s climate change risks should be embedded into its existing programs. In other words, normal planning process already employed by agency programs should start to integrate climate change.
- Ensuring meaningful implementation of the guidance by establishing clear benchmarks, time tables, and accountability measures.
- Ensuring agency adaptation strategies are sustainable. Sustainable adaptation strategies do not increase greenhouse gas emissions, do not harm the environment, and do not impede the adaptation options of other agencies, sectors, or stakeholders.
The federal government is big and diverse. Not every agency will be affected by climate change in the short term, but every agency should at least go through a formal process to see if it is at risk. The above recommendations would provide a basis for doing that analysis in a meaningful way.