Author Archives | Aimee Delach

No Tricks, No Treats: Just A Very Frightening Climate Forecast

While Americans were enjoying their Halloween festivities, scaring each other with imaginary ghosts and zombies, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was quietly reaching consensus on a much more terrifying—and very real—conclusion:

“Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks.”

This is the message of the Panel’s Synthesis Report, which gathers and summarizes the information gathered over the past year on the science of climate change, the potential impacts and how to adapt to them, and options for reducing the magnitude of the change through greenhouse gas reductions. The synthesis released over the weekend, available in a 40-page, non-technical Summary for Policymakers and a more detailed, 100-page version, is the distillation of an effort that left no stone unturned in the world of climate science: 830 scientists from over 80 drew on the work of over 1,000 contributing authors and over 2,000 expert reviewers. The full suite of reports totaled nearly drew on over 30,000 scientific papers and weighed in at nearly 5,000 pages. What’s more, every line of the new report was agreed to by all of the Panel’s member nations – a list of 195 countries, including many that are heavily reliant on fossil fuels, like the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Australia.

What does all this boil down to? A stark series of statements that don’t leave a lot to uncertainty:

1) Climate change is here.

“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.” {Finding 1.1}


2) It is caused by our greenhouse gas emissions.

“Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth, and are now higher than ever. This has led to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. “{Findings 1.2, 1.3.1}


3) It is already affecting us.

“In recent decades, changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans. Impacts are due to observed climate change, irrespective of its cause, indicating the sensitivity of natural and human systems to changing climate.” {Finding 1.3.2}

 4) We can still limit it. . .

“There are multiple mitigation pathways that are likely to limit warming to below 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels.” {Finding 3.4}

5) . . .but we may be in big trouble if we don’t.

Remember the line above about “severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts”? Here are a few that the report points out: climate changes are likely to “undermine food security,” “lead to increases in ill-health,” “increase risks of violent conflicts,” and even “slow down economic growth.” {Section 2.3}

Maybe that last bit will finally get the attention of the world’s policy makers.

Posted in Climate Change0 Comments

#O29: Looking Back, and Looking Forward

Two years ago this week, on October 29, 2012, Americans were stunned as Superstorm Sandy engulfed the northeastern US with rain, wind, and floodwaters, ultimately claiming the lives of 286 people and costing $68 billion in damage across seven countries. Across the country this week, people are using the hashtag #O29 – short for October 29—to commemorate that day, remember those we have lost, and to reflect on this and other climate disasters that we have coped with in recent years, as well as how to better prepare for those we are certain to face in the future.

Most experts agree that meeting this challenge will require a two-pronged approach: 1) reducing the level of pollutants that are warming the planet and contributing to an environment in which severe storms can develop, and 2) taking steps to reduce the impacts that climate events have on communities. The White House’s Climate Action Plan (CAP), released in 2013, rightly aims to tackle both of these monumental tasks. This month, under the auspices of the CAP, the Administration released the Priority Agenda for Enhancing the Climate Resilience of America’s Natural Resources. This document re-affirms a top-level commitment both to enhancing the resilience of our natural areas, and to the importance of these areas in helping to protect communities from the impacts of climate change.

The Priority Agenda contains four major pillars:

 1) Foster climate-resilient lands and waters – “Protect important landscapes and develop the science, planning, tools, and practices to sustain and enhance the resilience of the Nation’s natural resources.” Importantly, this priority affirms and builds upon the important work that agencies have already undertaken toward this end, like the National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy, and the Department of Agriculture’s efforts to direct Farm Bill conservation programs to resilience-building efforts.

2) Manage and enhance U.S. carbon sinks – Huge amounts of carbon are stored in our soils, forests, and wetlands, and the management of these areas will determine whether they continue to function as carbon “sinks” or will release that carbon to the atmosphere. This priority aims to “Maintain and increase the capacity of these areas to provide vital ecosystem services alongside carbon storage such as clean air and water, wildlife habitat, food, fiber, and recreation.”

3) Enhance community preparedness and resilience by utilizing and sustaining natural resources – Defenders has long been an advocate of the importance of intact habitats and healthy natural areas for protecting human communities from the effects of storms, floods, fires, and extreme heat. We published the report Harnessing Nature on this topic several months before Sandy, and the value of those approaches was demonstrated again and again in the aftermath of that storm.  Thus we applaud the intent and even the wording of this priority: “Harness the benefits of nature to protect communities from harm and build innovative 21st century infrastructure that integrates natural systems into community development.”

4) Modernize Federal programs, investments, and delivery of services to build resilience and enhance sequestration of biological carbon – While agencies have made great strides in the past several years, particularly in accounting for and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in their operations, there is still room for better integration of climate resilience into their programs and activities. This priority should help accomplish that.


#O29 is a reminder that the impacts of climate change are here to stay. But it also reminds us that we can—and must—act to protect our communities, habitats, waters, and wildlife.

Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy0 Comments

The President’s Climate Action Plan at One Year- A Retrospective

On June 25, 2013, President Obama released the President’s Climate Action Plan (CAP), signaling his Administration’s intent to make good on his promise to “respond to the threat of climate change” – with or without the cooperation of Congress. For the one-year anniversary of the CAP, Defenders has put together a retrospective showing the Administration’s progress on the three key pillars of the plan: 1) Cut Carbon Pollution in America; 2) Prepare the U.S. for the Impact of Climate Change, and 3) Lead International Efforts.

CUT CARBON POLLUTION IN AMERICA. The first major key of the CAP is on mitigating climate change. The President has proposed to cut U.S. Emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Progress to date on those proposals:

I.   Deploy Clean Energy

A.   Cut Emissions from Power Plants

1.    New Power Plants Rule  A proposal to reduce carbon pollution from new power plants came out in 2012, but was revised and re-issued on September 20, 2013. Coal-fired plants would be required to emit not more than 1,100 lb CO2/MWh gross over a 12-operating month period, or 1,000-1,050 lb CO2/MWh gross over a 7-year period. Natural gas would be limited to 1,000 or 1,100 lb CO2/MWh depending on their size.

2.  Existing Power Plants Rule   The Administration’s most recent initiative, proposed on June 2, 2014.  This rule will cut carbon emissions from the power sector by 30 percent nationwide below 2005 levels by 2030. A hallmark of the plan is that it gives states tremendous flexibility in how to meet this threshold.

B.  Renewable Energy

1.   Renewable Energy Permitting.  The CAP envisions 20 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy on public lands by 2020. As of February 2014, the number stands at 14 GW. The CAP also calls for 3 GW on military bases by 2025, and the Department of Defense is on track to have between 1.4 and 2.1 GW deployed by 2018. The Administration is also taking steps to expand residential and municipal renewables and efficiency through financing, grants, building code changes, and technical support.

2. Expanding and Modernizing the Electric Grid.  In June 2013, the administration signed a Presidential Memorandum to streamline transmission siting review and permitting.

C.   Investment in Clean Energy Innovation

1.   Loan guarantee program for Advanced Fossil Energy.  $8 billion in loan guarantees available for projects” that avoid, reduce, or sequester anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.” Solicitation for applications was announced December 12, 2013.

2.  Quadrennial Energy Review Established by Presidential Memorandum on January 9, 2014, with the first review due January 31, 2015.

II.  Transportation Sector

A.    Fuel Economy Standards

1. Heavy duty vehicles (trucks & busses): Phase 1, requiring 20% reduction in fuel use by 2018,  was finalized in 2011. Phase 2 was announced in Feb 2014, with Notice of Proposed Rulemaking  expected in March 2015 and Final Rule targeted for March 2016.

2.    Passenger vehicles: A standard of 54.5 mpg by 2025 was finalized on 08/28/2012

B.    Advanced Transportation Technologies

1.   Research and development on next-generation biofuels

2.    eGallon electric vehicle operation cost info

3.   Broadening use of alternative fuel vehicles and other transportation options

III.  Cutting Energy Waste in Homes, Businesses & Factories

A.    Efficiency standards for appliances and buildings. 24 new standards have been set since 2009; anticipated effect of all standards is a cumulative reduction of 6.8 billion tons of CO2 emissions by 2030.

B.   Reducing barriers to investment in efficiency. The USDA rural utilities loan program is providing $250 million to finance efficiency improvements in rural communities (finalized December 5, 2013). Multifamily Energy Innovation Fund (2011) provides $23 million for upgrading the efficiency in affordable housing units.

C.    Better Buildings Challenge  was launched in December 2011; partners commit to 20% energy reduction. 190 organizations participating to date.

IV.  Reducing Other Greenhouse Gas Emissions

A.   Hydrofluorocarbons. The new fuel economy standards contain incentives for upgrading vehicle air conditioning systems. Also, the EPA’s Significant New Alternatives Policy program identifies and evaluates alternatives to ozone-depleting chemicals; several new compounds were deemed acceptable in May 2013.

B.   Methane. The Interagency Methane Strategy  to reduce emissions from multiple sources and improve measurement, was released on March 28, 2014. Collaborative efforts with agriculture, oil and gas industry are also underway. {update: on Jan 14, 2015, the White House announced new standards to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas operations}

C.   Preserving the Role of Forests in Climate Change Mitigation. The Administration is “working to identify new approaches to protect and restore forests. . .grasslands, and wetlands.”

V.  Leading at the Federal Level

A.   Leading in Clean Energy.  The President has set a goal of 20% renewables by 2020 for federal agencies, energy performance tracked through Strategic Sustainability Performance Plans.

B.   Leading in EfficiencyPresidential  Memorandum in December 2011 on energy efficiency contracting; integrating Green Button energy reporting into federal data portal.

PREPARE THE UNITED STATES FOR THE IMPACTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE. The second major element of the CAP is on preparing for impacts, also known as “adaptation” to climate change. Many of the elements of this part of the CAP are reflected in Executive Order 13653, “Preparing the United State for the Impacts of Climate Change,” which was released on November 1, 2013.

I.  Building Stronger and Safer Communities & Infrastructure

A.   Directing Agencies to Support Climate Resilient Investment. Section 2 of E.O. 13653 directs federal agencies to “modernize federal programs to support climate resilient investment” through inventory and reform of policies, funding programs, and other activities; progress on milestones is to be incorporated into Agency Adaptation Plans.

B.   State, Local & Tribal Leaders Task Force. Established by Sec. 7 of E.O. 13653, the Task Force consists of eight Governors, mayors and commissioners from 16 cities and counties in 14 states, and two tribal representatives. They are currently taking recommendations on “opportunities within existing Federal authorities that could be taken to remove barriers to and encourage resilient investments; modernize grant and loan programs to better support local efforts; and develop information and tools to better serve communities”

C.  Supporting Community Preparation. The CAP outlines initiatives that are ongoing through a number of agencies; for instance, the Department of Transportation highway vulnerability and resilience pilot programs, which are ongoing in 19 states in 2013-14. The Bureau of Indian Affairs assisting tribal preparedness with $600k in grants announced January 2014. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Progress Report for 2014 includes a section describing how EPA views climate change as a priority in its work with vulnerable communities. Finally, FEMA and DOE are building on lessons from Sandy on power and fuel supply restoration.

D.  Boosting Resilience of Buildings & Infrastructure. The CAP describes efforts through the agency Climate Adaptation Plans, which are emphasized in Section 5 of E.O. 13653, and a National Institute of Standards & Technology panel on disaster-resilience standards, which convened in April 2014.

E.   Rebuilding & Learning From Sandy. The Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy mentioned in the CAP was released as scheduled in August 2013. Restoration projects through Department of the Interior are ongoing, as is evaluation for the Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grants Program

II.  Protecting the Economy & Natural Resources

A.   Identifying Vulnerabilities of Key Sectors. The CAP mentions departmental vulnerability assessments for Energy and Agriculture.  Additional reports recently released or due in 2014 include Health, Transportation, Food Supplies, Oceans, and Coastal Communities.

B.  Promoting Resilience in Health Sector. Goal of this part of the plan include improving resilience at hospitals and training public health professionals on preparing for health consequences. Both objectives are mentioned in the HHS Strategic Sustainability Plan, but no more recent updates were found.

C.   Promoting Insurance Leadership. The CAP signals the Administration’s intent to convene the insurance industry and others to “Explore best practices for private and public insurers” to reduce climate risks, but it is not clear if this meeting has occurred.

D.   Conserving Land and Water Resources. The Administration has already released climate change adaptation strategies for Fish, Wildlife and Plants, Freshwater Resources, and Oceans. Section 3 of E.O. 13653 directs the major land and resource management agencies to “complete an inventory and assessment of proposed and completed changes to their land- and water-related policies, programs, and regulations necessary to make the Nation’s watersheds, natural resources, and ecosystems, and the communities and economies that depend on them, more resilient in the face of a changing climate”  These inventories are due “Within 9 months of” the release of the E.O. (i.e., August 1, 2014).

E.  Maintaining Agricultural Sustainability. The USDA Regional Climate Hubs mentioned in this section were launched in February 2014.  The Agricultural Water Conservation and Efficiency grants program managed by NRCS and Bureau of Reclamation last month announced the recipients of $6.3 million in projects to be funded this year.

F.   Managing Drought. The National Drought Resilience Partnership was launched in November 2013. Headed by USDA and NOAA, it also includes Interior, Army Corps, FEMA, EPA and Energy. Its web-based portal for drought information and recovery resources is at

G.  Reducing Wildfire Risks. In addition to expanding restoration efforts in forests and rangelands, the Administration in January 2013 also launched the Western Watershed Enhancement Project, which currently has project in five states to reduce wildfire risk near reservoirs and other critical water supply infrastructure.

H.  Preparing for Future Floods. Agencies are updating their flood risk reduction standards based on sea level rise projections, following the lead of the Hurricane Sandy rebuilding effort.

III.  Using Sound Science

A.   Developing Actionable Climate Science. “Actionable science” has been a theme of agency activities (see below), as reflected in the budget requests and program priorities of  USGS, NOAA, NASA, NSF, and USDA.

B.  Assessing Climate Change Impacts in the US. The third U.S. National Climate Assessment was released on May 6, 2014. Covering observed and projected trends, impacts to sectors and regions, and response options, the NCA is the definitive guide to climate change in the U.S. With over 300 authors and input from thirteen agencies, the NCA represents the apogee of “actionable climate science.”

C.   Launching Climate Data Initiative. The Climate Data Initiative launched on March 19, 2014. It currently has tools for visualizing coastal flood risk, but will be adding additional sets of tools relating to human health, ecosystems, and other sectors.

D.   Providing a Toolkit for Resilience. Several of the tools mentioned in the CAP, such as the National Stormwater Calculator and the USGS’s Global Visualization Tool and National Climate Change Viewer, are already available. The Climate Data Initiative is creating a “one-stop shop” by tools from multiple sources and soliciting for more through its “Challenges” program.

LEAD INTERNATIONAL EFFORTS TO ADDRESS GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE.  International efforts described in the CAP are led through the State Department, and are described in detail at their Global Climate Change site.

Posted in Climate Change, Energy, Federal Policy1 Comment

New Defenders White Paper: “A Guide to the Farm Bill Conservation Programs”

The U.S. has nearly 1.4 billion acres of private land, much of which is used for forestry, agriculture, or pasture and ranch lands. Over half of all the imperiled species in the country have at least one population on private lands, so measures that help landowners conserve the habitats these species depend on are tremendously important. One of our country’s best tools for helping private landowners enact voluntary conservation programs is the Farm Bill. It authorizes a wide array of programs that provide technical and financial assistance to agriculture and forest producers who are interested in improving soil, water, air and habitat quality on their land.

The most recent Farm Bill, signed into law by President Obama on February 7, 2014, makes a number of important changes to these programs. Defenders of Wildlife’s new white paper, “A Guide to the Farm Bill Conservation Programs,” provides an overview of the major programs and how they are changing under the new Farm Bill. We discuss both the “reserve” programs, which offer easements or rental contracts for long-term to permanent land retirements, and the “incentives” programs, which provide cost-share to improve practices on working lands. We also highlight how these can encourage multiple producers in a state or region to work together to accomplish priority conservation goals. Finally, we explore some of the challenges and opportunities that the new changes will likely bring.

Posted in Agriculture, Paying for Conservation, private lands0 Comments

New Defenders White Paper: “Targeting of Farm Bill Program Funding to Advance Conservation Priorities”

“In the past, much of our conservation efforts in the country have been, I would term it, ‘random acts of conservation.’ Instead of focusing on the hot spots — focusing on areas where we can get the greatest ecological benefit — we have instead had a series of disjointed actions.”
— Harris Sherman, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment at USDA

Conservation programs have been an important part of U.S. farm policy since the Dust Bowl prompted the formation of the Soil Conservation Service in 1935. Public investment in natural resource conservation has expanded tremendously in the past three decades, with a proliferation of Farm Bill programs to address a wide range of issues: erosion, water quality, air quality, wildlife habitat, and more. While these programs have had tremendous benefits, enrollment in conservation programs was initially driven by interest on the part of individual producers, rather than being targeted to the places of greatest need or potential benefit. This “random acts of conservation” approach is beginning to change, however, with the advent of a number of new initiatives aimed at matching program funding to state, regional and national priorities. Defenders of Wildlife’s new white paper highlights the good work of a number of these initiatives, with emphasis on:
• Regional and multi-state wildlife and habitat initiatives
• Regional priority programs for water quality
• Targeting and evaluation mechanisms within individual programs

We also provide recommendations to maximize the benefits of program targeting given the major changes and program consolidations in the new Farm Bill, including urging USDA to:
• Reaffirm its commitment the Working Lands for Wildlife initiative
• Ensure that important conservation goals are not lost under the easement program consolidation
• Think strategically and across programs about how targeting can better be used for maximum benefits
• Balance attention to important existing priorities and novel opportunities under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program
• Incorporate climate change resilience into conservation program delivery
• Fully fund all conservation programs

Posted in Agriculture, Paying for Conservation, private lands0 Comments

Bringing Climate Change Home: The Third National Climate Assessment

The world is a big place, and when a group called the “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” puts out a report on the global effects of climate warming, a natural question is: “So, what does this mean for me?” This week brings us an answer, in the form of the no less ambitious but decidedly more local “National Climate Assessment.”

Thirteen federal agencies and over 300 authors teamed up to produce the Third National Climate Assessment (NCA), as mandated by a 1990 law called the Global Change Research Act. While its methodologies and conclusions are similar to that of the IPCC’s work, it also comes with an important difference, namely, its focus is entirely on what the warming climate means for the United States. Even more importantly, the NCA delivers its information in a manner more relevant to American decision-makers, by breaking its results down by region and by sector (agriculture, infrastructure, health, etc.). The new web interface also allows users to either download and read the full report, or explore individual topics of interest.

The NCA is pretty blunt in its main findings: “Global climate is changing and this change is apparent across a wide range of observations. The global warming of the past 50 years is primarily due to human activities. Global climate is projected to continue to change over this century and beyond. The magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades depends primarily on the amount of heat-trapping gases emitted globally, and how sensitive the Earth’s climate is to those emissions.”

Some of the NCA’s a key findings include important warnings about the effect of climate change on ecosystems and biodiversity: “In addition to climate changes that directly affect habitats, events such as droughts, floods, wildfires, and pest outbreaks associated with climate change are already disrupting ecosystem structures and functions in a variety of direct and indirect ways. These changes limit the capacity of ecosystems such as forests, barrier beaches, and coastal- and freshwater- wetlands to adapt and continue to play important roles in reducing the impacts of these extreme events on infrastructure, human communities, and other valued resources.”

In its chapter on Ecosystems and Biodiversity, the NCA found that:

1. “Climate change impacts on ecosystems reduce their ability to improve water quality and regulate water flows.”  Warmer air and water temperatures, changing precipitation patterns and decreased snowpack all exacerbate water pollution problems—resulting in higher levels of nutrients that lead to toxic algal blooms and pathogen outbreaks, and lower levels of oxygen. The result could be loss of aquatic ecosystems and species, like the iconic trout streams of the West.

2. “Climate change, combined with other stressors, is overwhelming the capacity of ecosystems to buffer the impacts from extreme events like fires, floods, and storms.” For instance, as rising sea levels chip away at coastal salt marshes, mangroves and barrier islands, communities inland become more vulnerable to hurricanes and other storms. And stress to forests from heat, drought and insect outbreaks means that houses near the urban-wildland interface are more at risk from major fires.

3. “Landscapes and seascapes are changing rapidly, and species, including many iconicspecies, may disappear from regions where they have been prevalent or become extinct, changingsome regions so much that their mix of plant and animal life will become almostunrecognizable.”  From wildfires burning on previously frozen Arctic tundra, to species shifting their ranges northward and upward, to a proliferation of invasive species, our ecological communities are changing, and fast. If species and communities can’t keep pace with the rate of change, species declines and even extinctions will result.

4. “Timing of critical biological events, such as spring bud burst, emergence fromoverwintering, and the start of migrations, has shifted, leading to important impactson species and habitats.” In many places, the signs of spring are coming earlier—the budding of trees, blossoming of flowers, or the emergence of animals from migration. Since some aspects of life cycles are governed by day length and others by temperature, the shifting of some temperature-governed spring events earlier may lead to “mismatches” between predators and prey, or flower and pollinator, that could negatively affect survival.

5. “Whole system management is often more effective than focusing on one species at a time, and can help reduce the harm to wildlife, natural assets, and human well-being that climate disruption might cause.” Key to protecting both wildlife and human communities will be a suite of approaches, like being ready to respond to new threats, and protection and restoration of ecosystems, especially coastal and riparian habitats and corridors for species movement.

Additional chapters are dedicated to impacts on Coasts, Oceans, Forests, and Land Use.

Communities, wildlife managers, and other decision-makers need accurate, relevant, local-scale information in order to make the right choices to reduce our vulnerability to climate change. The National Climate Assessment is the tool that many have been waiting for.

Posted in Climate Change, Uncategorized0 Comments

The Red Cheeked Salamander

The Incredible Shrinking Salamander: Is Climate Change Behind the Decline?

The effects of climate change on wildlife and habitats are as varied as they are widespread: from loss of sea ice in the Arctic to die-offs of coral reefs in the tropics, from floods and wildfires to increased spread of disease and changing food availability.  Although some of the effects are dramatic and obvious, others may be much more subtle, but still hold important implications for conservation. Case in point: new research suggests that warmer and drier conditions may be shrinking salamanders in the southern Appalachians, one of the world’s hotspots of amphibian diversity.

The Red Cheeked Salamander

The results come from an investigation of salamander specimens collected over a 55-year period from sites ranging from Maryland to Tennessee. From 2011-2012, researchers caught and measured nearly 1200 salamanders and compared the results to a Smithsonian collection of over 8000 preserved specimens caught at the same sites dating back to 1957. Of the 15 species they compared, six showed a “significant reduction in body size,” and only one had an increase in body size.

By overlaying geographic and climate data, the scientists also found that the largest reductions in body size occurred at more southerly sites that had gotten warmer and drier over the 55-year period. These findings were augmented by biophysical modeling that showed that warmer temperatures increased the metabolisms of the “cold-blooded,” or ectothermic, salamanders by 7 to 8%. The animals were apparently not able to consume enough food to make up for their bodies’ increased activity, and thus they grew to a smaller maximum size. Size is correlated with a number of important ecological and behavioral characteristics, like how many eggs they lay in a season and how well they escape being eaten. These smaller body sizes may put the animals at increased risk of diminished reproductive success and reduce their ability to avoid predators.

Posted in Climate Change, Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

After Sandy: Re-building Smarter, Re-building Greener

After Sandy: Re-building Smarter, Re-building Greener

Last summer, Defenders released a report, “Harnessing Nature: The Ecosystem Approach to Climate Change Preparedness,” to demonstrate the potential for ecosystem-based approaches – restored wetlands, protected habitats, and resilient forests – to help protect communities and infrastructure in the face of increasingly severe floods, droughts and heat waves that we expect a changing climate to bring. Little did we know that the nation would soon be faced with one of the costliest weather disasters in our nation’s history, a massive and deadly superstorm that demonstrated unequivocally that climate change is here, and it is happening now.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, President Obama recognized the need for massive public investment in order to help rebuild one of the nation’s most populous regions, as well as the need to coordinate these investments in order to expedite recovery, avoid duplication of effort, and rebuild with an eye to withstanding challenges that climate change is sure to bring down the road. Thus, the Administration convened the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, which today released a Strategy “to serve as a model for communities across the nation facing greater risks from extreme weather and to continue helping the Sandy-affected region rebuild.” Defenders is pleased to see that among the report’s recommendations are several that highlight the invaluable role played by our natural capital during Sandy itself, and point to a more widespread use of this “green infrastructure” to enhance resilience to future climate challenges.

In building its case, the Strategy highlights the role that a restored oyster reef in Pamlico Sound played in reducing flooding at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. It could have just as easily discussed how communities in New York and New Jersey with intact dune systems fared far better than those that did not, or how restoration of wetlands and living shorelines to absorb storm waters and reduce wave action is an integral part of New York City’s resilience plan.

The Task Force lays out its “Green Infrastructure” strategies in Recommendations 19- 22:

Consider green infrastructure options in all Sandy infrastructure investments. Toward this end, the Task Force has developed Guidelines for incorporation of ecosystem services into projects:

“(1) provision of habitat (coastal, inter-coastal, inland)

(2) landscape conservation for the tourism, recreation, and aesthetic values on which economies depend

(3) watershed protection for clean drinking water and improved flood management

(4) threatened and endangered species conservation and restoration

(5) other associated ecosystem services from which people derive benefits (e.g., aquaculture and recreational and commercial fishing).”

Improve the understanding and decision-making tools for green infrastructure through projects funded by the Sandy Supplemental. Agencies are developing monitoring, mapping, remote sensing, valuation tools, and design protocols to better understand and apply the full range of benefits that natural solutions can provide.

Create opportunities for innovations in green infrastructure technology and design using Sandy funding, particularly in vulnerable communities. The Sandy supplemental was unprecedented in its support for natural resilience solutions, with funding available for protective measures like restoration of sand dunes and wetlands, water-absorbing measures like green roofs and permeable pavement, as well as ecosystem restoration at parks, refuges and Tribal lands in the region.

Develop a consistent approach to valuing the benefits of green approaches to infrastructure development and develop tools, data, and best practices to advance the broad integration of green infrastructure. The agencies are in the process of developing tools for encouraging the broader adoption of green infrastructure.

As we showed in “Harnessing Nature,” Natural solutions have proven value in helping to protect people and communities from some of the challenges that climate change will bring, like storms and floods, droughts and wildfires, and deadly heat waves. With the release of the Hurricane Sandy Task Force recommendations, hopefully the region – and the nation – will embark on a path to their broader adoption.

Brown Pelican, USFWS

Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy, Florida, Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

Climate Change and NEPA: Getting it Right

Climate Change and NEPA: Getting it Right

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law in 1969 and has gone on to be one of our country’s most important environmental laws. The law creates a framework and process by which federal agencies must consider the impacts of their actions on the environment – including natural resources, human health, infrastructure, and land use. Since climate change is one of the most important environmental issues to emerge in the past few decades, and promises to remain so for the foreseeable future, it is clear that NEPA has an important role to play in how agencies consider the effects of climate change both on their investments, and also on the resources that their projects affect. It is increasingly critical for agencies to thoughtfully and thoroughly consider climate change, from both an emissions and adaptation standpoint, as part of NEPA analysis, particularly in the most detailed and through decision documents, Environmental Impact Statements.

In order to facilitate agencies’ consideration of climate change, the administration released Draft NEPA Guidance on Consideration of the Effects of Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in 2010. The Draft Guidance clearly indicated that relevant climate information includes both greenhouse gas emissions information, and also climate change impacts and adaptation. To date, however, most of the attention paid to the guidance has been from the point of view of emissions analysis.

To get a better understanding of whether and how well agencies were incorporating the adaptation recommendations, we analyzed 154 Final Environmental Impact Statements released between July 2011 and April 2012. To our dismay, we found that very few incorporated the climate adaptation elements of the 2010 draft guidance. Even the best-performing EISs tended to incorporate climate change into a limited number of the elements of the affected environment, failed to make a full comparison between the various alternatives, or used short and qualitative statements rather than full analysis based on the best available science. We explore the possible reasons for this and present recommendations for overcoming these obstacles in our new report Reasonably Foreseeable Futures

The Chiracahua Mountains in the Coronado National Forest support the sky island ecosystems of the southwest, some of the most unique and biodiverse areas on our public lands.  Portions of the sky islands would be put at risk by this bill.

The Chiracahua Mountains in the Coronado National Forest support the sky island ecosystems of the southwest, some of the most unique and biodiverse areas on our public lands. These ecosystems are severely threatened by climate change, and climate-smart management will be key to their survival.


Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy, National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, NEPA, Public Lands, Smart from the Start, Uncategorized0 Comments

Incorporating Climate Change into the New Forest Planning Rule

Incorporating Climate Change into the New Forest Planning Rule

For much of the past two years, Defenders has been actively engaged in the Forest Service’s development of a new rule to guide planning within the National Forest System. We submitted extensive comments on last year’s proposed rule, but that was hardly the end of our involvement.  The Forest Service is now in the process of drafting “directives” to guide the implementation of the 2012 planning rule. As with the rule itself, we have quite a few suggestions for making it stronger, better and more clear (our full comments on the directives can be found here). This week’s blog installment focuses on incorporation of climate change.

The Forest Service has been a leader in understanding, researching, and developing policy mechanisms to deal with the impacts of climate change.  The planning rule itself broke new ground in directing forests to take into account the effects of climate change on ecosystem integrity and to incorporate climate change resilience into forest planning. We had expected, therefore, that the Directives would build on that track record and provide forest managers with clear direction on how to integrate assessment and response to climate change impacts into all phases of forest planning.  Unfortunately, the Directives don’t do much more than repeat some of the language from the planning rule itself.

Virtually absent from the directives is any clear description of the particular exposure factors associated with climate change, such as higher mean temperatures, hotter high temperatures, reduction in frost-free days, changing proportions of precipitation falling as rain vs. snow,  occurrences of extreme precipitation events, alterations in snowpack, and lengthier periods of drought (to name a few). Many species and habitats will be sensitive to one or more of these specific types of exposures, but there is no guidance on how select, evaluate or rank these. Climate-related stressors will also interact with other stressors (for instance, warmer winters may facilitate spread of invasive or noxious species that are held in check by winter die-off). Societal responses to climate change will also likely compound stresses to species and ecosystems (some examples include increased water withdrawals from stream systems in response to drought and heat, and habitat modification to reduce fire risk at the wildland-urban interface). Nowhere do the directives recommend how to find, evaluate, and use this information in forest planning.

The directives also fail to give forest managers a path for selecting appropriate responses. This is a pretty glaring omission, given that the Forest Service has already published extensive resources on various adaptation response options: resistance, resilience, response, and re-alignment. We had hoped that the directives would provide managers with a means to choose among these responses and select plan components to achieve those aims, but it does not do so.

Even worse, the directives at times seem to give managers an easy way out of doing the hard thinking about responding to climate change. For instance, the “Ecosystem Integrity” section of the assessment language says, “Where information is available, the responsible official should consider the influence of climate change. . .” (emphasis added). Later, the directives use climate change as an example of “factors outside of the agency’s control.” We are concerned that conditional language like this is tantamount to allowing planners an excuse to avoid the sometimes difficult task of finding and evaluating climate change information that may be applicable to the situation at hand. We see a high potential for this kind of omission to occur, given that the directives have provided so little guidance on where to find climate change information and how to incorporate it into assessment.

Defenders has submitted comments to the Forest Service pointing out these and other flaws in the directives, which will make it difficult for forest planners to realize the planning rule’s potential benefits to biodiversity over time. Stay tuned to find out if they take our recommendations into account.

Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy, National Forests, Public Lands0 Comments

Blackwater Map

Wildlife Refuges on Deck for Land Aquisition Funding Vulnerable to Sea Level Rise

There are over 150 national wildlife refuges located in coastal areas, yet the Refuge System has not adequately incorporated projections of sea level rise or other climate impacts into land acquisition planning.  Thus, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may not be maximizing the effectiveness of its conservation investments if it is making fee-title acquisitions or purchasing long-term easements on lands that are going to be underwater within a few decades.

To get a better picture of the situation, we used the Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model (SLAMM) to assess the threat to the lands within both the acquired and approved boundaries of eight coastal refuges that have been assigned a high funding priority for land acquisitions in the coming year.

We found that sea-level rise impact will not be felt equally among coastal refuges. Great White Heron NWR, in the Florida Keys, is the highest ranked refuge for land protection funding for FY 2013 by the Fish and Wildlife Service, yet it is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise. Two of the refuges we assessed, Great White Heron and Blackwater, face potential net loss of over 40% of refuge lands by 2075, if sea level rises by one meter over the course of the century. On the other hand, four of the refuges have less than 5% of their land area vulnerable. Some refuges, like Blackwater, will face inundation but have newly created wetlands nearby, where the refuge could potentially expand to. Others, like Laguna Atascosa NWR, will face wetlands loss that will not be readily replaced with new areas of marsh. And refuges whose land area consists mainly of low-lying islands, like in the Florida Keys, may run out of land entirely.














The Fish and Wildlife Service urgently needs to better understand and incorporate climate change and sea level rise implications into its land acquisition planning to avoid investments that will ultimately be literally under water.

Our summary report with policy recommendations is available here.

The complete report is available here.

Posted in Climate Change, National Wildlife Refuges1 Comment

arctic sea ice

So Long Sea Ice

Arctic sea ice has hit a new low, not just beating the old record, but beating it three weeks earlier than the usual date for the minimum.

Arctic sea ice naturally goes through an annual cycle of expansion and contraction, with summer ice extent reaching its lowest point in September, then stabilizing and starting to expand again as the weather gets colder.  The previous record low of 1.61 million square miles occurred on September 18, 2007. The new low of 1.58 million square miles was set on August 26, 2012, with South-Carolina-sized areas of ice melting daily.  If this keeps up through mid-September, the minimum for 2012 will shatter all previous records.

The six lowest sea ice extents since satellite measurements began in 1979 have all occurred in the past six years. While we don’t know for sure what the ice data looked like prior to that, the adventures of explorers searching for the fabled “Northwest Passage” remind us that heavy ice cover was once the norm.









What’s even more alarming about the new record is that this wasn’t even a spectacularly warm summer in the Arctic. Rather, it seems that year after year of big summer ice melts have made the sea ice thinner and more fragile, thus more prone to melting each year. Cambridge University professor Peter Wadhams estimates that the ice pack “has lost at least 40% of its thickness since the 1980s, and if you consider the shrinkage as well it means that the summer ice volume is now only 30% of what it was in the 1980s.”

If all this ice loss strikes you as bad news for polar bears and other Arctic wildlife, you’re right. If you think that’s the only thing we have to worry about, think again. The difference with and without sea ice is like the difference between wearing a white shirt or a black shirt on a hot, sunny day. The white ice reflects the sun’s energy back out toward space, but the dark surface water exposed when the ice melts absorbs much more of the sun’s energy, leading to even faster heating.

And all that dark, heat-absorbing water where once there was ice leads to another problem: the icy sediments at the bottom of the sea may be starting starting to thaw as well. Professor Peter Wadhams points out, “we are also finding the open water causing seabed permafrost to melt, releasing large amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere.” 

This new low is another sign that climate change isn’t an issue we can just ignore now and worry about later. It’s real, it’s urgent, and it’s affecting our planet right now.

Posted in Climate Change0 Comments

dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.