Archive | Climate Change

Threat Multiplier: Climate Change Exacerbates Risks to Sage-grouse

A new study by the U.S. Geological Survey states that “climate change may pose substantial future risk to sagebrush habitat in southwestern Wyoming.”

Climate change is a recognized threat to sage-grouse1 that is also predicted to have deleterious impacts on sagebrush steppe.2  Most climate change simulations predict sagebrush steppe will contract as mean temperatures increase and the frost line shifts northward.3 In the worst case scenario, sagebrush species are simulated to contract to just 20 percent of current distribution.4 Previous studies project that the largest remaining areas will be in southern Wyoming and in the gap between the northern and central Rocky Mountains, followed by areas along the northern edge of the Snake River Plateau and small patches in Washington, Oregon and Nevada.5 Sagebrush steppe may also shift northward in response to increased temperatures.6

The new research by the U.S. Geological Survey is notable because the scientists conducted their study in southwestern Wyoming, finding that climate change is likely to eliminate over 11 percent of sage-grouse nesting habitat in what is otherwise expected to be a stronghold for the species. The authors caution, “[g]iven declining sage-grouse populations are suffering from other habitat degradation forces, a potential additional 11% loss of future habitat from climate change could be very detrimental to some populations.”

Defenders of Wildlife evaluated (see pages 28-29 in linked report) if and how draft federal conservation plans developed under the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy addressed climate change impacts on sage-grouse. All of the draft plans acknowledged that climate change presents challenges to resource management, and many listed climate change as a planning issue to be addressed in management alternatives. Several plans specifically identified sage-grouse as a species that may be harmed by climate change, including the HiLine Draft Resource Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement. “[S]ensitive species in the planning area, such as greater sage-grouse, which are already stressed by declining habitat, increased development, and other factors, could experience additional pressures due to climate change” (HiLine 260; 434).

Yet, only two of fifteen draft plans proposed more than marginal conservation measures to preserve or restore habitat resiliency in areas where scientists predict sagebrush steppe will still persist in 50-100 years. In fact, in four plans (including the plan covering southwestern Wyoming), the Bureau of Land Management claimed it had “no…resource planning program for addressing [climate change] effects to [sage-grouse] and its habitat.” This is untrue. The agency is required under existing law and policy to consider the best available science in management planning (which would include analysis of climate change effects), and is specifically required to address climate change in planning under Secretarial Order 3289, Department of the Interior Manual chapter 523, and Executive Order 13653, among other guidance.

Measures for ameliorating the effects of climate change on species and landscapes include increasing the size and number of protected areas, maintaining and enhancing connectivity between areas, and identifying and protecting climate refugia likely to retain suitable climate/habitat conditions in the future (even if not currently occupied by the species of concern). Management should also seek to control invasive species, sustain ecosystem processes and functions, and restore degraded habitat to enhance ecosystem resilience to climate change.7

Properly addressing climate change through the Planning Strategy would require federal agencies to analyze the effectiveness of their proposed conservation actions in light of climate change impacts and make appropriate modifications to ensure they are effective over the long-term. Proper analysis of climate change would also require agencies to examine the cumulative environmental consequences of their proposed actions in a changed climate as their baseline for analysis. For example, the impacts of habitat disturbance may be more pronounced when combined with the effects of climate change (as the draft HiLine plan indicated), which could lead agencies to different management decisions about whether, where, how much, and in what manner development activities should occur.

This is in fact the take away from the new USGS study: if we can expect upwards of an 11 percent loss of important sage-grouse habitat due to climate change, agencies should increase protections from other disturbances we can control now to give sage-grouse a fighting chance in the future.


1 Connelly et al. 2011b: 556, Table 24.2; Blomberg et al. 2012; van Kooten et al. 2007.
2 Schlaepfer et al. 2012; Neilson et al. 2005.
3 Blomberg et al. 2012; Neilson et al. 2005.
4 Wisdom et al. 2005b: 206, citing Neilson et al. 2005.
5 See Miller et al. 2011: 181, Fig. 10.19.
6 Schlaepfer et al. 2012; Shafer et al. 2001.
7 Chester et al. 2012; NFWPCAS 2012.

Posted in Climate Change, Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands0 Comments

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

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

Defenders Comments on New Forest Planning Directives

Defenders Comments on New Forest Planning Directives

As long time followers know, Defenders has been working hard to shape National Forest conservation policy for decades, including non-stop campaigning for the last several years to make sure new forest planning regulations conserve and recover forest dependent wildlife.  To ensure that these new rules translate into real on-the-ground protections for wildlife and forest ecosystems, Defenders kicked off our Forests for Wildlife Initiative.  The goal of the initiative is to transform how the Forest Service manages forests for wildlife, and to protect and restore national forest landscapes through on-the-ground conservation projects and actions.

The Forests for Wildlife Initiative takes us from the policymaking world of Washington D.C., to the majestic landscapes of Alaska and California.  Last year, I was appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture to a Federal Advisory Committee charged with overseeing implementation of the new planning rule.  One of the committee’s first tasks was to work with the Forest Service to craft policy “directives” that will guide how the new regulation is interpreted and applied to individual national forests.  Our comments on the draft directives can be found here.  The complex forest policy world is like an onion trapped in a spider’s web.  Numerous statutes govern the management of National Forests, including the National Forest Management Act, as well as associated federal rules and regulations.  Keep peeling and one finally gets down to the highly technical internal agency policies that tell forest managers how to navigate and implement all of the various rules and regulations.  The directives tell managers “how” to do the “what”— the requirements that are spelled out in the regulations.  Good planning directives provide strong, clear direction to managers on how to identify, conserve and monitor species of conservation concern; account for ecosystem services; or manage in the face of climate change.  Poor directives can lead to inconsistent conservation decisions that could lessen protections and raise risks for forests and wildlife.

The current draft directives need some work to provide forest managers a clear path to effectively conserving forest integrity and wildlife.  The advisory committee will be working with the Forest Service all summer to make recommendations on how to improve them.  Stay tuned for more updates and campaign reports from the Forests for Wildlife Initiative.

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

How Will the Forest Service Address Ecosystem Services in Forest Planning?

How Will the Forest Service Address Ecosystem Services in Forest Planning?

The Forest Service recently adopted new planning rule that will guide the agency’s process for forest planning for the next decade or so. For the first time, the planning rule directs the staff to consider ecosystem services when deciding what management actions to implement on the public lands. Following the adoption of the new rule, the Service issued 500+ pages of detailed “directives” to guide implementation of the new planning rule.

What are ecosystem services?  According to a recent article authored by several researchers with the Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest Research Station, In the context of public land management, ecosystem services are beneficial outcomes that derive from landscape conditions (e.g., forest structures, species compositions) and ecological processes as they are altered by both natural disturbance and management activities.

Though the draft directives mention ecosystem services multiple times, what effect this relatively new term will have on the planning process remains somewhat of a mystery. On the positive side, addressing ecosystem services may lead to the consideration of a much broader spectrum of values, including some tangible benefits like improved water and air quality, more and better fish and wildlife habitat, improvement in the condition of endangered species, and additional opportunities for nature-based recreation. The new emphasis may also lead to improved integration across programs, a reconsideration of management “targets” to include an assessment of ecological conditions and trends, and an improved understanding of context implied in the new “all lands approach” to management.  Ecosystem services assessments can also be a powerful tool for collaboration with stakeholders. Ideally, incorporating ecosystem services into forest planning will add value without overly complicating the assessment and decision process, raising the costs, or delaying implementation.

On the flip side, even a great idea can go astray if it is implemented in a manner that simply applies a new idea or term to an old way of doing business. The Forest Service staff will always be under political pressure from Congress and some interest groups to increase the output of commodities at the expense of protecting the ecological values on the land. Framed entirely as a utilitarian, anthropocentric concept, some interpret ecosystem services to include only benefits to human communities. Others extend the construct even further to emphasize only those values that can be quantified, and a cottage industry has emerged among economists offering tools and methods to assign monetary value to selected services. While it is sometimes very useful to calculate the monetary costs and benefits of different management options, it is neither necessary nor appropriate to apply dollar values to relatively intangible attributes like biodiversity.  Agencies can and do make decisions every day based on society’s evolving values and preferences, expressed in a variety of ways including the adoption of federal laws like the Endangered Species Act and National Forest Management Act. Meaningful engagement with the public during the decision process – including local, state, regional, and national interests – can lead to decisions that balance human needs for products like timber, forage and fuel against the need to sustain the lands and waters on public lands for future generations.

Given the attention that ecosystem services have received within academic and some government circles, there is also a risk that instead of adding value to the complex process of evaluating the potential benefits an ecosystem will provide over time, an entirely new process will be established.  If this new process focuses primarily on the benefits that ecosystems provide to people, without giving adequate consideration to the underlying ecological attributes and processes that create these services in the first place, then management to maximize certain ecosystem services ends up competing with, rather than enhancing values that are especially challenging to measure, like biodiversity. If ecosystem services offer a way of viewing the world in which the intrinsic values of nature are acknowledged along with utilitarian outputs, it could serve as a uniting rather than divisive force.  However, there will always be tradeoffs between services, human beneficiaries, and the needs of present vs. future generations.

There are a few important steps that the Forest Service can take to ensure that the ecosystem services requirement in the new directives has a positive influence on forest planning.

  1. Adopt the definition of ecosystem services quoted above in place of the narrower definition limited by utility to humans, thereby explicitly including biodiversity – either as a service, necessary support for services, or both.
  2. Integrate ecosystem service assessments with ecological assessments rather than creating a separate process.
  3. Ensure that the planning process is as interdisciplinary as possible, taking advantage of the expertise of natural and social scientists, practitioners, and stakeholders, working across traditional boundaries and engaging people with diverse perspectives.
  4. Working with other agencies and organizations, invest in the development of more consistent measures of ecological integrity and biodiversity across jurisdictions and at multiple scales to improve our collective capacity understand ecological conditions and trends.
  5. Integrate the ecosystem services assessments with the “all lands” approach by engaging private landowners and other agencies in the process, before attempting to quantify and/or monetize ecosystem services at the project or site scale.

The Forest Service has struggled with communicating its mission over the past few decades. Creatively applying an ecosystem services approach to explain the benefits of the public lands to Congress and the public has great potential. Although different forests will likely approach this challenge differently, the new approach may create a pathway to a more harmonious and effective relationship with the public.  Or it may continue the divisive and antagonistic relationship under a new banner until the next shiny object comes into view. There isn’t much time to get it right.

You can find Defenders’ full comments on the proposed forest planning directives here.

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

Integrating Climate Change into agency NEPA decisions

Integrating Climate Change into agency NEPA decisions

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has recently been in the news as it relates to climate change, as reports surfaced that the administration is finalizing long-awaited NEPA climate change guidance (you can find the draft guidance here), outraging Senate Republicans who fear the guidance is an attempt to regulate greenhouse gases.

NEPA is exactly the right context for federal agencies to be analyzing how their proposed actions affect and are affected by climate change. Federal actions, both directly and indirectly, can and do lead to the release of greenhouse gases. In addition – and importantly, since this seems to be missing from most of the debate surrounding NEPA and climate change – federal actions and projects permitted by federal agencies can be greatly affected by climate change, and affect the surrounding environment in combination with climate change. These effects need to be understood to make sound decisions and investments of federal tax dollars.

Contrary to the fears of NEPA as a regulatory force, NEPA’s purpose is not to force and prevent a particular action or outcome. Rather, its purpose is to “insure that environmental information is available to public officials and citizens before decisions are made and before actions are taken” and “to help public officials make decisions that are based on understanding of environmental consequences, and take actions that protect, restore, and enhance the environment.” As a result of agencies taking a “hard look at the environmental consequences” of their proposed actions, they can develop appropriate alternatives and mitigation measures to reduce impacts on the environment. NEPA is a critical planning tool to improve agency decision making.

The Obama administration issued draft guidance to federal agencies in 2010 on “Consideration of the Effects of Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions” under NEPA. The draft guidance lacked clarity on accounting for emissions and for understanding climate change impacts on projects and the affected environment, and it excluded federal land management decisions from the guidance altogether – a glaring omission given how sensitive land management and related natural resources are to climate change impacts. It is the finalization of this guidance that is garnering recent attention.

To assist the administration in addressing these climate impacts in the implementation of NEPA, Defenders of Wildlife recently sent a letter to the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which is the lead office in charge of NEPA. In our letter we recommend the final guidance address the following issues:

  • Purpose and Need: the purpose and need (See NEPA implementing regulations at 40 CFR §1502.13), which should be examined to determine if they are robust in a changing climate. For instance, a project designed to protect a coastal community from storm surge will not be responding to the right “need” if it only accounts for historic sea and surge levels.
  • Environmental assessments and Findings of No Significant Impacts: Determining “significance” is a critical component of NEPA analysis, and requires agencies to look at cumulative impacts. Guidance needs to be provided for understanding how to integrate climate change impacts into cumulative impacts analysis.
  • Analysis timeframe and geographic scope: The timeframe of analysis is relevant to how far into the future to analyze “reasonably foreseeable future actions” under Cumulative Impacts (§1508.7) and definition of “Significance,” which explicitly includes both long and short term effects (§1508.27). The analysis timeframe should be long enough to cover the period over which the project will potentially be affected by and interact with climate change effects. Similarly, the geographic scope of the analysis, as referred to under Affected Environment (§1502.45) and Context (§1508.27), should be large enough to account for potential range shifts in affected species and habitats, potential changes throughout an entire watershed, and similar landscape level effects that would affect the project and project impacts.
  • Alternatives: As part of the process of development of alternatives to the proposed action (§1502.14), the agency should consider whether climate change may impact the ability of each alternative to meet the purpose and need. This should include an assessment of the vulnerability of the various project alternatives to relevant climate change impacts. Where possible, agencies should incorporate into alternatives design elements that reduce the likelihood or severity of climate change impacts. Alternatives that fail to meet the purpose and need due to projected future climate change effects should be eliminated, and this should be noted in the discussion.
  • Affected Environment: As part of the EIS process, the agency discusses the Affected Environment (§1502.15), laying out which aspects of the natural environment (water, air, biodiversity, soils, aesthetics), built environment, human health, and sustainability of resources might be affected by the alternatives. As this section is the basis for comparisons of environmental consequences, it is critical that this section cover the full range of elements that could face effects, including cumulative effects from climate change. The agency should ensure that the environmental resources being considered includes the full suite of elements that could face effects from the project, and integrate climate change threats into the discussion of each element. Climate change is expected to worsen over time, and these changing effects on ecosystems should be incorporated into the Affected Environment and no action alternative sections of an EIS.
  • Environmental Consequences: At the heart of the analyses in an environmental impact statement is the Environmental Consequences section (§1502.16), which compares “The environmental effects of alternatives, including the proposed action” (§1502.16d) on various elements of the affected environment that were defined previously. Full incorporation of climate change into this analysis is warranted by the fact that the effects of climate change constitute a cumulative impact of “past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions” (§1508.7) that release greenhouse gases. We recommend that guidance should be provided that requires each EIS, in its analysis of the alternatives’ impacts on each aspect of the affected environment, include a discussion of the effects to that resource from climate change, and the extent to which the impacts of the alternative will be exacerbated by climate change impacts, and its interaction with other threats, stressors, and cumulative impacts.
  • Mitigation: Mitigation as defined by NEPA, includes actions to avoid impacts; minimize impacts; rectify impacts; reduce or eliminate impacts; and compensate for impacts (§1508.20). The draft guidance broadly states that both emissions reductions and adaptive responses are included here, but provides very little detail as to how to proceed:   “The agency should identity alternative actions that are both adapted to anticipated climate change impacts and mitigate the GHG emissions that cause climate change.” More guidance should be provided to agencies, particularly outlining steps agencies can take to reduce the combined effects of the proposed action and climate impacts on the affected environment.
  • Monitoring: An important aspect of successful mitigation is a monitoring strategy to ensure the effectiveness of mitigation measures (§1505.2c). We recommend that the guidance should be strengthened to stipulate that the monitoring plan should be implemented (not just considered), and should focus on indicators relevant to both the implementation of adaptation strategies and the effects of climate change and other threats. Monitoring is particularly critical where uncertainties regarding climate change impacts or interacting effects have been identified. This plan should articulate steps to ensure the effectiveness of mitigation strategies, and a means of identifying and addressing problems that are identified through monitoring.

Climate change is already impacting federal actions across the country and across agencies, not to mention wildlife and ecosystems. Integrating climate change analysis into federal agency NEPA analysis and decision making is one of the most important steps the federal government can take to account for its contribution to global warming, and importantly, to account for and mitigate the effects of climate change on agency actions and the environment. The administration needs to take the bold step of finalizing its guidance to agencies for accomplishing this. The sooner guidance is issued, the sooner the federal government can help the nation become better prepared to address climate impacts.

Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy, NEPA, Public Lands0 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.