Interior's Initiative on Adaptation Will Need to Overcome a Legacy of Inaction

by Alejandro Camacho

September 18, 2009

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar signed a secretarial order on Monday establishing a new department-wide strategy for gathering data and developing management options to help managers cope with the effects of climate change on resources governed by the Interior Department. The order seeks to initiate three components:

  1. A “Climate Change Response Council” to coordinate and develop the Department’s strategy for responding to the effects of climate change, advancing methods for geologic and biologic carbon sequestration, and estimating and reducing the Department’s carbon footprint.
  2. Eight “Regional Climate Change Response Centers” to synthesize data on climate change effects and develop tools for managers to use to manage resources in light of climate change.
  3. “Landscape Conservation Cooperatives” to coordinate regional adaptation efforts across landscapes.

The secretarial order also replaces Secretarial Order No. 3226 created in January 2009 by the outgoing Bush administration and reinstates Secretarial Order No. 3226 created in January 2001 by the outgoing Clinton administration. The Clinton administration had ordered each Department of Interior bureau to consider and analyze potential climate change impacts when undertaking long-range planning efforts or multi-year management plans. The Bush Administration's DOI essentially ignored that, and now Secretary Salazar is seeking to resurrect the directive.

The program certainly is an improvement on the Department’s preceding approach to addressing the effects of climate change.

The Department’s various bureaus have often simply ignored the effects of climate change in planning or permitting activities, and even those that have been analyzing its effects have failed to develop any management strategies to prepare for and minimize these effects. For example, virtually all National Park management plans ignore climate change or reject consideration of any proactive adaptation, and even the certified “Climate Friendly” National Parks typically fail to mention adaptation in their “Climate Friendly Parks Action Plans,” focusing only on mitigation of the climate footprint of any particular park. The Fish and Wildlife Service response to climate change has been primarily limited to researching its effects and considering how to incorporate these findings into future management. One minor exception is the Habitat Conservation program, which the Service claims is attempting to accelerate coordination and collaboration with other agencies and private parties to conserve habitat due to climate change. In addition, though not an adopted adaptation strategy, the Service has produced a draft plan for internal comment that considers how “Strategic Habitat Conservation,” which in theory promotes the use of adaptive management and inter-agency collaboration, might be included in a national adaptation plan for fish and wildlife. Other Interior agencies like the Bureau of Land Management have not adopted any adaptation plans.

The few efforts at climate change adaptation by the various bureaus have been fragmented and there has been minimal coordination between the many agencies, even though the effects of climate change will certainly cross conventional jurisdictional borders. By seeking to create a department-wide council, regional hubs, and landscape-level inter-jurisdictional collaborations, Interior has taken the important first step in preparing for climate change.

Of course, a number of factors will be key to the future success of these new coordination authorities in helping federal and state authorities adapt to climate change. These certainly include whether funding for the program is sufficient, and whether agency officials are given sufficient incentives to work with and learn from each other’s activities. Prior initiatives in the Department seeking to prepare for the effects of climate change—including Secretarial Order No. 3226 and the National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center created in 2008—have not made substantial progress because they were either ignored or have been insufficiently funded to make a serious dent in the work needed for climate change adaptation. Unfortunately, the new initiative is being funded, at least for now, by money cobbled together from the existing budget—primarily the already modest sum set aside for the National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center. Only by substantially increasing dedicated funding to climate change planning activities will the new initiative even have a chance at success.

Perhaps more importantly, the Department will have to overcome the imposing obstacles and disincentives that inhibit the sharing of information within the Department and with other agencies. These most prominently include (1) the absence of a common clearinghouse of information—not only of scientific data on the projected effects of climate change but also on the efficacy of resource management strategies in achieving their intended goals; and (2) the lack of any systemic requirements or other incentives for agency officials to actually assess the efficacy of management strategies and adapt them over time. Without these features, the Department will not be harnessing the collective capacity of their many bureaus and agency officials to learn from each other, making it unnecessarily difficult to manage and reduce the considerable uncertainty that exists in proactively preparing for the exacerbating effects of global climate change on already taxed public natural resources.

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Also from Alejandro Camacho

Alejandro Camacho is Professor of Law at the University of California, Irvine, and Director, UCI Law Center for Land, Environment, and Natural Resources.

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