What Progress Looks Like: Washington State's Climate Change Preparedness Strategy

by Catherine O'Neill

April 20, 2012

Earlier this month Washington State’s Department of Ecology released its integrated climate response strategy, Preparing for a Changing Climate.  The strategy again demonstrates that the state is a leader when it comes to preparing for climate change impacts (see also NRDC’s recent report examining climate preparedness in all 50 states).

What makes Washington a leader?  Well, the political leadership is willing to address climate change impacts, and the scientific community is active and engaged and generates the information and data needed to make decisions on climate change adaptation actions.  (None of this discussion, of course, should mean giving any less urgency to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the first place).  Remarkably, the state has made rough economic calculations for the cost of inaction—$10 billion by 2020 as a result of increased health costs, flooding and coastal destruction, forest fires, drought, and other impacts—and the benefits of ecosystem services from forests, wildlife, and other natural resources.  For example, in 2006 recreational and commercial fishing supported more than 16,000 jobs and $540 million in personal income and outdoors recreation added nearly $3.1 billion to the economy. 

Armed with this information, lawmakers, policymakers, and agency regulators can begin to make the critical decisions needed to adapt to climate change.  As the state’s report notes, “Many options with low or no costs can be implemented today that will significantly improve our prosperity now and in the future.  In other cases, the costs of preparing our natural and built environments to cope with the impacts of changing climate will be more substantial.  Such costs are far less, however, than costs of inaction.”

The strategy leaves unanswered the question of how it will be implemented, committing Ecology only to “work with other key agencies to implement the response strategy and ensure that adaptation is integrated into agency policies, programs, and funding.”  Although the strategy includes a wide range of approaches and actions, such as preserving groundwater resources, selecting for heat-tolerant and disease-resistant trees, and conserving pollinator habitat, implementation is key. 

The strategy cites limited financial resources, inadequate institutional support, and also legal barriers as obstacles to an effective response to climate change.  Last year, CPR published Climate Change and the Puget Sound: Building the Legal Framework for Adaptation, which recommends new types of laws and applications of existing laws for the state to use to prepare for the impacts of climate change.  For example, better enforcement of existing state water law and the federal Clean Water Act will increase resilience of natural aquatic and marine ecosystems. 

There’s no doubt that the state’s new strategy itself is tremendous forward progress and builds on an impressive body of science that projects the potential impacts of climate change across the state.  Now comes an even bigger challenge: can the political leadership sustain the momentum?

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Catherine A. O'Neill is a Habitat Policy Analyst for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, and a former Professor of Law at Seattle University School of Law.

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