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Climate Change Adaptation Still Being Given Short Shrift in Local, State, and Federal Government

Climate Justice

Though few agencies or legislatures have begun to actually develop programs for cultivating adaptation to climate change, at least discussions on climate change adaptation are starting to take place. Unfortunately, as I detail in a forthcoming article, adaptation is still being given short shrift at local, state and federal levels of government, and those who are considering it lack the information and tools to engage in proactive adaptation.

Some of the key developments on adaptation in the past few weeks include:

1. A GAO report and legislative hearings detailing the poor existing capacity for adapting to climate change in the United States.

The General Accountability Office released a report that surveyed local, state and federal officials, concluding that federal and other government agencies are ill-prepared for adaptation to the effects of climate change. Consistent with my earlier research, the study found that few federal agencies are developing adaptation strategies, and those state and local governments that are considering adaptation planning lack the resources, site-specific data, and metrics to do so. In large part this is because of a lack of public awareness and leadership in Congress and among federal agencies about the importance of adaptation planning. In addition, the study found that 70% of 180 federal, state and local government official respondents were concerned regarding the lack of clarity on the roles and responsibilities of various regulatory authorities in adaptation planning. The report recommended that the White House Council on Environmental Quality and Office of Science and Technology Policy develop a national strategy to coordinate federal, state and local government adaptation activities. The GAO recommended that the strategy include (1) clarifying the roles of agencies at all government levels, (2) providing resources for plan implementation, (3) improving data collection, in particular site-specific data, and (3) training and educating government officials and the general public.

The House Select Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee heard testimony that is congruent with my research and the GAO’s report. Witnesses explained that there are still few adaptation efforts at any level of government in the United States, and those that do exist are largely improvised and fragmented. Witnesses and committee members at this hearing recognized the need for federal direction, coordination and resources for state and local agencies to address adaptation sufficiently. Unfortunately, strong leadership on adaptation at the federal level remains largely non-existent.

2. One of the few recently created federal adaptation initiatives has come under sharp criticism as agency overreaching.

Some Republican Senators and Representatives are raising concerns (E&E subs. required) regarding the Department of the Interior’s newly proposed framework for developing an adaptation strategy. The initiative includes a council to coordinate the Department’s strategy, regional centers for synthesizing data on and developing tools to minimize the effects of climate change, and cooperatives for coordinating regional adaptation efforts. Though in fact the new framework needs to be substantially fortified (as further detailed here), several Western Republican lawmakers, led by Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, wrote a letter seeking for the initiative to be dismantled before it really begins. They claim that the program would overtax federal land agencies, hinder local land-use planning, and would “stifle economic growth and job creation” by decreasing resource exploitation on federal lands. Apparently, these lawmakers would rather agencies simply continue to be oblivious to climate change and the adverse effects on public lands and other natural resources that are already occurring rather than provide these officials the resources, tools, and incentives to help them prepare and manage the resources they are charged to protect.

3. Another bill introduced in the Senate focuses on natural resource adaptation.

Encouragingly, in addition to the provisions on adaptation planning in the House-passed climate change bill (the American Clean Energy and Security Act, H.R. 2454) and the leading Senate bill on climate change (Boxer-Kerry, S. 1733), Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) introduced a bill dedicated to natural resource adaptation planning. The Natural Resources Climate Adaptation Act (S. 1933) would require federal natural resource agencies to prepare a national strategy that assesses the effects of climate change on natural resources and helps natural resource managers prepare strategies for adaptation. S. 1933 mirrors a number of provisions in ACES and the Boxer-Kerry bill, including (1) the establishment of a National Resources Climate Change Adaptation Panel to develop a National Resources Climate Change Adaptation Strategy; (2) requiring federal natural resource agencies to create adaptation plans that are consistent with the National Resources Climate Change Adaptation Strategy; (3) requiring states to develop natural resources adaptation plans, approved by the Secretary of the Interior, to be eligible for federal funding; and (4) a Natural Resources Climate Change Adaptation Fund.

However, the bill does not include any of the other adaptation provisions in ACES or Boxer-Kerry, including those creating a National Climate Service, an international adaptation program, a national geographic information system database on fish and wildlife habitat and corridors, and specific adaptation programs targeting adaptation to the effects from climate change on public health; drinking water and water systems; flood control, protection, prevention and response; wildfires; or coastal resources. Moreover, as I’ve argued in earlier blog posts here and here, each of these proposals fails to provide concrete substantive goals and risks further fragmenting natural resource management and planning rather than serving a coordinating function. (In my forthcoming article, I provide a framework for Congress to transform existing natural resource governance to better cope with the effects of climate change).

4. Moreover, Congressional proposals dedicate insufficient resources to climate change adaptation, with more recent proposals providing even less than earlier ones.

The U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a prominent coalition of business and environmental groups, recently joined the chorus of concerned parties asserting that adaptation funding must be substantially increased. In a document submitted to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the group argued that adaptation funding currently being considered in Congress “will be insufficient to address the scale of the challenges in the U.S. and abroad.” However, Congressional efforts are going in the opposite direction. As reported by Greenwire, the National Wildlife Federation determined that the programs created to address natural resource adaptation in the Boxer-Kerry bill are slated to receive 18% less funding than under the ACES bill passed by the House. Even the House bill only guarantees adaptation funding for state programs (which is only 38.5 percent of the funding needed), with the rest subject to the vagaries of the annual congressional appropriations process. Substantial and assured funding—combined with a regulatory framework that mandates clear, concrete substantive goals for plans that are integrated into existing planning and implementation structures—is necessary before adaptation planning has a chance to succeed.

Climate Justice

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