White House Reports on Climate Change Adaptation, as Communities Face Rising Impacts Without National Strategy

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The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on Friday (28 October 2011) released a second annual progress report from the government’s Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force.  Despite the significant progress summarized in Federal Actions for a Climate Resilient Nation [PDF], the U.S. still has no national strategy for adapting to climate change, leaving America dangerously unprepared for climate conditions that are becoming more extreme and disruptive. With Washington (and the field of presidential candidates) largely AWOL in responding to climate change, the burden shifts to cities and towns across the country to face these growing extremes mostly on their own.  Fortunately, some communities and businesses around America  are beginning to prepare.  Unfortunately, those cities and businesses are the exception, not the rule.

News of the task force report release was announced Friday afternoon by CEQ and OSTP on their blogs, and was accompanied by an off-the-record teleconference led by the task force co-chairs Nancy Sutley, Chair of CEQ, and Dr. Steve Fetter, Principal Assistant Director for Environment and Energy, and Assistant Director At-Large, at OSTP.  See Taking Action to Protect our Nation from Climate Change Impacts, 28 Oct 2011).

In the article below:

Impacts of Climate Disruption Already Being Felt and “pose significant social, economic, and environmental risks to the United States”

“[C]ommunities across the Nation are already experiencing a range of climatic changes, including more frequent and extreme precipitation events, longer wildfire seasons, reduced snowpack, extreme heat events, increasing ocean temperatures, and rising sea levels,” the report says. “The impacts from these changes are affecting livelihoods, infrastructure, ecosystems, food production, energy supply, national security, and the cultural heritage of populations and communities.”

More than 84 major weather-related disasters had been declared by the Administration by early October 2011; and the country already has experienced this year a record 10 weather-related disasters with damages of at least a billion dollars each. The Climate Extremes Index developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that climate extremes are rising nationally, with a particularly sharp increase in the northeast (see figure below).


Above: The Climate Extremes Index for the January-September period in the Northeast, 1910 through 2011. It shows a sharp increase since the 1980s. Source: NOAA.

Looking into the future, the report says:

“By the end of this century, global sea level is expected to rise by more than 2 feet in a low emissions scenario or nearly 3.5 feet in a higher emissions scenario. Higher sea levels, especially in combination with storm surge, will increasingly inundate U.S. coastal communities and threaten coastal ecosystems and infrastructure, such as military installations. Heat waves are expected to become more frequent and intense, posing a threat to human health and agriculture For rivers fed by snowpack, runoff will continue to occur earlier, with reduced flows late in the summer, and the potential for water shortages that can affect the supply of water for drinking, agriculture, electricity production, and ecosystems. Economic, social, and natural systems are also inter-connected on a global scale, meaning that climate impacts in other regions of the world can pose serious economic and security risks to the United States. Increases in extreme weather and climate events will contribute to food and water scarcity, which can intensify existing tensions over access to life-sustaining resources.”

Extreme weather and other climate change impacts pose significant social, economic, and environmental risks to the United States,” the report concludes. “The U.S. Government has a responsibility to reduce climate risks to public health and safety, economic well-being, natural resources, and Federal programs and services.”

The report comes just three weeks before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release (on 18 November) the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) of Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX). The IPCC document will reinforce the task force’s conclusion that “we must identify key threats, prioritize activities that reduce our vulnerability, initiate actions that promote resilience, and enhance preparedness capabilities.”

Report Cites Progress and a Commitment to Further Action…

The task force report lists five areas where the Federal government has made significant progress towards its vision of “a resilient, healthy and prosperous Nation in the face of a changing climate”:

  • “Integrating adaptation into federal government planning and activities
  • Building resilience to climate change in communities
  • Improving accessibility and coordination of science for decision making
  • Developing strategies to safeguard natural resources in a changing climate
  • Enhancing efforts to lead and support international adaptation.”
Among the accomplishments cited by the task force in safeguarding natural resources was the release on Friday of a National Action Plan: Priorities for Managing Freshwater Resources[PDF] to “help freshwater resource managers assure adequate water supplies, safeguard water quality, and protect human life, health, and property.” Also, a draft National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy is supposed to be released for public review by the end of this year, with a final strategy to be completed in mid-2012. The task force also highlights development of a Strategic Action Plan for Resiliency and Adaptation to Climate Change and Ocean Acidification being developed by the National Ocean Council (see the outline dated 6/2/2011).

The report says the task force over the next several years “will focus on enhancing regional coordination, strengthening and leveraging non-Federal partnerships, and implementing Federal agency adaptation planning.” The CEQ and OSTP blogs emphasized on Friday that the Administration “remains committed to protecting the Nation from the critical impacts of climate change.”

…But Still No Overarching National Adaptation Strategy

However, there are reasons to be concerned. In his Executive Order on Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance on October 5, 2009, President Obama said that the task force was by that time "already engaged in developing the domestic and international dimensions of a U.S. strategy for adaptation to climate change" and should "develop approaches through which the policies and practices of the agencies can be made compatible with and reinforce that strategy." He directed the chair of CEQ to provide to him within one year "a progress report on agency actions in support of the national adaptation strategy and recommendations for any further such measures as the CEQ Chair may deem necessary."

After two years, there are two progress reports but still no sign of a clear “national adaptation strategy” agency actions are supposed to be supporting; and an overarching strategy is not likely anytime soon. Whereas the task force has reported annually on its progress (in October 2010 and 2011), it said in its progress report on Friday that the next update will be in March 2014 – two and a half years from now and well over 4 years after the President formed the task force.

Furthermore, a report on a National Preparedness Goal [PDF] issued in September by the Administration (in response to the Presidential Policy Directive on National Preparedness of March 30, 2011) entirely omits any mention of climate change – even though the adaptation task force highlights the actions Federal agencies are taking to to incorporate climate adaptation into planning, emergency preparedness, and disaster recovery to protect communities and reduce losses.”

Meanwhile, some members of Congress are actively seeking to obstruct Federal climate preparedness efforts, including participation of the Department of Homeland Security in the task force (see our previous posts, Dangerously Unprepared: Congressional Budget Cuts are Leaving Americans Vulnerable to Climate Extremes, 21 July 2011; and House drying up funding for weather preparedness, 12 Aug 2011). At the same time, the issue of national climate preparedness is absent from policy debates among U.S. presidential candidates, most of whom have to varying degrees argued that the scientific evidence is not strong enough to justify strong policy responses.

Leaders Emerge among State and Local Governments, Private Sector

Without strong support from Washington, the burden falls on cities and towns across the country to face these growing extremes mostly on their own.  Fortunately, some communities and businesses around America  are beginning to prepare.  Unfortunately, those cities and businesses are the exception, not the rule.

Despite slow progress within the Federal government and the lack of strong, supportive and unified national leadership, leaders are emerging among state and local governments, and in the private sector. They are feeling the emerging impacts of climate change and increasingly recognize the threat of further climate disruption. They see the costs of inaction as increasingly unacceptable; and view improved preparedness as essential to both the public and private interest.

The task force report cites examples of action at the local and state levels, activities supported in many ways by Federal agencies. “Across the country, cities, towns, tribes, and states are leading efforts to reduce climate change risks,” the report says. “As of January 2011, eleven states had completed adaptation plans, four had plans in progress, and eight had recommended developing adaptation plans in their State Climate Action Plans. Local adaptation efforts are emerging as well.” The task force cites a Spring 2011 survey sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors (Clean Energy Solutions for America’s Cities) finding that “[f]or one in three cities, adapting to climate change is already an element of their capital planning and/or capital improvement programs.”  The survey adds that "[c]ties in the Northeast and West are particularly likely to already be considering climate change adaptation, while cities in the Midwest are least likely."

Those same numbers raise concerns.  Two out of three cities are not considering climate change in their programs; and more than three quarters of the states have no adaptation plans.

Turning to the private sector, the task force reports:

“Investors are increasing pressure on firms, as evidenced by a record 101 shareholder resolutions in 2010 calling on North American companies to manage climate change risks. Mounting losses from natural disasters are also shifting the business environment. In a 2011 global survey of businesses [Adapting to an Uncertain Climate: A World of Commercial Opportunities, Economist Intelligence Unit, March 2011], nearly nine out of ten firms reported that they suffered climate impacts in the last three yearsBusinesses are starting to take preventive action to protect their assets, employees, and operations from climate change risks. In the same survey, approximately 22 percent of North American firms reported actively making changes within their business to minimize climate risks and damages.”

As with the data on local and state adaptation plans, the survey of businesses has its alarming side.  More than three-quarters of North American firms are not taking steps to address climate change risks, despite emerging impacts and projections of increased climate disruption.

Responding to the need for greater preparedness among businesses and communities, Oxfam America announced on Friday a new pilot Partnership for Resilience and Environmental Preparedness (PREP).  Its goals are to promote “practices and economic growth that help both vulnerable communities and business adapt to the impacts of climate change; and…public policies that facilitate adaptation efforts to prepare for and respond to the consequences of a changing climate.” Partners include Calvert Investments, Entergy, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc., Levi Strauss & Company, Starbucks, and Swiss Re, BSR and Ceres (with Oxfam serving as secretariat).

A meaningful discussion on climate change cannot stop at mitigation,” said J. Wayne Leonard, CEO of Entergy Corporation, in a press release issued on Friday by Oxfam (Key Companies Launch Partnership on Climate Resilience). “The solutions must also include adapting to and resilience against its most negative consequences,” Leonard added. “Today’s report recognizes that the livelihoods of people living in coastal communities, the sustainability of rich natural resources that support our economy and the security of residential, commercial and industrial assets are at great risk if we don’t devise and implement plans to protect against, and recover from, the adverse effects associated with climate change.”

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