Report to the President outlines new direction for climate change adaptation

Last week the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force released a groundbreaking report that outlines recommendations for preparing the federal government and the nation for a changing climate. The report does a great job of laying out the federal role in this process. It recognizes that adaptation has to happen primarily at the local and state level but notes that the federal government can help coordinate adaptation efforts at those levels, ensure that decision-makers have the best available information, promote best practices, and ensure that federal agencies and programs are resilient to climate change.

There are a few parts of the report that especially stand out including a set of guiding principles for adaptation. Those principles include the following:

  • “Apply Ecosystem-based Approaches: Adaptation should, where relevant, take into account strategies to increase ecosystem resilience and protect critical ecosystem services on which humans depend to reduce vulnerability of human and natural systems to climate change.
  • Maximize Mutual Benefits: Adaptation should, where possible, use strategies that complement or directly support other related climate or environmental initiatives, such as efforts to improve disaster preparedness, promote sustainable resource management, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions including the development of cost-effective technologies.”

These are two crucial points. We have a choice in how we adapt. We can either choose the same single-purpose solutions we have relied on in the past that damage surrounding ecosystems, or we choose solutions that build resilience for human and natural communities at the same time. In many cases, there are options that accomplish both goals at a lower cost than traditional approaches. In fact, protecting wetlands, forests and floodplains can help buffer communities from floods, droughts and other climate change impacts. The second principle listed above similarly emphasizes that adaptation can achieve multiple objectives. We have been arguing for precisely this kind of ecosystem-based, multi-purpose approach to adaptation for some time here, and it is very encouraging to see these principles reflected in the progress report. 

The progress report also notes that many existing policies make us less prepared to deal with a changing climate and that the federal government has a critical role in changing that:

“The Government should also consider how Federal policies may lead to unintended consequences that increase the Nation’s vulnerability to climate risks, thus making adaptation more costly and difficult.”

The federal government must first and foremost remove these perverse incentives such as subsidized flood insurance that encourages people to build in flood prone areas that will be even more vulnerable in a changing climate. Even if the task force only began to address these shortcomings, that would be a major first step.

Finally, the report suggests that the federal government develop a national action plan to help adapt the nation’s water resources to a changing climate with a special focus on water-use efficiency. It recommends that the government establish national water efficiency metrics and better promote efficiency within federal water projects.

This report is a major step toward outlining a sustainable and effective approach to climate adaptation. It recognizes that there are no easy answers and that climate adaptation is a process that will have to evolve as we learn to live with greater volatility and uncertainty. It is unclear to what extent these recommendations will be implemented throughout the federal government or guide adaptation policies at the state and local level. There is much to be done, but this is a positive first step.