Climate adaptation policy remains underdeveloped as cap-and-trade dominates the legislative debate


This week, the House Energy & Commerce Committee has been considering and marking up (amending) a thousand-page bill formally introduced last week by Reps. Waxman and Markey (H.R. 2454). While the complex details of an elaborate CO2 cap-and-trade scheme remain hotly debated and the central focus of attention, other crucial public policy matters, such as how the federal government will assist communities in anticipating, preparing for, and adapting to the impacts of global climate disruption, are less far along in development. While the “Adapting to Climate Change” subtitle in the Waxman-Markey bill contains some good provisions and some improvements on an earlier discussion draft, we still have a ways to go before we have adequately addressed the federal role in “managing the unavoidable” consequences of climate change, even as we seek to “avoid the unmanageable” impacts by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

post by Anne Polansky
The 111th Congress may go down in history as the Congress that faced the climate change problem head-on and made some very tough decisions about how best to reduce the “carbon footprint” of our fossil fuel-dependent economy.  At no other time has this problem received this much public policy attention.  It seems likely that we will see landmark legislation enacted.  This is as it should be.  The climate threat will not disappear, it will only grow more serious unless swift, decisive action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  We are concerned, however, that the matter of how society will develop the ability to anticipate, plan and prepare for, and become more resilient in adapting to challenging conditions in a climate-disrupted world is not receiving the level of serious attention in Congress that it deserves.   

There has been progress, however, and movement in the right direction in the US House of Representatives.  For example, an earlier discussion draft of the Waxman-Markey bill contained a lengthy section on “domestic adaptation” that created a confusing bureaucracy—an “Adaptation Council” chaired by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a separate “Natural Resources Adaptation Panel” with the Council on Environmental Quality serving as chair.  In a set of comments offered by CSW, we took issue with this needlessly duplicative approach, and with placing NOAA at the head of a multiagency national adaptation strategy.  H.R. 2454 strips away the original Adaptation Program and Council text.

In the Adaptation subtitle of H.R. 2454, the central focus is on “natural resources,” defined in the bill as “the terrestrial, freshwater, estuarine, and marine fish, wildlife, plants, land, water, habitats, and ecosystems of the United States.”  “Natural resources adaptation” is defined as “the protection, restoration, and conservation of natural resources to enable them to become more resilient, adapt to, and withstand the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification.”  While the provisions as they are written are all well and good, and the hard work that went into crafting them is evident, we are concerned that limiting a US adapation effort to natural resources is too limited.  A national climate adaptation strategy and program must include other important assets, such as the built environment.  A section dedicated to enhancing our public health system to better address the adverse consequences of climate change as they compromise human health is good, but public health is separated out as a focus, and not integated into a more comprehensive adaptation capability.  We do concur that the White House Council on Environmental Quality is the most logical forum for coordinating multiple federal agency activities on preparedness and the more operational aspects of climate change policies and programs.  We will elaborate on this point in the near future and post our recommendations and thoughts about how best to configure a meaningful federal role.

We had also expressed our concern that the Waxman-Markey discussion draft virtually ignored the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), the existing $1.8 billion federal research program on climate change, which should play an important role in supporting the development of climate change adaptive capacity.  In a single sentence, H.R. 2454 Sec. 451 would create a new National Climate Change Adaptation Program within the USGCRP, “for the purpose of increasing the overall effectiveness of Federal climate change adaptation efforts.”  This can be considered as placeholder language, which should be further developed as the bill progresses.     

H.R. 2454 Sec. 452 would establish a National Climate Service (NCS) in NOAA.  Sec. 452 consists of a single sentence:

The Secretary of Commerce, acting through the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), shall establish within NOAA a National Climate Service to develop climate information, data, forecasts, and warnings at national and regional scales, and to distribute information related to climate impacts to State, local, and tribal governments and the public to facilitate the development and implementation of strategies to reduce society’s vulnerability to climate variability and change.

This suggests that further development of legislative language on creating a National Climate Service is still needed.  The House Science and Technology Committee is doing that, with a National Climate Service bill that has been marked up at the subcommittee level and is scheduled for full committee mark-up on June 3.  Climate Science Watch commented on the Science Committee bill and the results of the subcommittee mark-up. We believe the version reported out of the House Science Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, with some needed revision, could serve well in substituting for the placeholder language in H.R. 2454 Sec. 452.  We are hopeful that a few of the problems we noted in the NCS bill considered in the House Science E&E subcommittee will be solved in full Committee in early June.

A more comprehensive and integrative approach to assessing, anticipating, planning, and preparing for climate change impacts than what we have seen thus far must be instituted. The US Senate has yet to take this matter up formally by introducing a bill, but discussions are taking place in the Senate Commerce Committee, and to some extent in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.  We hope that by the time a bill has run the gauntlet through both the House and Senate and is ready for presidential signature, Congress will have looked at the preparedness aspect of climate change more fully, and will create a robust and functional set of federal programs tied closely to the needs of state and local decisionmakers.

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