Federal climate change adaptation strategy needed, say Rep. Markey, hearing witnesses, GAO report


Climate Science Watch’s call for a national adaptation strategy in climate legislation was buttressed by the recommendations in a new congressional Government Accountability Office report released at an October 22 hearing of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Expert witnesses told Committee Chairman Ed Markey and other members that, while climate change adaptation cannot effectively substitute for emissions reduction efforts, federal guidance and investment in adaptation efforts nationwide are essential to protecting against unavoidable disruptive impacts.

Post by Alexa Jay and Rick Piltz

The House Select Committee hearing “Preparing the United States for Global Warming’s Impacts” (hearing testimony is at this link) addressed the appropriate role of the federal government in preparing for the significant impacts we will face “even in the case of deep reductions in future heat-trapping emissions.”

Chairman Markey emphasized the risk posed by these impacts, saying that Hurricane Katrina foreshadowed the scope of the disasters we will experience if we do not prepare adequately. 

Markey said that, as proposed in the Waxman-Markey climate and clean energy bill passed by the House in June, we must emphasize both adaptation and mitigation. “We cannot adapt our way out of global warming,” the chairman said.

However, mitigation efforts alone will not safeguard the country against the full weight of impacts, and Markey noted that we must coordinate federal, state, and local efforts on adaptation. To that end, the chairman asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to examine: (1) what actions federal, state, local, and international authorities are taking to adapt to a changing climate; (2) the challenges that federal, state, and local officials face in their efforts to adapt; and (3) actions that Congress and federal agencies could take to help address these challenges.

The resulting GAO report, released in connection with the hearing, recommends the development of a national strategic adaptation plan that will provide assistance for state and local entities in implementing their own preparedness strategies.

John Stephenson, Director of the Natural Resources and Environment Office at the GAO, testified that the institutions that will be affected by climate change are unprepared both conceptually and materially to deal with impacts.

Stephenson identified the main challenges facing adaptation efforts: a general focus of attention and resources on immediate needs, a lack of site-specific data relevant to adaptation, and a lack of clearly-defined roles and responsibilities for federal, state, and local players. He said that a national adaptation strategy is needed to address these institutional gaps. 

Eric Schwab from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources echoed the need for a federal adaptation strategy, emphasizing that the role of the states must be integrated into a federal program. He recommended that action be taken at the federal level to provide funding for state and local adaptation. 

A key take-home message was best articulated by hearing witness Steve Seidel with the Pew Center on Global Climate Change:  “We will rue the day that we did not start adapting sooner.  The cost of not [adapting] now is going to come back and knock our society for a loop down the road,” as reported by Environment & Energy Daily on Oct 23 (subs. required).  He presented very good testimony, largely paralleling CSW’s views in most respects, that offered additional support for a federal adaptation strategy.

Ranking Republican member James Sensenbrenner and Dr. Kenneth Green of the American Enterprise Institute both touted adaptation as an alternative to a policy of requiring reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.  They argued that “scientific uncertainty” militates against requiring mitigation. Sensenbrenner once again trotted out the specious argument that the planet began cooling in 2001, a claim that has been thoroughly debunked by RealClimate, among other climate scientists.

Climate Science Watch has called for a national climate change preparedness strategy, and went one step further in recommending the establishment of a federal entity responsible for implementation and coordination on all levels of government, in discussing the U.S. Climate Change Impacts Report released in June and in our recommendations to Senate committee chairmen for climate and clean energy legislation: 

US Climate Change Impacts Report Shows Immediate Need for Action—White House Must Lead in Preparing

CSW recommendations for Senate bill on preparedness, research, and climate services

With the release of Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, the first climate science report to come out under the Obama administration, CSW Director Rick Piltz said:

“The report shows that the need for strong climate change legislation is about more than clean energy and green jobs. It’s about the potentially devastating costs and consequences of inaction. The need to jump-start federal action is urgent and should not be delayed by the daunting challenge of enacting major legislation to establish a cap-and-trade system for reducing emissions.

“The Obama administration should begin to develop without delay a new national climate change planning and preparedness office specifically designed to put federal expertise and resources to work on pragmatic climate change solutions. The administration must restore the credibility of the U.S. Global Change Research Program with new leadership and a new focus on research on the consequences of climate change. This would be a major step toward ending the disconnect between science and society, and the dysfunctional relationship between Washington and local communities. It would quickly begin to re-establish integrity and accountability and undo the damage done by years of delay.”

Some of the key recommendations in our letters to Senators Kerry, Boxer, and Rockefeller for the climate change adaptation planning and preparedness, climate services, and climate science research components of the Senate climate and clean energy legislation included the following:

National Climate Change Adaptation Planning and Preparedness

•  The Senate climate and clean energy bill should require the development and implementation of a comprehensive, proactive national planning and preparedness strategy for limiting and adapting to the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of climate change.

•  The Senate should include a program under which the federal government provides support for state-level climate change adaptation planning and implementation.

•  The Senate should establish a national climate change preparedness center to integrate federal interagency adaptation planning and implementation. This center should serve as a one-stop point of entry for states and local communities nationwide to access federal expertise and support for operational adaptation activities.

Our recommendations in greater detail.

CSW has outlined in detail the Adaptation provisions in the Kerry-Boxer Senate climate and clean energy legislation introduced on September 30.

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