US Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Draft Strategy – Part 1

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“The nation must prepare for and adapt to a changing climate,” says the draft National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy, “to safeguard our valuable living resources for current and future generations.”  The draft Strategy, now out for public review, is a collaborative effort of national, state, and tribal governments.  On February 14, CSW participated in a public workshop at the Department of the Interior to provide feedback on the draft.

On February 14 CSW ventured to the Department of the Interior for the latest in a series of public workshops on the development of the new draft National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy.  Alongside agency representatives and other interest groups, we helped provide feedback to improve the document, which at this stage is somewhat underdeveloped in the details of its goals and plans for implementation.

The Strategy, found here, is a collaborative effort of national, state, and tribal governments to develop a framework for preparedness and adaptation action on climate change.  Public workshops, aiming to gauge public reaction and help improve the document, have been held in locations across the country and via online webinars since January.

The next public outreach effort will be held as a webinar on February 22.  It will include a short presentation on the content of the Strategy and an opportunity to voice questions or suggestions for improvement.  If you’d like to register for the event, you can do so here.  You may also submit written comments for the DOI’s consideration until March 5, 2012.

The Strategy results from the Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2010.  Congress directed the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and DOI to develop a government-wide strategy to address climate impacts to fish, wildlife, and plants.  The CEQ and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) under the DOI’s direction then invited NOAA and the state wildlife agencies to co-lead the development of the document.

Day-to-day development of the Strategy is overseen by a small Management Team that includes representatives from the FWS, NOAA, Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commissions.

The Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force also endorsed the development of the Strategy in 2010.  This entity, tasked with helping the federal government strengthen policies and programs to prepare for climate change impacts, has created periodic progress reports that call for collaborative efforts within government to address climate change impacts.  The Strategy, in part, results from this effort.  CSW has more on the October 2011 Progress Report, and many articles on the broader subject of climate change preparedness.

Lacking powers of enforcement, and without specifying procedures to ensure agency accountability, the Strategy’s scope remains limited.  It seeks to “inspire” and enable” action on climate change adaptation, acting as a “guide to responsible actions by natural resource managers and other decision-makers at all levels of government.”

Still, the Strategy is a highly commendable first effort, representing and acknowledging the urgency of climate change threats to humans and wildlife alike, and seeking to initiate a unified response.  “The nation must prepare for and adapt to a changing climate,” its premise emphasizes, “to safeguard our valuable living resources for current and future generations.”

The document draws on expected impacts of climate change across ecosystems as a basis for development of adaptation policy.  The power of these impacts to disrupt fish, wildlife, and plants (and by extension the humans that rely on these resources) results from a variety of climate change factors acting in combination.  These include increased average land and ocean temperatures that lead to reduced snowpack levels, hydrological changes, and sea level rise; changing precipitation patterns that will create both drought and extreme rain events; and increasing atmospheric CO2 that will contribute to ocean acidification, changes in species composition, and increased risk of fires.

Emphasizing the realities of climate change impacts in eight ecosystem types in the United States (forest, shrubland, grassland, desert, Arctic tundra, inland water, coastal, and marine), the Strategy is relevant to resource managers, industry representatives, and private landowners nationwide. It is intended to be a living document, kept up to date through revision as the science progresses and impacts become more apparent.  As such, it is meant to build upon and complement the efforts of the US Global Change Research Program and the National Climate Assessment.

Beyond documenting projected impacts, the Strategy identifies seven goals for managers to cope with climate change impacts to fish, wildlife, and plants:

1. Conserve and connect habitat
2. Manage species and habitats
3. Enhance management capacity
4. Support adaptive management
5. Increase knowledge and information
6. Increase awareness and motivate action
7. Reduce non-climate stressors

At first glance, these goals may seem excessively broad and too lofty to be carried out in the near future – to what extent will we manage which species and how do we define successful management?  However, the document is intended for a broad audience (natural resource managers, agencies, private landowners, and industry representatives are all intended viewers) so some level of generality is necessary.  In addition, the goals are intended to be initiated during the next 5 years, not fully achieved.

Giving the goals more direction and specificity are the accompanying “strategies” and more detailed “actions” that describe each strategy.  Workshop participants and CSW on Tuesday took most interest in the Goal 6, which aims to increase awareness and motivate action on climate change adaptation.  This goal is supported by three strategies for its accomplishment:

1. Increasing public awareness of ecosystem services
2. Engaging the public in stewardship opportunities
3. Coordinating climate change communication efforts across jurisdictions.

Further supporting the “strategies” are “actions” – each “strategy” has four or five “actions” that contribute to its achievement.  For example, toward increasing public awareness of ecosystem services a decision-maker might “partner with key stakeholder groups to help develop and distribute key climate adaptation messages tailored for their interest groups.”

In discussing Goal 6 in detail, the workshop facilitators asked for opinions and critiques of the language and structure of each goal and strategy, toward assessing the document’s use/helpfulness to different parties and gaining different perspectives on improvement.

As part of our contribution, CSW commented that the document might carry greater relevance for decision-makers who want to advance a needed adaptation agenda to an unconvinced or climate-skeptic audience (a very real possibility) by including more explicit language on the ways in which climate change issues can be framed to appeal to diverse groups – for example, emphasizing the potential damages to people and property to one community, the negative impacts to industry in another.  (More on this in Part 2 of this post.)

After an exhaustive explanation of each of the Strategy’s goals, the document moves on to discuss integration and implementation.  This section contains both excellent elements and areas in need of improvement. CSW commends the authors for positioning the Strategy within the plethora of agencies and organizations that are working on climate change impacts – rather than replace these existing efforts, it is meant to build upon and complement them.  The potential for this document to act as a unifier and focus the activities of many different independent groups is laudable.  But will the document gain the attention and traction it needs with the appropriate parties across the nation?

Moving forward, this is a crucial question – the document’s short and relatively underdeveloped “implementation” section does little to initiate adaptation action beyond broad “Federal, state, and tribal governments should…” statements.  While acknowledging existing adaptation efforts, it does little to pinpoint which agencies or governments should tackle which tasks.

Even further, despite the document’s goal to “guide responsible actions by national resource managers and other decision makers,” none of the agency and NGO representatives that attended the February 14 workshop said they thought that they would use the Strategy as a tool for implementing adaptation strategies.  The workshop facilitator confirmed that public briefing sessions across the country had revealed the same sentiment.

As one attendee pointed out, strategies are only as good as their implementation; the Strategy as a whole might benefit from making its goals more uniformly realistic and achievable, and its implementation suggestions more specific and action based.

That being said, it is important to emphasize that within the confines of the Strategy as a Congressionally-sanctioned, agency-authored document, it is an admirable achievement, prescribing coordinated, cooperative action toward climate change adaptation.  The goals it sets are appropriate and necessary to ensure the survival and maintenance of biodiversity in our nation’s fish, wildlife and plant populations.  It reads as an appropriate balance of scientific understanding and advocacy for action, and it captures the urgency of our need to adapt to unavoidable climate change impacts. With so little on climate change getting done in Congress, that this document exists at all is quite the accomplishment.

[BUT when one considers this effort separately from its political context, the limitations become clear – stay tuned for more analysis in Part 2.]

 

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One Response to US Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Draft Strategy – Part 1

  1. Tony O'Brien says:

    Some difficult choices ahead. Especially for the true environmentalists.

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