US Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Draft Strategy – Part 2

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The draft National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, now out for public review, reflects important steps forward in federal planning under the Obama Administration that would not have been allowed under the Bush Administration.  But the problematic position of climate change in US politics, agency budget cutbacks and the lack of funding for significant new policy initiatives, and the influence of the global warming denial machine all pose challenges to the successful implementation of the Strategy.  Although a government document of this sort can’t discuss these politically sensitive obstacles directly, can it be framed so as to help users of the Strategy find ways around them?

The stated goal of the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Change Adaptation Strategy is “to inspire, enable, and increase meaningful action.”  In Part 1 of our analysis, CSW noted that, during a February 14 public workshop held in Washington, DC, agency and NGO representatives as well as concerned citizens around the country raised issues about whether the Strategy could be a useful tool for implementing climate change preparedness and adaptation.  We suggested that the document might be improved by including a better-developed discussion of implementation issues.

One constraint on the Strategy as a tool for implementation is that it does not directly acknowledge the range of sociopolitical and economic barriers that managers may face when trying to implement climate adaptation strategies.  An effective strategic plan must both identify potential challenges and suggest ways of overcoming them.  Of course, the managerial and technocratic nature of a federal, Congressionally-mandated document like the Strategy precludes direct, candid discussion of political obstacles, including the aggressive opposition to action on climate change from ‘skeptics’ and denialists that will confront efforts to implement the Strategy.  Yet these obstacles must be faced, and faced down.

Each of the seven Goals set forth by the Strategy has areas in which the draft document could be strengthened. We will focus here on Goals 1 and 6, which garnered the most stakeholder attention at the February 14 workshop.

The Strategy’s Goal 1 is to “conserve habitat to support healthy fish, wildlife, and plant populations and ecosystem functions in a changing climate.” Strategies toward accomplishing this goal include:

  • identifying ecologically connected networks that may be resilient to climate change effects;
  • securing appropriate conservation status for these areas;
  • restoring habitat features where necessary to maintain ecosystem function and resilience to climate change; and
  • conserving, restoring, and establishing new connections among conservation areas to facilitate migrations caused by climate change.

We have no doubt that government scientists will be able to identify networks of habitat that will be resilient in a warmer climate.  Restoring these habitats and establishing new connections among conservation areas will pose significant challenges to natural resource managers and landowners under the best of circumstances.  But this challenge is likely to be significantly greater given the politically controversial status of climate change combined with ongoing pressures on government budgets.

First, restoring land and purchasing new land will require adequate funding.  In tough economic times, with pervasive cuts in government spending (even the Department of Defense, a sacred cow, will be required to cut $487 billion from its budget during the next decade), how will resource managers secure enough funding to adequately rehabilitate all the land necessary to meet the Strategy’s goals?

Further, that the mission of the Strategy has to do with climate change will, in itself, pose another challenge to securing support and funding. Anything involving climate change seems to be a political hot potato; no doubt this is part of the reason why President Obama largely avoids speaking directly about the problem.  In Congress, climate change issues are guaranteed to be controversial.  Just months ago, we witnessed House Republicans blocking NOAA’s attempt to create a Climate Service, while branding this much-needed new management tool and source of useful information as a prospective forum for propaganda.  CSW has the story.

An additional challenge with Goal 1 will be tackling the need for conservation corridors that can support changing migration patterns and connect traditional with non-traditional habitats.  The draft Strategy suggests supplementing conservation strategies on both public and private land.  On the 70 percent of US land that is held privately, the Strategy recommends strengthening and expanding conservation programs with landowner tools under the Endangered Species Act.  To its credit, the document acknowledges that these conservation programs “may not be fully adequate to respond to climate change.”  Beyond the general idea that programs must be expanded, the document does not address the challenges of getting the many different types of landowners to manage lands in a way that will be useful in plans for climate change adaptation.

When it comes down to it, expanding conservation programs will require funding, Congressional support, and backing by the surrounding communities.  These luxuries will be difficult to acquire in a struggling economy with a strong lobby against climate action and a pervasive climate denial machine.  It will happen only if much greater political support and public demand for adaptation than exists at present is developed.

This brings us to Goal 6, to “increase awareness and motivate action to safeguard fish, wildlife and plants in a changing climate.”  The Strategy asserts that “limited resources should be targeted toward elected officials, public and private policy makers, groups that are interested in learning more about climate change issues, private landowners, and resource user groups.”

One method of getting many groups involved might be for the Strategy to lay out different frameworks under which climate change impacts and adaptive preparedness can be viewed that appeal to the needs of different communities, while providing alternative tools for use by diverse communities in addressing their most significant local and regional issues.

The discussion of Goal 6 strategies and actions on pages 71-72 of the draft Strategy outlines about a dozen kinds of actions that can be taken to:

  • increase public awareness and understanding of climate impacts to natural resources and ecosystem services and the principles of climate adaptation;
  • engage the public through targeted education and outreach efforts and stewardship opportunities; and
  • coordinate climate change communication efforts across jurisdictions.

Such actions, implemented in a coordinated manner by all levels of government and nongovernmental partner organizations nationwide, could be important first steps in building the kind of support that will be needed in order to implement real climate change preparedness and adaptation.

Capturing political and public support is necessary to accomplish any of the climate adaptation goals outlined in the Strategy.  But the dysfunctional politics of the climate change problem remains a formidable barrier to implementing responsible policies.  Climate change adaptation managers and experts who raise issues toward implementing the Strategy in communities nationwide can expect to be met with active opposition from global warming ‘skeptics’ and denialists, who will challenge the very legitimacy of efforts to prepare for climate change.

And what are they to do then?  Be risk-averse and move on to more comfortable surroundings?  Or will they be armed with the mandate and the tools to work around, and if necessary push back against opposition, to put the opposition on the defensive, in order to move the needed adaptation agenda forward?

One approach to customized framing is suggested by the problem of adaptation to extreme weather events caused by climate change.  The IPCC Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation emphasizes that “risk management works best when tailored to local circumstances. Combining local knowledge with additional scientific and technical expertise helps communities reduce their risk to climate change.”

Thus, for example, communities that have been hit by extreme events – heat waves, drought, flooding, severe storms, wildfires – may be more apt to support preparedness and adaptation strategies framed in terms of these problems.  And opponents of acting on climate change impacts can be challenged in terms of whether they would choose instead to leave their communities unprepared to deal with heat waves, drought, or other impacts.

Using this approach, could the fish, wildlife, and plants Strategy include more help for managers in coping with the social, political, and economic hurdles they must face in taking actions to implement it?  Perhaps more discussion and guidance on how to mold communication and outreach on climate change preparedness and adaptation issues to fit specific community circumstances, while putting opposition on the defensive, might help to connect the Strategy more usefully to the potentially daunting challenge of implementing it.

And in implementing the Strategy, it would help if climate adaptation managers and experts were being given a great deal more active and vocal high-level support from political leaders in shaping public opinion and moving a climate adaptation agenda – from the White House down to mayors’ offices and local leaders. Without stronger and more effective support from political leaders, the insights and recommendations contained in the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Change Adaptation Strategy are likely to face strong headwinds.

Earlier posts:

Federal Climate Change Adaptation Task Force 2011 progress report - one step forward

IPCC says essential actions needed to reduce risks of changing climate extremes

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