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Adapting to Climate Change

October 25, 2010 – The White House released a report on the 14th of this month about climate change. The subject of the report is adapting to climate change. Not preventing, little in the way of mitigating. Adapting. Yes, I know – it’s too late for prevention. I also know that actions being taken on the city and state levels will help to mitigate some of the effects of climate change. I know that anything the federal government does is best done quietly, without fanfare. I know that the EPA is kicking into high gear (and that the Republicans only await a favorable verdict on Election Day before they act to stop it). Still: how very inspirational it must be to our international “partners” to know that we are devoting ourselves, at the national level, to adaptation.

The title of the report says it best: Progress Report of the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force. So much said with so few words; this title speaks of missed opportunities, of misguided attempts on the part of our government to silence those who knew better, of denial sanctioned at the highest levels. Am I being awfully bleak about things? I suppose I am. After all, for the very first time, the federal government is confronting this issue head on. The executive summary, which is all I’ve read, begins with this statement: “We envision a resilient, healthy, and prosperous Nation in the face of a changing climate.” This is a worthy goal, and none of us knows to what degree it can be accomplished, so naysaying serves no purpose.

All right, on to the report itself. The Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force is co-chaired by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). These agencies are charged with delivering a report describing how policies and practices of Federal agencies can be made compatible with and reinforce national climate change adaptation strategy. One would have to assume that the Task Force will also outline what that strategy is … ? Here are some clues, in that regard:

“Understanding and preparing for climate change requires both domestic and international action … Adaptation measures should focus on helping the most vulnerable people and places reduce their exposure and sensitivity to climate change and improve their capacity to predict, prepare for, and avoid adverse impacts.”

“ … most adaptive actions will occur at the local level.”

“Achieving this [strategic] vision … will also require a commitment to respond to climate change impacts that have already begun to occur while simultaneously taking proactive steps to understand and prepare for future climate conditions.”

There follows a list of “Guiding Principles for Adaptation.” These principles include descriptions, some of which say things like “Adaptation should be incorporated into core policies … ,” “Adaptation plans should prioritize helping people, places, and infrastructure that are most vulnerable to climate impacts, and be designed and implemented with meaningful involvement from all parts of society,” and “Adaptation should be grounded in the best-available scientific understanding of climate change risks, impacts, and vulnerabilities.” I should mention that, in describing the Task Force and its duties, the report states that “ … the Task Force conducted numerous listening sessions and public outreach events with a wide range of stakeholders over the past year … .” I was very glad to read that. Just as I was even gladder about the reference to “the best available scientific understanding … .” What a concept – involving the scientific community! Talk about long overdue.

The recommendation that the most vulnerable people should have an improved capacity to predict, prepare for, and avoid adverse impacts says more than it at first appears to say. Those who live in places like New Orleans need to understand the likely outcome, should they remain at home rather than evacuating, during a Category 3 hurricane. They must understand the adverse impacts of remaining before they can understand what they are avoiding. Let’s face it, the best way to avoid adverse impacts in places like New Orleans, Galveston, Houston, Biloxi, and others is to MOVE. As far as I can see, helping the most vulnerable – that’s what the report says - means helping with the cost of moving and finding new jobs. Remember, the report says they need to reduce their exposure and sensitivity to climate change. If climate change is forecast to increase the intensity of hurricanes (it is), and if levees are designed to hold up through a Category 3 storm, what about Category 4 – or 5? Helping people rebuild every time one of these powerful storms strikes a coastal city will become a very heavy burden for Americans living in the climatically changed future to assume.

The Executive Summary of the report concludes with a “Summary of Policy Goals and Recommended Actions for the Federal Government.” The next “progress” report will summarize the results of implementation efforts. It is due in October 2011, by which time coalitions among the various local, state, Tribal, private and nonprofit stakeholders are supposed to have been strengthened. Cooperation and collaboration, instead of competition? It just might work …..

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