Workshop Highlights Federal Efforts to Mainstream Adaptation to Climate Change

Last week we held a workshop at the Newseum in Washington, DC, entitled Federal Government Leadership: Mainstreaming Adaptation to Climate Change. The workshop was intended to build on our recent report highlighting the important role of the federal government in climate change adaptation and the recent National Academies’ report—Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change—which emphasized that the federal government should not only serve as a “role model,” but also play a significant role as a “catalyst and coordinator” in identifying vulnerabilities to climate change impacts and the adaptation options that could increase our resilience to these changes.

One of the goals of the workshop was to bring together agency officials and others to learn more about what federal agencies are doing to mainstream adaptation into their programs and to share lessons learned. During the workshop we heard from an impressive group of speakers representing a very diverse set of agencies. About a hundred or so folks from federal agencies, non-profit organizations, and the private sector participated. Here are just some of the highlights:

Panel 1: Department-wide Climate Change Adaptation Initiatives

The first panel was moderated by Kathy Jacobs from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and included brief presentations regarding department-wide adaptation initiatives from USDA’s Bill Hohenstein, DOD’s Paul Schimpf, Dave Kaufman from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and DOI’s Tom Armstrong. The USDA, under the leadership of Secretary Vilsack, is integrating climate change into all of its operations and in June released a new strategic plan that includes strategies to facilitate adaptation. Within DOD, there is formal recognition that climate change will impact both military missions and installations, as outlined in the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review. One of this country’s newest departments—Homeland Security—has established its own Climate Change Adaptation Task Force to examine the implications of climate change for homeland security missions and operations and make recommendations for adaptation planning and actions. The Department of Interior has a number of ongoing initiatives, including Secretarial Order 3289, which establishes a Council within the Office of the Secretary to coordinate the development of an integrated strategy in response to the impacts of climate change.

Panel 2: Agency Climate Change Adaptation Activities

The Center’s Steve Seidel moderated the second panel, which covered specific adaptation initiatives within four federal agencies. George Luber from the CDC noted that climate change is one of the single-biggest threats to public health and that, in addition to recently publishing a report on the research needed to ensure effective adaptation, the agency is working to develop the capacity at the state and local level to serve as conduits of information from the climate change community to the public health community. The Federal Highway Administration, represented by Michael Culp, has a number of analytical studies underway looking at ways to adapt our transportation infrastructure to climate change. The FHWA is also developing a strategic plan and is thinking about ways to make climate change data and forecasts usable to the people who don’t always think about this issue but are making investment decisions related to infrastructure that will be around for decades. In addition to developing a Climate Service to provide relevant geographic and temporal scale information, Margaret Davison noted that NOAA is committed to further developing partnerships at all levels of government to ensure this information is usable and is actually used. As explained by Jennie Dean, the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change has developed two roadmaps to help guide its efforts in responding to the impacts of climate change: the U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap and the U.S. Navy Climate Change Roadmap.

Panel 3: Agency Climate Change Adaptation Activities (continued)

The third and final panel was moderated by Cristina Rumbaitis del Rio of the Rockefeller Foundation (a special thanks to Cristina and the folks at the Rockefeller Foundation for supporting the workshop!). The first speaker on the panel, Jeff Arnold from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, noted that the agency is working to better understand how climate change is affecting its missions and released a report on climate change and water resources management following the formation of an Interagency workgroup with the Bureau of Reclamation, USGS, and NOAA. Karen Metchis from the EPA’s Office of Water noted that their office developed a strategy three years ago in order to educate themselves and their constituents on what could be done with current resources and that the office is currently updating this strategy. At the Fish and Wildlife Service, Dan Ashe and his colleagues have been aggressively dealing with climate change for several years, driven mainly by observed changes in the distribution of species, and as a result, are in the process of developing a strategic plan, among other initiatives. Finally, Dave Cleaves from the Forest Service discussed their newly released Roadmap that will be used to guide the agency in achieving its goal of making the nation’s national forests and private working lands more resilient to climate change.

We heard a lot about the amazing initial progress that has been made over the past year or so, and about the importance of and the need for leadership, coordination, and education on this issue – at all levels of the government and from the private sector and non-profit community. I think everyone left the workshop optimistic that a wide range of federal agencies are working hard to assemble the necessary resources and deploy them on the ground in effective, strategic ways to address this critically important issue.

One side benefit of the workshop was to solicit input from the attendees to help us pull together a synthesis report of what federal agencies are doing on this issue. We hope to develop something similar to our online report – Adaptation Planning: What U.S. states and localities are doing. Look for more information here in the next few weeks on our new federal initiative.

Heather Holsinger is a Senior Fellow for Domestic Policy