Climate Change Adaptation: What Federal Agencies are Doing

There is a growing consensus that regardless of our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, significant climate change is unavoidable. Although climate mitigation remains critical, we must also be thinking about and planning for ways to limit the adverse impacts from unavoidable changes in our climate. By taking steps now to adapt to climate change, we will be better able to limit future damages and their associated costs.

In March 2010, the Center released the report, Adapting to Climate Change: A Call for Federal Leadership. The Center’s report was developed with the understanding that while many efforts to adapt to climate change will occur at the state and local level, the federal government is a critical player in an effective and coordinated approach to climate change adaptation in the United States. In this report, the authors called for a National Adaptation Program and recommended new institutional mechanisms and roles for federal agencies to mainstream the consideration of climate change across agency operations, programs, and services. Also released in 2010 was the 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.

Under the requirements of Executive Order 13514, federal agencies are stepping forward to meet this challenge and are beginning to “mainstream” consideration of climate change adaptation across their operations, programs and policies. All federal agencies drafted a policy statement on climate change adaptation that commits the agency to adaptation planning, including identifying an agency point of contact, completing an analysis of climate change impacts on its mission and operations, and preparing a climate adaptation plan by June 2012. Some agencies are also taking a leadership role in enabling others—state, local and tribal governments, businesses, and communities—in their adaptation planning and projects. These federal actions are still in their early stages and as such, this report attempts to capture and highlight these efforts to facilitate communication and collaboration across federal agencies as well as with numerous non-federal stakeholders focused on domestic adaptation policy. Where a federal department or agency has implemented institutional mechanisms specifically for climate change adaptation, developed an agency-wide adaptation plan or set of policies, or provides adaptation resources or tools, it is our intent to represent it within this report. The authors are continuously working to expand on the information included here, and sincerely hope this report will serve as a resource for collaboration and information sharing among the growing adaptation community.

The report content is organized by major Department within the federal government (e.g., the Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, etc.) with the exception of the adaptation efforts led by the Executive Office of the President and related interagency initiatives, which are listed separately at the beginning of the report. For each Department, the report highlights specific adaptation initiatives (such as a program office or strategic plan) that are in place at the Department level. These are followed by an overview of each agency or bureau within that Department and relevant adaptation activities, which are typically divided into: (1) initiatives and strategies, (2) programs and institutional mechanisms, and (3) tools and resources. This January  2012 update also includes several examples of federal projects that incorporate the impacts of climate change and adaptive actions into the planning, design, and implementation process. These projects further highlight the leadership role federal departments and agencies are taking to promote a more climate resilient economy, society, and environment.