What the Federal Government is doing about Climate Change (surprise, it’s not nothing!)

On the current national political scene, climate change is either a punchline or a footnote. However, behind the rhetoric over the economic impact of curbing greenhouse gas emissions and hidden by the debate over the causes and implications of this year’s record temperatures, climate change adaptation planning is actually happening, even at the federal level.

In 2009, President Obama signed an Executive Order directing the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force to develop recommendations for how the Federal Government can strengthen policies and programs to better prepare for adapting to the impacts of climate change. This Executive Order directed each Federal agency to evaluate the climate change risks of the agency’s mission, programs, and operations and prepare a climate adaptation plan.

The Center for Climate and Energy Solution, an independent non-profit research organization, released a report earlier this year cataloging the various initiatives and programs of Federal agencies. While many of these activities are still in their early stages, this report shows that the Federal Government is taking climate change risks seriously and is working to “mainstream” climate adaptation as part its everyday work.

For many agencies, their relation to climate change adaptation is through the development of scientific based research and application tools to enable adaptation planning at other levels of government and within the private sector. For instance, NOAA hosts several websites devoted to sharing and interpreting data on climate projections, collecting case studies and best practices from around the country, and providing technical guidance on adaptation planning tools, such as coastal inundation mapping. NOAA also funds research in climate science and adaptation technologies through several programs including the Regional Integrated Science and Assessments (RISA) teams.

Other Federal agencies have direct involvement in the funding, construction, and maintenance of facilities that may be vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. USDOT has focused its efforts on the Gulf Coast and has completed a risk assessment of critical infrastructure in the region vulnerable to changes in the climate over the next 50 to 100 years.

HUD is advancing local climate adaptation planning through funding as part of its Sustainable Communities grant program (full disclosure: this includes funding my salary to study climate change adaptation strategies for New York City’s waterfront).

These are just a few examples of how the Federal Government is approaching climate change adaptation, all of which is somewhat surprising given the national political climate within both parties.  Is it enough? Probably not, but at least something is happening, albeit behind the scenes.

Since planning in the U.S. is largely driven by cities and counties, local adaptation planning is perhaps most important. However, there is still a major role for the Federal government to play: funding it all.

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