After Hurricane Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers worked on levee improvements in New Orleans to avoid the construction shortfalls that occurred during the 2005 storm. Climate adaptation is becoming part of business for federal agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers, which is building new levees, dams and buildings to withstand higher sea-level rise and extreme weather events.
“As the president made clear in the State of the Union, the administration will continue to identify steps to prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, reduce carbon pollution and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy,” said Taryn Tuss, spokeswoman for the White House’s Council for Environmental Quality.
Integrating climate change planning into the operations, planning and policies across the federal government ensures that “taxpayer resources are invested wisely and that federal services remain effective,” she said.
As part of a 2009 executive order issued by President Barack Obama, each agency was required to submit climate adaptation plans. Those plans were released last month.
“In looking through those [plans], I think that you get a sense that vulnerabilities to federal agencies missions is pretty massive,” said Joe Casola, program director for Science and Impacts at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
The adaptation plans vary depending on the agency’s mission and its perception of climate change risk. Casola also notes that each agency has a different perception of how great the risks are and what needs to be done about them.
The Government Accountability Office says these differing views of the risks of climate change to individual agencies and their varied adaptation efforts are a weakness in the federal government’s approach to climate change.
The GAO recommended more coordination and last month placed climate change on its high risk list because of its potential impact on the nation’s finances — not necessarily because the government isn’t addressing it, but because the efforts are ad hoc.
“The federal government is already spending a lot of money on these areas, but it’s not well-coordinated, and it’s not targeted or prioritized,” Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro told Issa’s committee at a hearing about the GAO report last month. The GAO cites the growing financial demands of climate change on the federal budget for crop insurance, flood insurance and emergency disaster funds.
Casolo doesn’t expect the White House to initiate a grand climate adaptation plan that lays out clear priorities.
“Interagency stuff is just really hard to do,” he said, pointing to the difficulty of creating the Department of Homeland Security as an example. “There’s not a lot of examples of bold policy changes through an interagency process.”
In fact, Casola said, incorporating climate adaptation into day-to-day business may be a better way of managing climate change than creating a separate organization devoted to implementing adaptation-specific policies. “I don’t think we can add adaptation as a new silo,” he said.
Broad adaptation efforts, he said, would be better served with something like a National Climate Service. “There’s a need for good data,” he said. Such a service has been proposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and rejected by Congress.
Goran of the Army Corps said he is glad that the GAO highlighted the issue but added, “It’s not a panic-button issue.” He said that by beginning now, the agencies can start to plan for effects decades down the line.
“It is potentially a big liability, but it doesn’t mean in 2014 or 2015,” Goran said. “It’s a slowly changing process. We don’t have to do it all today.”