Friday, October 23, 2009

House Hearing On Climate Change Adaptation Strategies

Oct 22: The House Select Committee on Energy Independence & Global Warming, Chaired by Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) held a hearing entitled, "Building U.S. Resilience to Global Warming Impacts." The hearing focused on the consequences of global warming in the United States which the Committee indicated "will be significant even in the case of deep reductions in future heat-trapping emissions." According to a hearing announcement, "The current and anticipated impacts -- including sea level rise, more frequent heat waves, regional drought and flooding, and more intense tropical storms -- pose a serious threat to our health, environment, economic well-being, and national security. While Congress works to curb carbon pollution to avoid the worst effects of global warming, America must look at adaptation measures that will protect communities from harm caused by global warming that is already set to occur."

Major testimony and reports delivered to the Committee were from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Additional testimony was provided by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). In an opening statement, Chairman Markey said, "Government leadership failed the people of New Orleans when they needed help most. Katrina foreshadows the consequences of climate change if we do not make the necessary preparations. . .

"We face not only an increasing number of strong storms, but also many permanent alterations that will affect people throughout the country. Coastal cities like Boston will be at risk of inundation from sea level rise, which is accelerating as our oceans warm and our polar ice caps melt. Alaskan villages are finding the land they call home literally melting out from underneath them as the permafrost thaws. In the West, our shrinking mountain snowpack strains our water resource systems. Throughout this country, our farms are threatened by rising temperatures, water scarcity, and pests. . .

"In a new report that I requested, the Government Accountability Office assesses the current steps our country is taking to address the impacts of global warming. They find that federal efforts thus far have been largely ad hoc. To effectively address the impacts, we need a strategic plan that sets our priorities, improves the information available to decision-makers, and clarifies the roles and responsibilities of federal, state, and local governments.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a letter report entitled, Climate Change Adaptation: Strategic Federal Planning Could Help Government Officials Make More Informed Decisions, (GAO-10-113, October 7, 2009, 86-pages). GAO also delivered a supplemental report entitled, Climate Change Adaptation: Information on Selected Federal Efforts To Adapt To a Changing Climate (GAO-10-114SP, October 7, 2009, 101-pages). And finally, GAO's testimony was titled the same as the main report, Climate Change Adaptation: Strategic Federal Planning Could Help Officials Make More Informed Decisions (GAO-10-175T, October 22, 2009, 9-pages).

In its main report, GAO indicated that, "Changes in the climate attributable to increased concentrations of greenhouse gases may have significant impacts in the United States and the world. For example, climate change could threaten coastal areas with rising sea levels. Greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere will continue altering the climate system into the future, regardless of emissions control efforts. Therefore, adaptation -- defined as adjustments to natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climate change -- is an important part of the response to climate change."

GAO was asked to examine (1) what actions federal, state, local, and international authorities are taking to adapt to a changing climate; (2) the challenges that federal, state, and local officials face in their efforts to adapt; and (3) actions that Congress and federal agencies could take to help address these challenges. We also discuss our prior work on similarly complex, interdisciplinary issues. This report is based on analysis of studies, site visits to areas pursuing adaptation efforts, and responses to a web-based questionnaire sent to federal, state, and local officials.

GAO found that while available information indicates that many governments have not yet begun to adapt to climate change, some federal, state, local, and international authorities have started to act. GAO said the challenges faced by federal, state, and local officials in their efforts to adapt fell into three categories, based on GAO's analysis of questionnaire results, site visits, and available studies. (1) competing priorities make it difficult to pursue adaptation efforts when there may be more immediate needs for attention and resources. (2) a lack of site-specific data, such as local projections of expected changes, can reduce the ability of officials to manage the effects of climate change. (3) adaptation efforts are constrained by a lack of clear roles and responsibilities among federal, state, and local agencies.

GAO's analysis also found that potential federal actions for addressing challenges to adaptation efforts fell into three areas. (1) training and education efforts could increase awareness among government officials and the public about the impacts of climate change and available adaptation strategies. (2) actions to provide and interpret site-specific information would help officials understand the impacts of climate change at a scale that would enable them to respond. (3) Congress and federal agencies could encourage adaptation by clarifying roles and responsibilities.

In its testimony, GAO summed up the recommendations in its reports saying, "Given the complexity and potential magnitude of climate change and the lead time needed to adapt, preparing for these impacts now may reduce the need for far more costly steps in the decades to come. . . our report released today recommends that the appropriate entities within the Executive Office of the President, such as CEQ and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, in consultation with relevant federal agencies, state and local governments, and key congressional committees of jurisdiction, develop a national strategic plan that will guide the nation’s efforts to adapt to a changing climate.

"The plan should, among other things, (1) define federal priorities related to adaptation; (2) clarify roles, responsibilities, and working relationships among federal, state, and local governments; (3) identify mechanisms to increase the capacity of federal, state, and local agencies to incorporate information about current and potential climate change impacts into government decision making; (4) address how resources will be made available to implement the plan; and (5) build on and integrate ongoing federal planning efforts related to adaptation."

The Pew Center testified that, "To ensure that adaptation is considered in all major federal actions, we recommend issuing clarifying regulations under NEPA. These regulations would make it clear that climate change needs to be considered in the planning stage of any major federal action. CEQ is responsible for NEPA’s implementation, while EPA’s Office of Federal Activities reviews environmental impact statements. We suggest establishing an interagency working group to prepare the proposed regulatory changes and to develop guidance for agencies in preparing EISs."

AEI testified, "First, I believe that we should shift our focus from mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions toward an adaptation agenda. We do not, at present, have the technologies needed to significantly curb greenhouse gas emissions without causing massive economic disruption. . . Second, I believe that we should stop making things worse. That is, we should remove the misguided incentives that lead people to live in climatically fragile areas such as the water’s edge, drought-prone locations, flood-prone locations, and so on. . . Third, we must look to our infrastructure. Another government action that leads people to live in harm's way is the failure to build and price infrastructure so that it is both sustainable, and resilient to change. . . Establishing market pricing of infrastructure would quickly steer people away from climatically fragile areas, dramatically reducing the costs of dealing with climate variability. . . "

Access the hearing website for links to testimony (including GAO's, 9-pages) and opening statements (
click here). Access the main GAO 86-page report (click here). Access the supplemental GAO 101-page report (click here).