Focus of this report
Since the early years of the 21st century, and in particular since 2007, the U.S. has been awakening rapidly to the fact that climate change is underway and that even if stringent efforts are undertaken to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, adaptation to the unavoidable impacts from the existing commitment to climate change is still needed and needs to be begun now.
This report provides an historical overview of the public, political, and scientific concern with adaptation in the United States. It begins by briefly distinguishing ongoing, historical adaptation to environmental circumstances from deliberate adaptation to human‐induced climate change. It then describes the shift from the early concerns with climate change and adaptation to the more recent awakening to the need for a comprehensive approach to managing the risks from climate change. Ranging from the treatment of the topic in the news media to the drafting of bills in Congress, to state and local government activities with considerable engagement of NGOs, scientists and consultants, it is apparent that adaptation has finally, and explosively, emerged on the political agenda as a legitimate and needed subject for debate. At the same time, the current policy rush is not underlain by widespread public engagement and mobilization nor does it rest on a solid research foundation. Funding for vulnerability and adaptation research, establishing adequate decision support institutions, as well as the building of the necessary capacity in science, the consulting world, and in government agencies, lags far behind the need.
Adaptation planning and barriers
The inevitability of climate change impacts now conveyed through the media and other scientific communication, and conspicuous events such as Hurricane Katrina and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth have helped to “legitimize” adaptation as a necessary complement to mitigation. Nevertheless, realization of the magnitude of the challenge is still very limited. Not surprisingly, the adaptation initiatives evident to date consist of relatively conservative, win‐win, and low‐risk strategies.
In addition to tracing this history, this report identifies a number of barriers to basic adaptation planning and more ambitious policy developments. At the federal level, such barriers include: lack of federal leadership until recently (by Congress, the president, and agencies); lack of funding for research and planning; political opposition; ignorance; lack of intra‐ and interagency coordination, communication, and collaboration; competing priorities; lack of adaptation mandates; and legal constraints. These barriers do not only affect what does or can happen at the federal level but influence lower levels of government as well. For example, federal failure to take on adaptation leaves states without federal guidance and financial support, adding to the budget constraints that states face already. In addition, states face their own hurdles, including lack of state‐level leadership, lack of state‐ and regionally specific scientific information, lack of expertise within state agencies, reliance on historical conditions, as well as lack of public awareness, engagement, and pressure to make adaptation a policy priority. At the local level, adaptation efforts by cities and counties can be hampered additionally by lack of a functional organizational structure, lack of collaboration with local universities and experts, isolation, and either real or perceived competition between mitigation and adaptation. Cross‐scale barriers arise from regulatory and cross‐ jurisdictional conflicts and missed policy opportunities. In particular, the mismatch between the lack of, and the need for, scientific capacity, technical expertise and widespread, scale‐relevant climate change and vulnerability information, America is now entering into an era of climate change consequences for which the country is ill‐equipped.
These findings fly in the face of long‐standing, and all too simplistic, assumptions that developed nations like the U.S. face relatively low vulnerability and possess high adaptive capacity to address climate change. Rather, concerted effort will be needed to assess vulnerabilities, ascertain adaptation options, and determine relevant governance barriers at and across scales, and build the necessary capacity, skill, resource base, institutional mechanisms, and political will to help reduce and overcome them.
A delicate balance must be struck at this time between initiating (and endorsing the establishment of) ongoing adaptation planning processes and making only common‐sense and relatively small if meaningful policy and programmatic commitments rather than over‐promise or commit large resources to ill‐advised actions. Governments and stakeholders should assume that changing scientific understanding and non‐stationary environmental and societal conditions will require considerable policy flexibility, debate over difficult challenges and painful trade‐offs. Meanwhile, a serious commitment at the highest levels is required to
- rapidly and substantially expand vulnerability and adaptation research,
- build technical capacity within the sciences and among decision‐makers,
- expand the nation’s decision support capabilities,
- identify ways to provide financial and technical resources to governing institutions, and
- seriously engage the American public in the development and debate of a comprehensive climate risk management strategy.
Without such a commitment, there is considerable danger that America will engage in countless expensive and damaging maladaptations, and/or that sectors and communities will prepare insufficiently for climate change, creating liabilities far more costly than the investment called for now.