Good Morning, America! The Explosive U.S. Awakening to the Need for Adaptation

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.

Recommendations

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.

Adaptations to Sustain High‐Quality Freshwater Supplies in Response to Climate Change

As defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, adaptation includes a set of actions to moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities in response to climate change. To date, little research has addressed public policy options to frame the nation’s approach to adapt to a changing climate. In light of scientific evidence of extreme and unpredictable climate change, prudent policy requires consideration of what to do if markets and people fail to anticipate these changes, or are constrained in their ability to react. This issue brief is one in a series that results from the second phase of a domestic adaptation research project conducted by Resources for the Future. The briefs are primarily intended for use by decisionmakers in confronting the complex and difficult task of effectively adapting the United States to climate change impacts, but may also offer insight and value to scholars and the general public. This research was supported by a grant from the Smith‐Richardson Foundation.

Policy Recommendations

Scientists expect climate change to affect the availability and quality of freshwater in distinctive ways from those previously experienced. As a result, many current methods to provide sustainable water supplies during extreme droughts, floods, and hurricanes may not be effective. New approaches are needed to respond to these complexly linked, cumulative effects associated with extreme climatic changes. The following actions can help create a policy environment that encourages adaptive responses in times of hydrologic uncertainty.

  • To meet the increased demands for fresh water during periods of greater scarcity, regional adaptations will need to increase redundancy among natural and built systems to provide higher levels of functional resiliency. Planning will require frequent analyses of newly developed cooperative strategies to review both structural and non‐structural responses.
  • Organizations that now focus mostly on short‐term responses to hurricanes, floods, and droughts will need to increase their effectiveness by linking regional and national levels of coordinated data collection and modeling to improve long‐term forecasts and proactive, adaptive responses.
  • Additional coordination of federal and state agencies will enhance adaptive responses through long‐term strategic planning of shared solutions to water scarcity. These adaptations include new, properly located, deep storage reservoirs, optimal management of existing reservoirs, and shared information on the vulnerability of ecosystem services. Optimizing compatible land uses, floodplain protection, and urban design will increase groundwater recharge and storage during wet periods for use during dry periods.
  • Newly developed and updated natural and built infrastructure will slow runoff and reduce erosion during floods with protected floodplains, expanded construction of green roofs, water gardens, retention ponds, and widely distributed storage reservoirs.
  • Existing water‐storage and treatment infrastructure is aging and needs thorough evaluation and upgrading. Agencies will need to monitor reservoir storage capacities because larger and more frequent floods increase sediment transport and infilling.
  • Decoupling storm‐flow runoff from systems connected to sewage treatment plants in urban and suburban basins will increase downstream water quality during floods and integrate centralized and decentralized natural infrastructure (e.g., wetlands and floodplains).
  • Revision of the National Flood Insurance Program will need to consider the full, long‐term costs of floods, such as losses of ecosystem services in floodplains and coastal zones. Visualization of possible floods will enhance communication, resulting in more resilience insurance programs that include planning for protected river corridors and greenways.
  • Future forecasts based on observations from improved satellites and atmospheric modeling will provide longer lead times for effectively alerting the public to risks of extreme droughts, floods, and hurricanes and will enhance adaptive responses.   Improved forecasts will decrease losses and help to avoid rapidly increasing insurance premiums.
  • Engaging grassroots programs and diverse stakeholders working on responses to climate change will increase opportunities for teachers, students, and the general public to become more aware of regional and temporal variability in precipitation.
  • Learning from regional comparisons of adaptive responses to extreme variations in freshwater availability can provide exchanges of innovative policies. In addition, some adaptive responses will need to develop at the national level as more individuals, agencies, and organizations work together across traditional lines of communication to learn from past limitations. This framework can increase awareness and communication about options for responding to seasonal and inter‐annual variability of precipitation among participants across regions.  

Supporting Local Climate Change Adaptation: Where We Are and Where We Need To Go

Local governments are on the front line of efforts to address climate-related impacts. Recognizing this, there is a growing movement to develop and deliver tools, resources, and services to support local communities’ climate adaptation initiatives. There is, however, limited understanding of what specific types of resources exist and how well these resources match the needs of local practitioners. To bring clarity to these questions, we: 1) assessed the current landscape of climate-adaptation resources and services; 2) surveyed community practitioners to learn how well these resources align with their needs; and 3) convened leading service providers and local practitioners to identify strategic opportunities for moving the adaptation field forward. Findings demonstrate that existing services and resources are meeting the early phases of local adaptation efforts such as conducting vulnerability assessments and creating adaptation plans, but are failing to meet the needs associated with implementing, monitoring, and evaluating adaptation activities. Additionally, a lack of funding and staff time to support adaptation, as well as inaccessible resource formats are barriers impeding local climate adaptation efforts. The mismatch between the types and formats of services being provided and the needs of local governments means that more work is needed to ensure that climate adaptation resources are responsive to the existing and future needs of local governments. Moreover, our research finds that there is a strong and growing need to organize and streamline the climate adaptation resource and service landscape so that practitioners can easily, effectively, and efficiently access the resources they need to build more resilient local communities.

An Architecture for Government Action on Adaptation to Climate Change. An Editorial Comment

An architecture of government adaptation programs is presented. Components include leadership, institutional organization, stakeholder involvement, climate change information, appropriate use of decision analysis techniques, explicit consideration of barriers to adaptation, funding for adaptation, technology development and diffusion, and adaptation research. This architecture is a useful heuristic for identifying, evaluating, and reevaluating the needs of decision makers as they improve management of climate-sensitive resources in a changing environment.

NOAA Integrated Ecosystem Assessment Program

Tool Overview: 

 

NOAA's Integrated Ecosystem Assessment (IEA) program supports Ecosystem-Based Management (EBM), a new era of ocean stewardship, by providing a next generation tool and helping transfer scientific knowledge to management particularly with respect to oceanographic, climatic, ecological and other environmental conditions. As of 2016, the program is implemented in 5 regions across the United States - Alaska, California Current, Gulf of Mexico, Pacific Islands, and the Northeast.

OceanAdapt

Location

NJ
United States
37° 5' 24.864" N, 95° 42' 46.4076" W
New Jersey US
Tool Overview: 

OceanAdapt is a collaboration between the Pinsky Lab of Rutgers University and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to provide information about the impacts of changing climate and other factors on the distribution of marine life to the National Climate Assessment, fisheries communities, policymakers, and to others. This website hosts an annually updated database of scientific surveys in the United States and provides tools for exploring changes in marine fish and invertebrate distributions. We are continually working to expand the site with new data and visualization tools.

WWF Climate Crowd

Location

Washington , DC
United States
38° 54' 25.8912" N, 77° 2' 12.7356" W
District Of Columbia US
Tool Overview: 

What: WWF Climate Crowd is a new initiative to crowdsource information on how rural communities are responding to changes in weather and climate, and how their responses are impacting biodiversity. We are partnering with organizations like the Peace Corps to collect this data, fill critical knowledge gaps, find and implement ways to better help communities and wildlife adapt, alter our conservation strategies in light of the information we gather, and raise awareness through stories from the front lines of climate change.

Sea Level Rise mobile app

Location

23507 Norfolk , VA
United States
36° 52' 2.7228" N, 76° 18' 52.2684" W
Virginia US
Tool Overview: 

Android and iPhone app that allows approved people to enter data on: 1) locations where they know flooding occurs and 2) map the outlines/extent of the flooding during flood events. Users can also associate photographs and text with data points entered. General public can view data points but data entry limited to users who have been approved, creating a data quality standard for the data.

Pacific Climate Futures

Location

United States
11° 39' 39.0312" S, 159° 36' 33.75" E
US
Tool Overview: 

Pacific Climate Futures Version 2.0 is a free web-based climate impacts decision-support tool developed initially by the Pacific Climate Change Science Program (PCCSP) and further refined by the Pacific-Australia Climate Change Science and Adaptation Planning (PACCSAP) Science Program.