New GAO Report Notes Beginnings of Climate Adaptation Efforts at Federal Agencies
In a new report released today, the GAO provides a glimpse at the climate change adaptation efforts getting underway at the natural resource agencies in the federal government. Taking a look at top-level policies and ground-level case studies, the GAO checked in on the climate adaptation progress of the five major federal resource management agencies: NOAA, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management. Of the five, only BLM hadn’t yet established a top-level strategic direction, but such direction is in the works and will be rolled out this summer. Similarly in GAO’s onsite visits, only BLM managers had not taken action in the field to adapt to climate change, but that will change soon too.
As the GAO report’s cover letter to Congressional leaders points out, “The federal government manages nearly 30 percent of the land in the United States. Specifically, federal agencies manage natural resources on about 650 million acres of land, including 401 national park units and 155 national forests. In addition, federal agencies also manage marine resources in the United States and its exclusive economic zone.” Indeed, in 2013, the GAO added climate change to their list of “high risk” areas of concern for the federal government due to the enormous fiscal exposure inherent in the management of public lands without adaptation strategies.
The GAO points out that climate adaptation will “require new approaches to match new realities and that old ways of doing business—such as making decision based on the assumed continuation of past climate conditions—will not work in a world affected by climate change.” It is no longer correct to assume that past climate conditions will continue and that historic averages and variances will hold into the future. The traditional goals of resource management that attempt to restore species and habitats to some previous baseline, may not be possible as the baseline may have already moved, irreversibly.
The GAO notes, for example, that some “national wildlife refuges were established as specific locations that could provide safe havens for species, but as climate change alters these environments, managers may not be able to maintain them in their current condition and, as a result, they may no longer provide the habitats necessary to help conserve and protect vulnerable species.” Rising sea levels will shift coastlines and coastal wetlands will need to migrate with them. But in many cases, there will be nowhere for the shorelines and wetlands to move.
For a while now, federal agencies have been working to establish strategies for climate adaptation. And so far there are big picture policies billed as a “strategic framework” or a “roadmap” and agencies are beginning to drill down, developing guidance, training, and planning tools for the coming climate problems. The GAO noted strong collaboration between agencies and stakeholder-partners.
But this is an enormous task. Strong collaboration and well-written strategies alone will not keep the rising sea levels from flooding coastal communities. Without more significant funding and much stronger political support for adaptation investment, we may find ourselves with plenty of adaptation strategies, but no way to actually adapt to the climate impacts that are coming our way.