Buried in the middle of climate’s extended shout-out during the State of the Union, President Obama pledged to direct his Cabinet to “to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”
One reading of this sentence is the President is serious about using his existing executive authority to craft some serious action on climate change. The thing to keep an eye on with this approach, at least in the short term, will be how the administration tries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the Clean Air Act. Another critical part of the President’s strategy, while garnering much less attention, is fully underway and may eventually prove to be just as important.
The President distinctly called out the need to prepare for the consequences of climate change, a not-too-subtle call for climate adaptation measures. Though adaptation is the topic that shall not be named among climate advocates, the Obama administration has been actively thinking about it throughout its first term. In October 2009, the president established an interagency task force to identify opportunities for the federal government to strength existing programs and policies is better adapt to climate impacts and agencies to reduce their exposure to changing risks.
Ever since, the administration has been churning out yearly reports on its progress and this past February, the agencies released their first adaptation plans. A quick glance at the plans from EPA, DOE, USDA, Interior and other agencies show them digging into areas where they can show some tangible progress over the next ten years. For some agencies, like EPA and DOD, climate adaptation looks a whole lot like climate mitigation through continued efforts to improve energy and fuel efficiency, in addition to gathering information on impacts from extreme events. For others like USDA and Interior, adaptation is a more amorphous concept, partly because they manage or interact with large spans of the country that will likely face very different impacts from climate change.
While these plans are not comprehensive, they represent the first attempt from the Executive branch to approach climate adaptation in a more holistic way. Many of the actions consist of improving and reforming existing practices, an approach we at RFF have previously advocated. To a great degree, this approach, coupled with outreach and support to more local governments and communities, is the best the Federal government can do. Climate adaptation is extremely complex and not something that lends itself to a comprehensive policy approach like climate mitigation does, but as meeting the international community’s stated mitigation goals becomes less and less probable, the importance of incorporating robust adaptation practices into the daily business of the federal government grows.
Some have called the administration’s efforts surprising. I think clever is a better adjective to use in this case. The Executive branch can move forward on adaptation work with its existing authorities and actions taken today may significantly reduce the country’s exposure to major damages in the future. It is also a clear embodiment of the President’s new attitude: Do something on climate, with or without Congress, come hell and probably more high water.