Adaptation: Getting the Roles Right

Posted on November 25, 2013 by Jonathan Z. Cannon

In 2010, the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Climate Choices came out with a series of reports on the challenges facing the nation on climate change.  One of the reports dealt with adaptation – coping with the impacts of climate change that we cannot, or chose not, to avoid through mitigation. This report considered three possible models for federal-state-local relationships in adaptation. One model entailed a centralized adaptation program, “nested in a body of federal government laws, regulations, and institutions.” A second was a bottoms-up approach, largely self-driven by state and local actors. The third was an “intermediate approach,” in which adaptation decisions are largely decentralized but in which the federal government acts “a catalyst and coordinator” in adaptation policymaking. In true Goldilocks fashion, the NAS panel recommended the intermediate approach as “just right.”

It now looks as if the Obama administration is crediting that intermediate course in its climate adaptation policy – and appropriately so.  By contrast to mitigation, adaption presents as a local or regional problem, dealing with climate change effects that vary across regions and localities – wildfires in the west, flooding on the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts, tornadoes in the Midwest.  The law and policy of adaptation therefore should have a strong regional and local orientation.

Beginning in 2009, President Obama has taken a series of steps to get the federal government’s own house in order in understanding and adapting to climate change. [Reference Steve McKinney’s blog posting 11.6.2013] More recently, however, the focus has expanded to include coordination with states, tribes and localities – the decisionmakers on adaptation’s front line. The adaptation portion of the President’s Climate Action Plan announced in June of this year ordered the creation of a task force of state, local, and tribal officials to advise on key actions the federal government can take to help strengthen communities on the ground. (E.g.,“will provide recommendations on removing barriers to resilient investments, modernizing grant and loan programs to better support local efforts, and developing information and tools to better serve communities.”) 

On November 1, the President announced the members of the Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience -- governors, mayors and tribal leaders -- and further elaborated its mandate: to make recommendations for steps the federal government can take to facilitate adaptive measures at the point of potential impact and to “otherwise support state, local and tribal preparedness for and resilience to climate change.”  Although the task force is set to terminate within 6 months of making its recommendations, it represents a step in the direction of NAS’s collaborative model.  Hopefully, it won’t be the last.