Report: U.S. Needs National Strategy for Adapting to Warmer Climes

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

The federal government is way behind on efforts to develop effective strategies to adapt to a changing climate, a new report to the White House says today.

"Even with mitigation efforts, climate change will continue to unfold for decades due to the long atmospheric lifetime of past greenhouse gas emissions and the gradual release of excess heat that has built up in the oceans," the report says. States, cities, and towns could use guidance from the federal government's vast climate science effort on how to prepare for a warmer world, it adds.

Requested by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the report comes out of a 2-day summit held last year that involved both scientists and so-called stakeholders from state and local governments and businesses. These included wildlife managers, water and health officials, city planners, and construction experts. "In the past, meetings like this were just a bunch of academics talking together," said Jack Fellows, an official with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, who helped run the summit and contributed to the report.

To inform its report, Fellows and others looked closely at adaptation plans already in place in cities including Chicago and New York.

Those cities "are taking some real leadership. They are planning the future of their cities not from historical trends but from the projections from climate models," said Fellows. For example, Chicago expects more frequent and intense heat waves. Its officials are now laying out how the health department should plan for that, taking cues from southern cities that face that kind of heat already. (Chicago's plan is here.) New York, whose adaptation task force's plan is here, is considering whether rising seas will mean it needs additional pumps to pump more water out of its subway system, whose tunnels require pumping because of some porous walls.

The federal government should encourage such efforts, the report says, by making climate information available more widely and, in particular, finding better ways for scientists to provide planners with the information they need. The report suggests regional forums to encourage dialogue, as well as better online tools and coordination between federal programs.

Barely 1% of the roughly $2.6 billion of the U.S. climate research budget is spent on research to understand how climate impacts will affect infrastructure, health, or wildlife, Fellows notes. And a little more could go a long way, he says: "We're not talking about huge amounts of money." Fellows is hopeful that the recently begun process to produce the federal National Assessment—a massive review of climate impacts across the United States, due in 2013—will get people talking as well. Better to have federally funded science inform local decisions, he says, "as opposed to the federal government going in and [dictating] local solutions for folks."

Toward that end, UCAR, which manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research for the National Science Foundation, has begun setting up partnerships between its 100 university members and nearby cities. Fellows says the plan is to create undergraduate or graduate degree programs on climate adaptation, using a national curriculum UCAR will develop and setting up internship programs.

For a long time, discussion of adapting to climate change was considered verboten in the climate policy community for fear that just talking about it might signal less urgency for cutting greenhouse emissions. So "this is a pretty new field for a lot of people," Fellows says.

Posted in Climate