This year, the Commerce Department will investigate the feasibility of a bicycle share program. The Agriculture Department's Risk Management Agency will redraw planting zone maps for the purposes of insuring nursery-grown plants. And the Department of Defense will scale down its fleet of gas-guzzling Humvees.
These are all examples of steps federal agencies will take in 2013 in an effort to deal with the risks of future climate change. The Obama administration released its first climate change adaptation plans Thursday, as part of the annual sustainability reports.
"It's an expression of the realization that the impacts of climate change aren't something that are going to happen way, way in the future," said Joe Casola, staff scientist and program director of science and impacts at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. "They're happening now, and in some ways, agencies' missions are put at risk by the threats of climate change, and they need to take action and mainstream considerations of climate into a lot of their decisionmaking."
This is the third year the agencies have released the reports, a review of sustainability accomplishments and a guide for goals. In 2009, President Obama signed Executive Order 13514, which set targets for cutting waste and pollution from the administration's operations and required agencies to complete these reports.
"The Federal Government is seeing the results of three years of effort in the form of reduced utility bills, more efficient operations, and less waste and pollution," said Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, in a statement Thursday. "Agencies are demonstrating significant progress on sustainability initiatives that are good for American taxpayers and good for American communities."
Many of the plans also lay the groundwork for actions that will cut not only pollution but costs in the face of the rising price tag of climate change.
"USDA's costs for administering services such as disaster assistance, crop insurance, conservation and energy programs, and technical assistance are likely to increase as a result of climate change," said the $145-billion-a-year agency in its report. "Severe weather and other climate-related events such as associated excess moisture, drought, pest infestations, and heat stress place pressure on the capacity of agencies to meet demands."
This year's sustainability plans will also include fleet management plans and bio-based purchasing strategies. President Obama told agencies to buy more bio-based products in a presidential memorandum last year.
U.S. EPA, the agency responsible for regulating environmental health and safety, gave examples of needs that will arise as climate change encroaches on the agency's ability to perform. These include better maps of precipitation patterns to plan for long-term water infrastructure; measurements of extreme weather impacts on EPA's disaster response planning; understanding how strange weather can wear down contaminated areas and solid waste facilities; and predicting effects of climate change on energy efficiency programs, as energy supply and demand fluctuate.
EPA's goals in the plan include taking action to mitigate climate change and retain air quality, protecting the nation's waters and reducing community exposure to contaminants by cleaning up communities.
USDA's oversight occurs over one of the widest spans in the administration and includes rural communities, forests, biotechnology, nutrition, water use and agricultural trade.
Three goals in its plan have a relationship with climate change. The first is to make the nation's public and private lands more resilient to climate change through land restoration and wildfire management. The second is to implement practices through Farm Service Agency, Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service programs that target watersheds that will be highly affected by climate change.
And the third is to promote agricultural production through biotechnology innovation, as crops become more susceptible to the stresses of high heat, drought or flooding.
In fiscal 2013, the Department of Defense's primary sustainability focus will be on reducing energy costs and improving energy security on its bases through efficiency measures and renewable energy projects, according to its most recent sustainability report.
DOD's main objective is to enhance military capability, but mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change can contribute to that goal, said Sharon Burke, assistant secretary of Defense for operational plans and programs.
"The effects of climate change -- droughts, floods, population migration, sea level rise, shifts in arable land -- the Department of Defense has a history of looking at those and how they are accelerants to instability, [and] how they affect our ability to operate," she said at a conference last week on renewable energy.
One of DOD's strategies is to "right-size" its nontactical vehicle fleet, which means using large, less fuel efficient vehicles only when necessary. The Army has been working steadily on this for three years. It has also eliminated more than 1,000 large SUVs used for passenger transport.
Like USDA, the Interior Department oversees public lands that have experienced devastating wildfires in past years. Interior also manages wildlife populations, relationships with American Indian and Native Alaskan tribal areas, research on geology and permitting for energy production -- both renewable and fossil fuel.
This marks the first time the agency has written a departmentwide climate change adaptation plan, said Jessica Kershaw, a spokeswoman for Interior.
"We are already making progress in implementing some of the actions," said Kershaw. The climate adaptation policy was incorporated in the Departmental Manual, which provides guidance to the department's 16 bureaus and offices.
The department will also address impacts that cut across different bureaus, update the Climate Science Center Strategic Plans and address the role of economics in adapting to climate change.
The nation's aeronautical agency has more than a dozen satellites in orbit to study the atmosphere, ice sheets, sea-level rise, deforestation and other indicators of climate change. NASA's strategy to manage climate change will include making data from climate experts readily available and holding workshops on adaptive planning. The agency will also seek to integrate practices in existing programs, rather than creating new "flavor of the month" initiatives.
NASA scientist Cynthia Rosenzweig co-chaired the New York City Panel on Climate Change, a group that was organized under the watch of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and in 2009 released a prophetic warning for the city, now apparent after the damage of Superstorm Sandy.
To build resilience into the U.S. transportation system, the Transportation Department report calls for adjusting how transportation infrastructure is designed, built and operated, taking climate and weather-related risks into account. Since transportation infrastructure is designed to last for decades if not centuries, the agency's report writes that it is particularly important that infrastructure designers and operators evaluate the magnitude of climate-related stress over the entire lifetime of a particular project.
Departments within the agency are also taking on their own specific adaptation strategies. Part of the Federal Aviation Administration's focus, for instance, is on accessing better weather data through its NextGen program.
The Energy Department launched a study last year to identify the impacts of climate change on the U.S. energy sector and where the agency could support resiliency efforts. Over the course of this fiscal year, it will continue to update all appropriate planning documents to address climate change adaptation and build on existing research related to adaptation strategies.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a subset of the Commerce Department, will create a climate adaptation toolkit for the Coral Triangle, the area of endangered coral ecosystems around the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The toolkit will offer guidance for local governments on outreach, education, measuring vulnerability and developing early action plans.
NOAA will also continue to monitor sea level change, track fish populations, prepare regional climate outlooks and train coastal communities to adapt to sea level rise.
60-day comment period to come
For many agencies, the integration of climate change adaptation measures is far from new. Since Obama's first term, sustainability has been in the background of many agencies' work.
But publishing a plan gives cohesion to bigger agencies like Interior and USDA whose climate change goals may have been scattered across bureaus and agencies, said Bill Hohenstein, director of the climate change program office at USDA.
"With an agency like USDA with widely varied responsibilities ... it's important to look at an issue like climate change comprehensively," he said.
In the 60-day comment period that follows, Hohenstein expects to hear from the various people who work with USDA -- farmers, rural residents, industry workers and business owners -- who are curious about how to manage climate risks.
In drafting these climate plans, the agencies are not doing more than what is required of them, said C2ES's Casola.
"But it's a nice step," he said. "The executive branch [is] making a commitment to becoming more energy-efficient, more water-efficient, and trying to address climate change by reducing emissions and by managing risks from impacts."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500