Adaptation Report Needs More Blunt Language on Climate Science

Flooding events will intensify as the world warms

Today a group called the Interagency Task Force on Climate Change Adaptation issued a report with recommendations to the President on how the nation can respond to and prepare for global warming impacts.  The task force, comprised of over 20 federal agencies, spent the past 1-1/2 years gathering ideas from states, tribal governments, NGOs, private industry and others.

The report does a nice job of explaining how the federal government can better implement its many programs by incorporating some intelligent thinking about climate change.   It also does a good job of cataloguing and promoting adaptation exercises already underway in the federal government, including the one focused on ecosystem-based adaptation (called the “National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy”) that I’m involved with.

I’d like to highlight just a couple of key ideas from the report that might otherwise get lost due to their subtlety.

First, the report states that ecosystem-oriented adaptaton strategies are useful to reduce the vulnerability of both natural and human systems to climate change.  This is a crucial point that would benefit from stronger language and further elaboration.  A substantial body of research is emerging that shows how human systems such as drinking water supplies, crops, and buildings are at great risk from climate-related disturbances such as intense storms, floods, heat waves and droughts and can be better safeguarded by protecting and restoring ecosystems.  Check out, for example, this just-released study from the United Nations Environment Program entitled “How Ecosystems Protect Communities from Natural Hazards.”

Second, in extremely polite terms, today’s Task Force report identifies some key federal programs that would benefit from integration of adaptation approaches.  For example, it states that “programs like the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can explore a range of approaches to encourage people, communities, and businesses to shift away from high-risk coastal areas and account for future risk in the administration of the Program.”  I suppose this kind of diplomatic language is necessary, especially considering that FEMA is one of the Task Force members responsible for the report.

Here is my suggestion for how to make the same point in a less polite way:

The National Flood Insurance Program currently provides financial incentives for people to build homes and businesses in coastal and floodplains habitats that, according to the latest climate change science, are highly vulnerable to catastrophic storms and floods.  By ignoring this science and failing to adopt modern approaches to climate change adaptation, FEMA is inadvertently and unnecessarily putting people’s lives at risk. In contrast, if FEMA were to employ the adaptation approaches discussed in this report, it would great reduce climate-related risks to people and property, while reducing development that is both damaging to the environment and costly to taxpayers.

Saying it this way might not be diplomatic, but it would give readers a better sense of the urgency of the adaptation agenda.

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Published: October 14, 2010