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Federal Agencies Tackle Climate Change

As Congress remains unwilling and unable to deal with climate change, federal government agencies — even without the blessing of lawmakers — have been thinking about, and quietly acting on, climate change for years.

The Army Corps of Engineers, for instance, is building new levees, dams, buildings and other infrastructure to withstand higher sea-level rise and more extreme weather events. The Defense Department is making decisions about its current and future installations based on the expectation that sea levels will rise. And NASA has assessed its sites and is considering how to manage higher water at places such as Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Climate adaptation is becoming part of the normal course of business for some federal agencies.

“If you get the processes into the bones of the organization, you can weather out the political climate,” said William D. Goran, director of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Center for the Advancement of Sustainability Innovations. Adapting to climate change is easier to tackle than mitigating the causes of global warming because efforts to stem greenhouse gas emissions have to be undertaken globally to have an effect. Adaptation consists of actions that each agency can take on its own.

“For the future,” Goran said, “we are going to have to adapt.”

There are signs that the political climate is becoming more receptive to addressing climate adaptation. The supplemental bill to assist areas affected by Superstorm Sandy required the Army Corps of Engineers to assess and evaluate its infrastructure for future storms.

And after the Government Accountability Office last month listed climate change as one of the greatest threats to the federal government’s financial stability, even fiscal conservatives such as House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., started paying attention. “It points out we are underprepared,” he said at a news conference. “It’s a wake up call.”

Larger efforts in Congress to promote climate adaptation initiatives, however, have failed. Most recently, after Sandy, then- Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced a measure that would require buildings to be more resilient to changes in climate and extreme weather. Kerry has since become secretary of State, but Gillibrand said she intends to reintroduce the legislation.

Climate adaptation efforts largely have come from the White House.

“As the president made clear in the State of the Union, the administration will continue to identify steps to prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, reduce carbon pollution and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy,” said Taryn Tuss, spokeswoman for the White House’s Council for Environmental Quality.

Integrating climate change planning into the operations, planning and policies across the federal government ensures that “taxpayer resources are invested wisely and that federal services remain effective,” she said.

As part of a 2009 executive order issued by President Barack Obama, each agency was required to submit climate adaptation plans. Those plans were released last month.

“In looking through those [plans], I think that you get a sense that vulnerabilities to federal agencies missions is pretty massive,” said Joe Casola, program director for Science and Impacts at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

The adaptation plans vary depending on the agency’s mission and its perception of climate change risk. Casola also notes that each agency has a different perception of how great the risks are and what needs to be done about them.

The Government Accountability Office says these differing views of the risks of climate change to individual agencies and their varied adaptation efforts are a weakness in the federal government’s approach to climate change.

The GAO recommended more coordination and last month placed climate change on its high risk list because of its potential impact on the nation’s finances — not necessarily because the government isn’t addressing it, but because the efforts are ad hoc.

“The federal government is already spending a lot of money on these areas, but it’s not well-coordinated, and it’s not targeted or prioritized,” Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro told Issa’s committee at a hearing about the GAO report last month. The GAO cites the growing financial demands of climate change on the federal budget for crop insurance, flood insurance and emergency disaster funds.

Casolo doesn’t expect the White House to initiate a grand climate adaptation plan that lays out clear priorities.

“Interagency stuff is just really hard to do,” he said, pointing to the difficulty of creating the Department of Homeland Security as an example. “There’s not a lot of examples of bold policy changes through an interagency process.”

In fact, Casola said, incorporating climate adaptation into day-to-day business may be a better way of managing climate change than creating a separate organization devoted to implementing adaptation-specific policies. “I don’t think we can add adaptation as a new silo,” he said.

Broad adaptation efforts, he said, would be better served with something like a National Climate Service. “There’s a need for good data,” he said. Such a service has been proposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and rejected by Congress.

Goran of the Army Corps said he is glad that the GAO highlighted the issue but added, “It’s not a panic-button issue.” He said that by beginning now, the agencies can start to plan for effects decades down the line.

“It is potentially a big liability, but it doesn’t mean in 2014 or 2015,” Goran said. “It’s a slowly changing process. We don’t have to do it all today.”

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