The U.S. Politics of Climate Adaptation: The Waxman Committee
Climate adaptation is finally entering the consciousness of important policymakers, trickling up and through organizations. But these shifts are not occurring smoothly or without controversy and a lot of injured fingers and toes. And we seem to be moving towards two views of how to adjust to our emerging climate: “adaptation” and “Adaptation.” The state of conflict between these two views in the U.S. is globally important right now because the U.S. has been the silent watcher on climate issues for the last decade. The U.S. government has not substantively participated in climate talks, and because the U.S. economy is so large, competing economies must keep par — for good or ill. This rule is widely understood for climate mitigation issues (regulation of greenhouse gas concentrations), but it’s also true for climate adaptation costs as well, which will also become an increasingly major element of economic spending. Finally, U.S. policymakers are going to have this debate, probably as a result of the climate change bill introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives last fall.
What I am referring to as small-A adaptation is the assumption that the emerging climate doesn’t really have big implications for the way we do work as a society — whatever that business is, in terms of human economics, the practice of conservation and development, or even our species’ cultural trajectory. Small-A climate adaptation is mostly just making tweaks to our existing behaviors and practice. Thus, cities or houses in most places won’t really look much different in 50 years as a result of the practice of climate change. We’ll treat water just as we have been doing (or would have been doing, assuming a stable climate). This is an evolutionary view of our world through the lens of climate adaptation.
In contrast, big-A Adaptation says we are entering a revolutionary phase in human history, and our future as a species (and that of most other species) will be very different in the near term as a result. This view isn’t necessarily gloom-and-doom. But we might imagine that lots of cities and homes in the developed world practice rainwater harvesting and graywater recycling, not to mention that large percentages of the population in drying regions leave for still-wet areas, resulting in mass migrations comparable to what was seen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (or the massive rural-to-urban migration in China in the past 25 years). Foodstuffs in a less-reliable precipitation regime will probably mean that many people eat quite differently than we have for the past few centuries. In the scale of human history, those are big changes.
Why would someone advocate small-A adaptation? Beyond thinking that the alternative is simply frightening, the way the IPCC reports the amount of climate change doesn’t sound very significant. Small shifts in mean annual temperature seem … easy to deal with. But they also mask important trends, such as the increasing variability of climate and the frequency of extreme events, such as droughts, floods, and big fires. And those extreme events tend to have inordinate impacts on economies. Think of the effect of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans … nothing has been the same there since. In effect, we are seeing geological-scale events that occurring on a human lifespan’s scale.
These issues are relevant for 2009 because climate adaptation will be a major topic of discussion at the Copenhagen UNFCCC CoP meeting this December. This meeting is where all of the signatories of the UNFCCC come together to discuss how to (a) create a new effective climate mitigation treaty, and (b) begin to fund large-scale climate adaptation work. And since the advent of Obama’s administration, the level of interest in climate change issues has increased very significantly in the U.S. So, we should be able to see harbingers of international policy as a reflection of what’s happening in domestic U.S. politics.
For instance, the small-A/big-A distinction can be seen to some degree in the U.S. House of Representatives right now. Last October, a climate change bill was submitted to the House Energy Committee. Most of the bill’s 461 pages are focused squarely on greenhouse gases. But the brief section 729 is titled “Adaptation.” And the long Title VI section is also called “Adaption”; together, they establish a national climate change adaptation program. To my knowledge, this is the first explicit, serious attempt to address climate adaptation in national U.S. legislation. Kudos to representatives Boucher and Dingell for sponsoring the bill and to Henry Waxman, the head of the committee where the bill now sits, for keeping it alive. What does it say?
Many of the issues with the adaptation text should be familiar to people who work in adaptation now: the focus is largely on funding adaptation, on national-scale federal programs, on assessing climate vulnerability (rather than on responding to that vulnerability), on treating adaptation as separate from other kinds of work, and ( implication) on small-A adaptation. It’s where we should have been in 2000 or 2002 at the latest. But it’s a major move forward nonetheless. Some of the particularly good pieces:
- The bill explicitly recognizes the problems of climate uncertainty in responding to climate changes [(sec. 604, (c ), (4)]. This issue was recently discussed on this blog and is a critical component of any realistic adaptation program.
- The bill also suggests a linkage between ecosystem health and human adaptive capacity (sec. 621). This section is pretty interesting, actually: “The purposes of this subtitle are to (1) establish an integrated federal program to assist natural resources to become more resilient and adapt to and withstand the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification; and (2) provide financial support and incentives for programs, strategies, and activities that assist natural resources to become more resilient and adapt to the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification.” That’s very good stuff. This section establishes a national adaptation panel, with a strong focus on water issues. Moreover, the program is updated every five years, which is absolutely necessary and required for any kind of realistic long-term adaptation process (and is also linked to the uncertainty issue mentioned above).
- Funding for adaptation is tied to climate mitigation work (secs. 729 and 607). This isn’t a bad start but will rapidly become quite insufficient.
- A National Climate Service will be established within NOAA (which already handles weather through the National Weather Service) as a means of delivering quality climate analyses and tools.
- Climate monitoring is explicitly tied to assessing climate impacts in the future. This is a key recommendation in WWF’s freshwater climate adaptation primer, since so many gaps exist spatially in our climate and impacts data.
- Federal and tribal agencies will be required to conduct vulnerability assessments and to develop adaptation plans (sec 606). This is quite similar to the NAPA program for the UNFCCC, which is probably best described as a failed experiment though a good idea at the time. Simply producing an adaptation plan doesn’t mean that an institution/nation/person has actually bought into or committed to that plan — that there will be any implementation. These plans in this legislation, however, are intended to be presented to the governing legislative committees for each agency, which presumably will have oversight on implementation. I feel optimistically skeptical.
- Federal activities will be linked to state-level assessments and adaptation plans (sec. 629). This is a traditional approach in the U.S. federal political system: it’s not that easy for the national government to tell California or North Carolina what to do. But the feds are trying to pull along the states with a carrot: do this stuff, and some money will follow. Very importantly, these state plans are supposed to link up with other programs, such as regional plans like Partners in Flight. And these adaptation plans will also be on a five-year update cycle.
These are all very important game-changing elements to have in a national adaptation program. And passage and support would have important ramifications internationally. Passage is not going to make the U.S. the equal of Dutch or Danish adaptation policy expertise, but the U.S. would be headed in the right direction.
I think most people who’ve thought a little about the scale of economic changes that are necessary to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations will agree that a low-carbon economy looks very different than the economic pathway for almost every developing or developed nation right now. Effective climate mitigation envisions a very different world. But I also doubt that many global citizens have let those implications sink in, not least because the politicians that do “get” the scope of the changes necessary don’t want to alienate their constituents — not all at once, anyway. Climate adaptation is likely to present even larger changes, not least because these shifts in behavior will mostly be occurring from the regular people. Along those lines, this bill still has some significant weaknesses:
- The amount of funding here for adaptation is very small.
- Linking adaptation and mitigation financially makes emotional sense but perhaps not good policy sense. They are separate issues, with quite different levels of complexity, and there is unlikely to be much overlap in staff or expertise. Adaptation is much harder than mitigation. And adaptation deserves treatment on its own — at least in time.
- There is not an explicit recognition that the U.S. should have big-A adaptation, but the bill focuses on adaptation as a policy process. And a faithful implementation of that process should result in an emerging consensus with policymakers that climate adaptation is a critical and pressing task for many decades to come. However, there is no attempt to drag along the public through that process. Adaptation will ask a lot of the public, which demands a shift in public worldview. Somehow, this process of education needs to be incorporated. As a recent New York Times article on Obama and his climate policy suggests, this is not going to be easy, and we may see some backtracking on policy when big deficits in understanding between policymakers and the public exist.
- Much of the bill treats adaptation as a gap in science rather than a gap in policy, engineering, or economics. Science can help with adaptation, but adaptation is also about choices, and choices depend on what can be done and what should be done. Those are not usually scientifically defined.
- Finally, the bill currently treats adaptation largely as a U.S. government problem, and mostly a U.S. federal agency problem. Coordination and cooperation with other nations and with NGOs/non-profits/CSOs should be included as well. And universities and research in a wide range of fields. The expertise necessary for adaptation now lies largely outside of the federal government. And often outside of the U.S.
Very good start, representatives Boucher, Dingell, and Waxman!
I’ll keep you updated.