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Before the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, 

House of Representatives: 

United States Government Accountability Office: 


For Release on Delivery Expected at 9:30 a.m. EDT: 

Thursday, October 22, 2009: 

Climate Change Adaptation: 

Strategic Federal Planning Could Help Officials Make More Informed 

Statement of John B. Stephenson, Director: 

Natural Resources and Environment: 


October 22, 2009: 

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee: 

I am pleased to be here today to discuss our report to this committee 
on climate change adaptation and the role strategic federal planning 
could play in government decision making. Changes in the climate 
attributable to increased concentrations of greenhouse gases may have 
significant impacts in the United States and internationally.[Footnote 
1] For example, climate change could threaten coastal areas with rising 
sea levels. In recent years, climate change adaptation--adjustments to 
natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climate 
change--has begun to receive more attention because the greenhouse 
gases already in the atmosphere are expected to continue altering the 
climate system into the future, regardless of efforts to control 
emissions. According to a recent report by the National Research 
Council (NRC), however, individuals and institutions whose futures will 
be affected by climate change are unprepared both conceptually and 
practically for meeting the challenges and opportunities it presents. 
In this context, adapting to climate change requires making policy and 
management decisions that cut across traditional economic sectors, 
jurisdictional boundaries, and levels of government. My testimony is 
based on our October 2009 report,[Footnote 2] which is being publicly 
released today, and addresses three issues: (1) what actions federal, 
state, local, and international authorities are taking to adapt to a 
changing climate; (2) the challenges that federal, state, and local 
officials face in their efforts to adapt; and (3) the actions that 
Congress and federal agencies could take to help address these 
challenges. We also provide information about our prior work on 
similarly complex, interdisciplinary issues. 

We employed a variety of methods to assess these issues. To determine 
the actions federal, state, local, and international authorities are 
taking to adapt to a changing climate, we obtained summaries of 
adaptation-related efforts from a broad range of federal agencies and 
visited four sites where government officials are taking actions to 
adapt. The four sites were New York City; King County, Washington; the 
state of Maryland; and the United Kingdom, focusing on London and 
Hampshire County. We gathered information during and after site visits 
through observation of adaptation efforts, interviews with officials 
and stakeholders, and a review of documents provided by these 
officials. To describe challenges that federal, state, and local 
officials face in their efforts to adapt and the actions that Congress 
and federal agencies could take to help address these challenges, we 
developed a Web-based questionnaire, and sent it to 274 federal, state, 
and local officials knowledgeable about adaptation.[Footnote 3] Within 
the questionnaire, we organized questions about challenges and actions 
into groups related to the following: (1) awareness among governmental 
officials and the public about climate change impacts and setting 
priorities with respect to available adaptation strategies; (2) 
sufficiency of information to help officials understand climate change 
impacts at a scale that enables them to respond; and (3) the structure 
and operation of the federal government including whether roles and 
responsibilities were clear across different levels of government. 

We conducted our review from September 2008 to October 2009 in 
accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. A 
more detailed description of our scope and methodology is available in 
appendix I of our report. 

Mr. Chairman, the following summarizes the findings on each of the 
issues discussed in our report: 

* Federal, state, local, and international efforts to adapt to climate 
change: Although there is no coordinated national approach to 
adaptation, several federal agencies report that they have begun to 
take action with current and planned adaptation activities. These 
activities are largely ad hoc and fall into categories such as 
information for decision making, federal land and natural resource 
management, and governmentwide adaptation strategies, among others. For 
example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) 
Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments program supports climate 
change research to meet the needs of decision makers and policy 
planners at the national, regional, and local levels. In addition, 
several federal agencies have reported beginning to consider measures 
that would strengthen the resilience of natural resources in the face 
of climate change. For example, on September 14, 2009, the Department 
of the Interior issued an order designed to address the impacts of 
climate change on the nation's water, land, and other natural and 
cultural resources.[Footnote 4] While no single entity is coordinating 
climate change adaptation efforts across the federal government, 
several federal entities are beginning to develop governmentwide 
strategies to adapt to climate change. For example, the President's 
Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is leading a new initiative to 
coordinate the federal response to climate change in conjunction with 
the Office of Science and Technology Policy, NOAA, and other agencies. 
Similarly, the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which coordinates 
and integrates federal research on climate change, has developed a 
series of "building blocks" that outline options for future climate 
change work, including science to inform adaptation. 

While many government authorities have not yet begun to adapt to 
climate change, some at the state and local levels are beginning to 
plan for and respond to climate change impacts. We visited three U. S. 
sites--New York City; King County, Washington; and the state of 
Maryland--where government officials are taking such steps. Our 
analysis of these sites suggests three major factors have led these 
governments to act. First, natural disasters such as floods, heat 
waves, droughts, or hurricanes raised public awareness of the costs of 
potential climate change impacts. Second, leaders in all three sites 
used legislation, executive orders, local ordinances, or action plans 
to focus attention and resources on climate change adaptation. Finally, 
each of the governments had access to relevant site-specific 
information to provide a basis for planning and management efforts. 
This site-specific information arose from partnerships that decision 
makers at all three sites formed with local universities and other 
government and nongovernment entities. Limited adaptation efforts are 
also taking root in other countries around the world. As in the case of 
the state and local efforts we describe, some of these adaptation 
efforts have been triggered by the recognition that current weather 
extremes and seasonal changes will become more frequent in the future. 
Our review of climate change adaptation efforts in the United Kingdom 
describes how different levels of government work together to ensure 
that climate change considerations are incorporated into decision 

* Government officials face numerous challenges when considering 
adaptation efforts: The challenges faced by federal, state, and local 
officials in their efforts to adapt fall into the following three 
categories, based on our analysis of questionnaire results, site 
visits, and available studies: 

* First, available attention and resources are focused on more 
immediate needs, making it difficult for adaptation efforts to compete 
for limited funds. For example, about 71 percent (128 of 180) of the 
officials who responded to our questionnaire rated "non-adaptation 
activities are higher priorities" as very or extremely challenging when 
considering climate change adaptation efforts. 

* Second, insufficient site-specific data, such as local projections of 
expected changes, make it hard to predict the impacts of climate 
change, and thus hard for officials to justify the current costs of 
adaptation efforts for potentially less certain future benefits. For 
example, King County officials said they are not sure how to translate 
climate change information into effects on salmon recovery efforts. 

* Third, adaptation efforts are constrained by a lack of clear roles 
and responsibilities among federal, state, and local agencies. Of 
particular note, about 70 percent (124 of 178) of the respondents rated 
the "lack of clear roles and responsibilities for addressing adaptation 
across all levels of government" as very or extremely challenging. 
Interestingly, local and state respondents rate this as a greater 
challenge than did federal respondents. About 80 percent (48 of 60) of 
local officials and about 67 percent (31 of 46) of state officials who 
responded to the question rated the issue as either very or extremely 
challenging, compared with about 61 percent (42 of 69) of the 
responding federal officials.[Footnote 5] 

* Federal efforts could help government officials make decisions about 
adaptation: Potential federal actions for addressing challenges to 
adaptation efforts fall into the following three areas, based on our 
analysis of questionnaire results, site visits, and available studies: 

- First, training and education efforts could increase awareness among 
government officials and the public about the impacts of climate change 
and available adaptation strategies. A variety of programs are trying 
to accomplish this goal, such as the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine 
Research Reserve (partially funded by NOAA), which provides education 
and training on climate change to the public and local officials in 

- Second, actions to provide and interpret site-specific information 
could help officials understand the impacts of climate change at a 
scale that would enable them to respond. About 80 percent (147 of 183) 
of the respondents rated the "development of state and local climate 
change impact and vulnerability assessments" as very or extremely 

- Third, Congress and federal agencies could encourage adaptation by 
clarifying roles and responsibilities. About 71 percent (129 of 181) of 
the respondents rated the development of a national adaptation strategy 
as very or extremely useful. Furthermore, officials we spoke with at 
our site visits and officials who responded to our questionnaire said 
that a coordinated federal response would also demonstrate a federal 
commitment to adaptation. 

Our past work on crosscutting issues suggests that governmentwide 
strategic planning can integrate activities that span a wide array of 
federal, state, and local entities.[Footnote 6] As our report and 
others (such as the National Academy of Sciences and the 
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) demonstrate, some 
communities and federal lands are already seeing the effects of climate 
change, and governments are beginning to respond. However, as our 
report also illustrates, the federal government's emerging adaptation 
activities are carried out in an ad hoc manner and are not well 
coordinated across federal agencies, let alone state and local 
governments. Multiple federal agencies, as well as state and local 
governments, will have to work together to address these challenges and 
implement new initiatives. Yet, our past work on collaboration among 
federal agencies suggests that they will face a range of barriers in 
doing so.[Footnote 7] Top leadership involvement and clear lines of 
accountability are critical to overcoming natural resistance to change, 
marshalling needed resources, and building and maintaining the 
commitment to new ways of doing business. Given the complexity and 
potential magnitude of climate change and the lead time needed to 
adapt, preparing for these impacts now may reduce the need for far more 
costly steps in the decades to come. 

Accordingly, our report released today recommends that the appropriate 
entities within the Executive Office of the President, such as CEQ and 
the Office of Science and Technology Policy, in consultation with 
relevant federal agencies, state and local governments, and key 
congressional committees of jurisdiction, develop a national strategic 
plan that will guide the nation's efforts to adapt to a changing 
climate. The plan should, among other things, (1) define federal 
priorities related to adaptation; (2) clarify roles, responsibilities, 
and working relationships among federal, state, and local governments; 
(3) identify mechanisms to increase the capacity of federal, state, and 
local agencies to incorporate information about current and potential 
climate change impacts into government decision making; (4) address how 
resources will be made available to implement the plan; and (5) build 
on and integrate ongoing federal planning efforts related to 
adaptation. CEQ generally agreed with the recommendation, noting that 
leadership and coordination is necessary within the federal government 
to ensure an effective and appropriate adaptation response and that 
such coordination would help to catalyze regional, state, and local 

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement. I would be pleased to 
respond to any questions you or other Members of the Committee may 

Contacts and Acknowledgments: 

For questions about this statement, please contact John B. Stephenson 
at (202) 512-3841 or Individuals who made key 
contributions to this testimony include Steve Elstein (Assistant 
Director), Charles Bausell, Keya Chateauneuf, Cindy Gilbert, Richard 
Johnson, Benjamin Shouse, Jeanette Soares, Ruth Solomon, and Joseph 
Thompson. Camille Adebayo, Holly Dye, Mike Jenkins, and Mark Keenan 
also made important contributions. 

[End of section] 


[1] Major greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide (CO2); methane (CH4); 
nitrous oxide (N2O); and such synthetic gases as hydrofluorocarbons 
(HFC), perfluorocarbons (PFC), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). 

[2] GAO, Climate Change Adaptation: Strategic Federal Planning Could 
Help Government Officials Make More Informed Decisions, [hyperlink,] (Washington, D.C.: Oct. 
7, 2009). 

[3] For our questionnaire, 187 of 274 officials responded for a 
response rate of approximately 68 percent. Not all officials responded 
to every question. 

[4] Secretarial Order No. 3289 (Sept. 14, 2009). 

[5] Differences by level of government (federal, state, and local) that 
are reported are for illustrative purposes and may not be statistically 
different. We present selected examples where the difference between 
federal, state, or local responses is greater than 15 percent and the 
difference presents useful context for the overall results. There were 
other differences by level of government that are not presented in our 

[6] GAO, A Call For Stewardship: Enhancing the Federal Government's 
Ability to Address Key Fiscal and Other 21st Century Challenges, 
[hyperlink,] (Washington, 
D.C.: Dec. 17, 2007). 

[7] GAO, Results-Oriented Government: Practices That Can Help Enhance 
and Sustain Collaboration among Federal Agencies, [hyperlink,] (Washington, D.C.: Oct. 
21, 2005), and Managing for Results: Barriers to Interagency 
Coordination, [hyperlink, 
106] (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 29, 2000). 

[End of section] 

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