Climate Change Adaptation:

Strategic Federal Planning Could Help Officials Make More Informed Decisions

GAO-10-175T: Published: Oct 22, 2009. Publicly Released: Oct 22, 2009.

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John B. Stephenson
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This testimony discusses 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. 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. This testimony is based on our October 2009 report, 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.

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. The challenges faced by federal, state, and local officials in their efforts to adapt fall into the following three categories: (1) available attention and resources are focused on more immediate needs, making it difficult for adaptation efforts to compete for limited funds; (2) 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; and (3) adaptation efforts are constrained by a lack of clear roles and responsibilities among federal, state, and local agencies. Potential federal actions for addressing challenges to adaptation efforts fall into the following three areas: (1) training and education efforts could increase awareness among government officials and the public about the impacts of climate change and available adaptation strategies; (2) 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; and (3) Congress and federal agencies could encourage adaptation by clarifying roles and responsibilities.

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