June 01, 2011

Read This Now: America’s Climate Choices

While we are gearing up for our Fifth Annual Conference tomorrow, I
thought this would be a great opportunity to point out the latest report from
the National Academies of Science, America’s
Climate Choices
. The report does a great job making the case for how effective
national leadership can guide current local, state and private-sector actors
already at work on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate
change. “America’s
climate choices will ultimately be made by elected officials, business leaders,
individual households, and other decision makers across the nation
; and
these choices almost always involve tradeoffs, value judgments, and other issues
that reach beyond science,” the report states. Yet, as the report suggests,
national level climate policies can marshal the energy stemming from those
efforts by putting in place coherent national goals and incentives that align
with ongoing efforts.

“Decision makers at these levels [local, state and private
sector] often lack the resources necessary to perform [climate adaptation] work
effectively or lack experience in accessing and using information that may be
available to inform their decisions,” the report found. “Dealing with
vulnerabilities that cross geographic, sectoral, or other boundaries are
particularly challenging. Although early adaptation planning is beginning to
emerge from the bottom up in the United States, it is hampered by a lack
of both knowledge and resources.” Indeed, providing the knowledge and resources
should be a key role for the federal government, the report states.

But the federal government’s role should not be limited to
what federal agencies can do. Instead, the federal government should lead a
national adaptation strategy “that engages a broad range of decision makers and
stakeholders” at each level. The authors note that the federal government can
play a role in identifying “key vulnerabilities to plausible climate changes,
which will vary substantially from place to place and among parties within each
place,” “[providing] key resources (e.g., scenarios, visualization tools,
methods, data) to support vulnerability analyses,” and “ensuring that federal
programs, activities, and planning take climate change into account and, in
particular, that maladaptive policies and practices be identified and reformed.”

It is important to note, too, that the authors did not shy
away from the international implications of climate change, and how those
effects could pose challenges here at home:

The potentially destabilizing impacts of climate change in
the developing world have been identified by military and security analysts as
a national security issue for the United States. Such impacts also pose a
humanitarian concern should climate change, for example, lead to increases in
the occurrence or severity of natural disasters. There are also economic
implications should climate change affect consumers of key exports or regions
of critical food production and other imports. It would thus be prudent for the
federal government to support efforts to enhance adaptive capability in the
developing world, as well as within the United States.

But given that the United States will not be insulated from
the international implications of climate change, there is an opportunity to
cooperate with other international partners around reducing greenhouse gas
emissions and sharing adaptation strategies. “The United States also has much
to gain from actively participating in international adaptation efforts,
particularly those involving developing nations,” the report acknowledges.
“Active U.S. participation in international adaptation programs could enable us
to learn from the effective programs of others. Some efforts could be
collaborative, such as research on drought-resistant agriculture for tropical

The bottom line that I take away from the report is that mitigating greenhouse gas
emissions and adapting to climate change cannot, and should not, be led solely by
local and state governments, federal agencies or the private sector. We need a
national climate strategy that leverages all of these stakeholders and
coordinates their efforts around shared goals and priorities so that resources
are not wasted by duplicating activities or programs. And of course a national
climate strategy by necessity means engaging other international actors. If one
thing is clear, climate change is a global challenge that cannot be met by the
United States alone. We are all in this together.