Department of Interior/EPA and Adaptation

by Nicholas Parker on December 14, 2009

I attended two talks hosted by the US Department of Interior (DOI – an agency plagued by mismanagement for a long time) at the U.S. Center at COP.  Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, Tom Strickland, opened the first by touching on Secretary Salazar’s Secretarial Order to establish a research and action plan for domestic climate change adaptation.  DOI justifies the Order on its website:

“Across the country, Americans are experiencing first-hand the impacts of climate change, from growing pressure on water supplies to more intense droughts and fires to rampant bark beetle infestations,” said Salazar.  “Because Interior manages one-fifth of our nation’s landmass and 1.7 billion acres on the Outer Continental Shelf, it is imperative that we tackle these impacts of a failed and outdated energy policy.  This secretarial order is another milestone in our continuing effort to change how Interior does business to respond to the energy and climate challenges of our time.”

The Order lays the foundation for the following:

  • A new Climate Change Response Council, led by the Secretary, Deputy Secretary and Counselor, will coordinate DOI’s response to the impacts of climate change within and among the Interior bureaus and will work to improve the sharing and communication of climate change impact science, including through www.data.gov;
  • Eight DOI regional Climate Change Response Centers, serving Alaska, the Northeast, the Southeast, the Southwest, the Midwest, the West, Northwest, and Pacific regions – will synthesize existing climate change impact data and management strategies, help resource managers put them into action on the ground, and engage the public through education initiatives; and
  • A network of Landscape Conservation Cooperatives will engage DOI and federal agencies, local and state partners, and the public to craft practical, landscape-level strategies for managing climate change impacts within the eight regions.  The cooperatives will focus on impacts such as the effects of climate change on wildlife migration patterns, wildfire risk, drought, or invasive species that typically extend beyond the borders of any single National Wildlife Refuge, BLM unit, or National Park.

Mr. Strickland spoke also of DOI’s little-known collaboration with USAID in transferring knowledge, technology, and technical assistance to land managers in developing countries.  I think that this is a wonderful idea: an opportunity to get US public officials outside of the departments of State and Defense (including scientists) engaged in international relations – and in ways that are especially helpful to countries whose populations are highly sensitive to the ways in which their land is managed.

Alongside Mr. Stickland were two scientists: one an advisor to DOI, and the other a prominent official in the US Geological Survey, the science arm of DOI.  Both emphasized a renewed federal commitment to using science in policy, and in the new initiatives aimed at developing the science behind necessary adaptations to climate and other environmental changes.  We are in desperate need of more coherence in the collection, storage, and utilization of data, and to downscale models in order to project impacts at the local level, which is where most adaptation actions will take place.

I was encouraged by all the technical talk and the enthusiasm apparent in the voices of these scientists.  I think we are experiencing a revival in scientific America after eight years of the blatant rejection of science in favor of ideology.  Later, I asked a question about whether there are options available to us to lock in commitments to prioritize the use of science in policymaking.  Especially to make good decisions about adaptation, we need to ensure long-term financial and philosophical commitments to the collection and use of data that tell the stories of social-ecological systems over time, and inform public and private investments.  At first, I didn’t receive a response that addressed the politics – much beyond than the obligatory, “Our funding subject to annual review” – but then the USGS guy (can’t find his name right now) was clear that he, right now, is very committed to championing science in the public arena.

EPA folks called in to give us an overview of the EPA Climate Ready Estuaries Program, and enlightened me to the fact that they, too, are starting to reach out more to developing nations.  Who’da thunk?

All in all, I was happy to hear what is happening within DOI, USGS, and EPA with respect to adaptation and the use of science in policymaking.  A lot of this work could just as well fall into the category of ecological restoration, but still the results contribute to ecological integrity and resilience to stresses of all sorts.  Climate change is a galvanizing problem and it might just provide the impetus we’ve needed for a long time to address environmental destruction seriously.

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