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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Breaking News from Adaptation Online

Climate Change & NEPA

The U.S. White House has taken steps toward the development of climate change guidance for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), one of the key environmental policy instruments for minimising adverse environmental consequences from federally-funded projects. The Council on Environmental Quality has published a draft guidance document for comment, the overall intention of which can be summarised as follows:

"With regards to the effects of climate change on the design of a proposed action and alternatives, Federal agencies must ensure the scientific and professional integrity of their assessment of the ways in which climate change is affecting or could affect environmental effects of the proposed action. Under this proposed guidance, agencies should use the scoping process to set reasonable spatial and temporal boundaries for this assessment and focus on aspects of climate change that may lead to changes in the impacts, sustainability, vulnerability and design of the proposed action and alternative courses of action. At the same time, agencies should recognize the scientific limits of their ability to accurately predict climate change effects, especially of a short-term nature, and not devote effort to analyzing wholly speculative effects. Agencies can use the NEPA process to reduce vulnerability to climate change impacts, adapt to changes in our environment, and mitigate the impacts of Federal agency actions that are exacerbated by climate change."

While a White House source is quoted as saying the guidance is "straightforward, common sense," the release no doubt prompted many rumblings throughout Washington, if not the nation. While the utility of mainstreaming consideration for climate change into agency actions appears initially to be self-evident, the challenge of making such consideration routine is significant. As of yet, there are no standard methods for the assessment of climate change impacts, vulnerability or risk and, similarly, the evaluation of adaptation options and their costs remains a young and naive practice. Meanwhile, the challenges associated with carbon accounting are perhaps even more profound. Should such guidance go forward to become part of the NEPA process, we are sure to see the rapid expansion of practitioners in climate assessment and carbon management. At some point, however, someone should give thought as to how those practitioners will be trained and what methods and standards they will employ.

UPDATE (5/4/2010): Congressional Republicans (led by James Inhofe) are apparently not particularly pleased with the proposed incorporation of climate change into NEPA.

Adapting Australia's Agriculture

Two recent releases have highlighted the role of adaptation in Australian agriculture. The first is a new book from CSIRO Publishing entitled, Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change, provides a comprehensive look at climate change, its implications for Australian agriculture and opportunities for adaptation. It covers multiple agriculture sectors, from cropping to forestry to fisheries, as well as the adaptive capacity of land managers (contents). Further, the linkages between adaptation and mitigation are addressed with a look at greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. The book is available now through CSIRO Publishing.

Meanwhile, a new parliamentary report has been tabled by the House of Representatives' Standing Committee on Primary Industries and Resources, entitled Farming the Future. The Committee was charged with reporting on the potential impacts of climate change to Australian agriculture, the role of government in facilitating adaptation, and the potential contributions of rural research and development to assist in the adaptation process. Ultimately, the report makes a number of recommendations to be taken up by Federal, State and Territory governments. While those recommendations to some extent appear to represent a wish list for Australian farmers, a common theme is the importance of empowering local, community-based solutions as opposed to top-down, 'one-size-fits-all' policies.

Climate Patriots

The United States' Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate is currently promoting its Climate Patriots series, which features interviews with notable military leaders who highlight the security benefits of a robust response to climate change.

In Defense of Science

The international press has been quick to illustrate the myriad ways in which climate change science has taken a beating in recent months, thanks to 'Climategate', the IPCC's errors and the so-called resurgence of climate scepticism. Although is it arguable whether such bad PR merits a rethink regarding the state of climate science, scientific institutions are clearly on the backfoot, and much effort is being devoted to reiterating where 'the science' stands. This has manifested with a UN call for an independent review of the IPCC process, not to mention the scientific review of research at the University of East Anglia (which is producing its own controversies) and the scrutiny of Penn State's Michael Mann. Meanwhile, various surveys are indicating that society-at-large may be growing weary of climate warnings (see, for example, here or here).

In Australia, the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology have frequently been called upon to provide updates to the Federal Government regarding the state of climate change science, and recently they did so once again. The latest "snapshot" provides an up-to-date overview of trends in climate and greenhouse gases in Australia. While the brief report received significant media coverage (much of it phrased as "science strikes back"), it really doesn't offer anything new to the increasingly partisan debate in Australia (although the two scientific institutions were quickly accused of playing politics). In fact, while the report presents observed trends, it doesn't provide any evidence regarding the attribution of those trends, other than to reiterate IPCC statements regarding human attribution of observed global changes. Nor does it give the public any indication of why such trends should be of concern. Presenting the science of climate change without directly addressing the "so what" questions that invariably arise is a recipe for apathy. And the more scientists appear defensive, the more they feed the perception that they may in fact have gotten something wrong.