January 29, 2009

Studies Highlight Need for Natural Resource Adaptation Measures

This week, there’s been good news from the Obama Administration regarding climate change policy.  California will likely get that waiver under the Clean Air Act allowing it to set stricter emissions standards for cars.  Additionally, Lisa Jackson, the new Administrator of EPA, indicated in an e-mail (subscription required) to agency employees that the agency will soon move to comply with the Supreme Court’s opinion in Massachusetts v. EPA.  In that opinion, the Court agreed with the plaintiffs’ arguments that EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases (GHGs) under the Clean Air Act.  It further directed the agency to determine whether GHGs endanger the public health and/or welfare such that they should in fact be regulated under the Act.  In a related development, Jackson reportedly (subscription required) plans to hire Georgetown University Law Professor and CPR alumna Lisa Heinzerling as her top climate counsel.  Heinzerling was the lead author on the plaintiffs’ briefs in the Massachusetts v. EPA case.  All these developments bode well for efforts to reduce domestic output of carbon dioxide and other GHGs. 


Also this week came news that a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes that the effects of climate change are irreversible for more than 1,000 years after carbon dioxide emissions completely stop.  Nonetheless, the study’s lead author, Susan Solomon (an atmospheric chemist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), warns “I think you have to think of this stuff more like nuclear waste than acid rain . . . [t]he more we add, the worse we’re going to make it.”  In other words, the new findings do not suggest that reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other GHGs is futile.


The fact that the impacts of global warming will be felt for many centuries to come does, however, emphasize the need to focus not only on mitigation strategies, but also on adaptation—that is, developing ways to reduce the vulnerability of people, places and natural resources to climate impacts. 


Additional studies released this past week underscore the impacts that climate change is already having and will continue to have on our natural resources.  Research published in the January 23 issue of Science concludes that climate change is significantly affecting the most stable and resilient forests in western North America, independent of other human activities.  Specifically, the data indicate that over the last several decades, as the climate has warmed, the mortality rate of these forests has doubled.  Although this study focused on forests in western North America, scientists predict that all the world’s forests are being affected by global temperature rise to some degree.
Additionally, research released this week further confirms the already well-known fact that climate change is a leading threat to biodiversity.  Scientists studying Antarctic marine species have concluded that they can only tolerate changes in temperature within a very narrow band, and waters in their habitat (the Southern Ocean) have already warmed by about 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit.  Thus, these species may be among the most vulnerable to global warming.  A more recognizable Antarctic species faces a similarly bleak future due to climate change—according to a study released on Monday, the emperor penguin is at serious risk of extinction in parts of its range as Antarctic sea ice melts in a warming world.


The authors of the report on forest mortality point out that their findings “have broad implications for land managers and policy makers.”  For example, because forests–in particular old growth stands of forest–act as extremely effective carbon stores, the report’s conclusions underscore the need to preserve those remaining stands of old growth forests in the West. 


Both the conclusions and the recommendations of this analysis should be heeded by the Obama Administration’s Forest Service.  As I wrote in a previous entry here on CPRBlog, the Forest Service must now take a new direction in the management of our National Forest System—one that implements proactive measures to protect the national forests and maximizes their ability to contribute to the nation’s resilience in the face of climate change.


The need to find ways to help our natural resources adapt to the impacts of climate change is not confined to one agency, or even the Executive Branch.  As Congress gears up (subscription required) to consider climate change legislation, it must give careful consideration not only to provisions aimed at reducing GHG output, but also to measures designed to facilitate development of natural resource adaptation strategies—because it looks like the changes climate change will drive will be around for a long time to come.

Margaret Clune Giblin, Policy Analyst, Center for Progressive Reform. Bio.

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