New England’s Changing Environment: Risk, Response, and Adaptation

Malcolm Burson

In the aftermath of the storm called Sandy, there have been weekly calls for the federal government and for states to address how our country might adapt in response to a changing climate. A recent Government Accounting Office report, a petition to FEMA with which CLF has been involved, and the launch of a new Northeast regional web-based climate resource, all illustrate different aspects of this challenge.

Every year, the GAO provides an update to Congress as part of its “High Risk” series, detailing areas of government fiscal exposure and recommending actions to mitigate those. In this year’s report, GAO has added a new area of concern: “Limiting the Federal Government’s Fiscal Exposure by Better Managing Climate Change Risks.” The major finding? “The federal government is not well organized to address the fiscal exposure presented by climate change,” even though a National Research Council paper in 2010 concluded that “increasing the nation’s ability to respond to a changing climate can be viewed as an insurance policy against climate risk.” The conclusion? “The federal government needs a strategic approach with strong leadership and the authority to manage climate change risks….” Unfortunately, in areas such as federal flood and crop insurance, technical assistance to state the local governments, and disaster aid, there has been little progress to date.

This is illustrated by a petition filed in October by the Natural Resources Defense Council and National Wildlife Federation that calls on FEMA to abide by it’s statutory responsibility to include anticipated climate change effects in its approval of each state’s Hazard Mitigation Plan, the key document that the New England states use in planning how best to avoid weather and climate risks, and be eligible for disaster relief funds. CLF has urged our state congressional delegations to request that FEMA act on the petition, which it has thus far ignored.

As New England communities seek information and resources on best practices to assess and act on our changing climate, a new tool became available this week. NOAA, working with National Wildlife Federation, EPA, and others, has just opened the Northeast Climate Database, a searchable tool to provide regionally relevant climate information. Here you can look for reports and resources specific to a state, a geography such as the ocean shore, or an issue like public health in a warming world.

CLF has long been involved in these issues. From our active involvement in assuring that New England’s climate future is accounted for in National Forest planning, to tackling coastal adaptation issues in Rhode Island, and challenging the EPA for failing to address climate change considerations in its 2008 Lake Champlain cleanup framework, CLF has always been a regional leader in climate adaptation. As CLF staff attorney Anthony Iarrapino said, “Climate change is no longer an ‘if’ or a ‘when.’” I invite you to follow CLF as we act on CLF President John Kassell’s declaration that climate change is the key issue not just for CLF, but for all of us, over the next decade.

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