EcoAdapt's Dr. Lara Hansen on Obama's Climate Speech: "Real change and a better tomorrow can happen 'if we don’t fear the future, instead we seize it.'”

It is not without some historical interest that the same day the Supreme Court strikes down some provisions of the Voting Rights Act (a change in American law and culture that required great political will and action by the people to bring to pass) that President Obama attempts to exert political will in response to the people demanding some action be taken in order to address a new change to better America—slowing the rate and extent of climate change, and helping our nation deal with the effects of climate change that are already underway.

There will be much talk about the mitigation side actions—those things that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But there will likely be less talk (based on the content of the articles written in the run up to today’s speech) about the adaptation side actions—those things that help reduce the adverse effects of the changes that are already taking place and are committed to take place due to the amount of greenhouse gas already in the atmosphere from the combustion of fossil fuels, generation of cement and land use change that humans have been undertaking for well over 100 years.

There were two big actions highlighted by President Obama today under the heading of “preparing” for or “protecting from” climate change. While “preparing” is a nice word, I’m not sure it’s the right word anymore. The recent uptick in dramatic storms that cost billions to insurance (public and private) and individuals, the growing threat of sea level rise in most of our coastal communities, the loss of sea ice that is displacing native Alaskan communities as unprecedented coastal erosion undermines their homes, the persistent droughts in the south and west parts of the country, the increasing regularity of 100 year floods in the Midwest, infestations by insects historically kept at bay by cold winters causing loss of forests and food crops…we are no longer preparing, we are responding. “Protecting” as you can see also has some failings unless we plan to build endless fortresses across the landscape.

But I digress, the sentiment is spot on. We are looked into a variety of changes that are already afoot and we need to be making better decisions so that we are not wasting money, effort and time on vulnerable planning and management. This includes not only building cities that are not so easily inundated but it also requires landscape-level planning to improve the odds for natural resources and the services they provide that decrease the vulnerability of human communities through things like flood control and water supply delivery.

The Administration seems to have offered two areas of support. One is to give people the information (or data) that will help them make better decisions. Much of this information has been available for quite sometime, albeit very hard to find. But the bigger hurdle is people either don’t know it exists or don’t know what to do with it. I recently stumbled upon a useful analogy about this while coaching little league. There is a wealth of robust and useful information being created by scientists, and they keep throwing it out there for everyone. Unfortunately they don’t always seem to know why they are throwing it out there or to whom they throw it. In baseball I ask the kids “why do you throw the ball?” I believe you throw the ball so that it will be caught. Those data need to be caught by people who can use them. The Administration needs to not only get that rich information out there, but it needs to share it in a manner than makes it catchable. Take a look at NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch and you’ll see that they are putting on a baseball clinic every day on how to throw and be caught. Create a portal that not only houses information, but translates it and delivers it into the hands of the users in a form that they know what to do with it.

Second the Administration has committed to partnering with communities, states and tribes to deal with the effects of climate change. This is crucial to successful outcomes. Even better, take it beyond the communities, and include the counties, farmers and the public lands. Earlier this year 500 people who are already making this effort part of their daily work convened in Denver at the National Adaptation Forum. The scope of the work underway demonstrates that the interest for this plan exists and already has a scaffolding upon which to be built. But it needs help — both through good sources of advice and green/grey infrastructure support. Advice could be well provided through a national extension agency. NOAA already has extension agents doing this and USDA recently committed to its own cohort. Now we need them for everything else! We also need to get resources and a workforce going on how to maximize our use of green infrastructure to make us more resilient to climate change and grey infrastructure where deemed to be the only option. Imagine a 21st century-New Deal version of the Works Projects Administration that makes our communities safer and more sustainable, where we spend tax dollars and other funds to invest in ourselves into the future. Look no farther than recovery work on the Gulf Coast and the post-Sandy eastern seaboard for where this is already underway — just without an explicit charge to be more robust in the face of future events.

Check out some of the needs and recommendations a group of interested experts put together recently in The State of Adaptation in the United States and see what other agencies and organizations are doing to respond to climate change on the Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange.

It was inspiring today to hear our nation’s leader speak out about this unprecedented challenge. I take heart in his spirit, his words and his intention. Yes, real change and a better tomorrow can happen  “…if we don’t fear the future, instead we seize it.” Keep the good ideas flowing and move them all toward action. Yes, we can change the path of climate change!

-- Dr. Lara Hansen, Chief Scientist and Executive Director, EcoAdapt