A Climate Adaptation Plan That Charts the Way

The following is a guest post from Tom Fry, The Nature Conservancy’s Senior Policy Advisor for Climate Change Adaptation.

Even though U.S. climate change legislation stalled in the U.S. Congress this year, the government has not abandoned all activity on this urgent priority. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is the first agency out of the box with a comprehensive strategic plan to address climate change, and it offers a promising blueprint for other agencies to follow.

The new plan: Rising to the Urgent Challenge: Strategic Plan for Responding to Accelerating Climate Change, was drafted to respond to “the greatest challenge to fish and wildlife conservation in the history of the Service: The Earth’s climate is changing at an accelerating rate that has the potential to cause abrupt changes in ecosystems and increase the risk of species extinctions.”

Homes in Nature
Even subtle alterations in temperature or rainfall can have a significant effect on the life cycles of animals and plants whose behaviors are tied to natural cues – for example when a bear seeks a cave to hibernate for winter, or a bird flies north to builds its nest in the spring.

The Fish & Wildlife adaptation plan sets a course of action for the federal agency to address its core mission of protecting fish, wildlife and plants by helping them withstand changes in forests, rivers, grasslands, wetlands, oceans and coasts that are their homes.

The Plan also acknowledges the effects of these changes on people.

The need for a climate adaptation plan is underscored by the adverse effects of climate change that will “…diminish the goods, services, and social benefits that we Americans are accustomed to receiving, at little cost to ourselves, from ecosystems across our nation.”

The Importance of Partnerships
The plan calls for the Fish & Wildlife Service to work collaboratively with multiple partners to help federal lands and other conservation sites to withstand changing conditions that are already being observed.

A long-time partner, The Nature Conservancy’s work intersects with the Fish & Wildlife Service’s mission in many places around the nation – in parts of the 150-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge system, in public lands and parks and in privately managed protected areas that are home to rare and endangered species.

The Plan highlights examples of how climate change is already impacting U.S. lands and waters. For example, on North Carolina’s low-lying coast, where both the Service and Conservancy work, as much as 67 percent of swamp and 90 percent of dry land in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge may be lost to rising seas.

Many partners are engaged in climate change research here to cope with sea level rise and to provide landscape connections for wetlands, and species, to move inland. The Conservancy has been working to restore healthy oyster reefs that also help absorb wave action, and to minimize the effects of agricultural drainage ditches that propel salt water further inland and erode the soil.

From Vision to Action
Climate change is likely to intensify many ongoing environmental challenges the Service already encounters. The Service’s strategic climate change plan includes more detailed on-the-ground and in-the-wild management goals in a five-year action plan, with future action plans anticipated for the next 50-100 years.

As the Service works to integrate climate change response into its mission, the plan includes other important principles such as:

  • Regional Climate Science Partnerships to share scientific and technical capacity for on-the-ground conservation;
  • Landscape Conservation Cooperatives to coordinate actions among governments and other partners focusing on large-scale connections between habitats to support populations of fish and wildlife;
  • A National Biological Inventory and Monitoring Partnership to generate scientific data to track climate change effects on wildlife populations and to gauge the success of conservation strategies.

Planning Amid Uncertainty
Climate change science inherently entails uncertainty in predicting the intensity or timing of climatic changes. The Service’s adaptation plan does not ignore this challenge. Instead the report concludes that “we must act boldly, without having all the answers, confident that we will learn and adapt as we go.”

The Conservancy applauds the Service’s proactive approach to address climate change on three key fronts:

  • Adaptation – minimizing the impacts of climate change on fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats;
  • Mitigation – taking action to reduce levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gas pollution in the Earth’s atmosphere (the Service plans to become carbon-neutral by 2020); and
  • Engagement – reaching out to Service employees, local, national and international partners in the public and private sectors, and the country’s broader citizenry to seek solutions to the challenges to fish and wildlife conservation posed by climate change.

The scope of the plan – in suggesting that the Service should evaluate its “actions, decisions and expenditures through the lens of climate change,” – offers a model for other agencies to consider as they draft and develop their own climate change strategies.

(Image: Kayakers on the Alligator National Wildlife Refuge, an area in North Carolina under threat from sea level rise caused by climate change.)

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