Federal agencies reinvigorate climate adaptation


Last month, the federal government returned to a crucial task: ensuring that it can continue to do its job as the climate changes. Climate change threatens all aspects of U.S. government operations and assets, from a safe and healthy workforce to functioning office buildings and reliable vehicle fleets and supply chains. But climate adaptation plans first developed by federal agencies under the Obama administration have languished under Trump. The Biden-Harris administration deserves a lot of credit for recognizing the current and growing danger of a more extreme climate and for moving quickly to release 26 new agency adaptation plans in response to Executive Order 14008.

Wildland firefighters receive tactical briefing on Cedar California fire.

US Department of Agriculture / Lance Cheung, public domain

The NRDC has just filed official comments on the 26 climate adaptation plans, offering multiple recommendations to the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for make plans even more comprehensive, fair and actionable.

In general, 2021 plans are more specific and focused than the previous generation was. Nonetheless, improvements are needed at all levels to ensure that workers are better protected, that disaster prevention is a priority over response, that vulnerable communities get the help they need, and that leadership puts these issues at the forefront. foreground. We cannot let these plans rot in agency filing cabinets.

Here are our main recommendations for improving adaptation plans.

Agencies should devote more attention to protecting their most important asset: their employees.

More than half of the agency’s 26 plans had little or no commitments to protect their staff from heat-related illnesses, exposure to smoke from wildfires, or other health and safety threats linked to climate change. We urge agencies and Congress to prioritize accommodation measures to protect federal workers. This involves ensuring that agencies have the staff and skills they need to meet the growing demand for basic services in the face of more frequent and severe weather events.

A federal engineer performing a safety inspection of a sea wall pumping station in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

US Army Corps of Engineers / Vince Little, Creative Commons / CC BY 2.0

Agencies should address in more depth the threat of rising average temperatures and increasingly frequent, severe and longer temperature extremes.

Most plans did not take into account the direct effects of the heat on human health, infrastructure or natural areas, a notable absence given the re-awakening of last summer’s catastrophic heat wave in northwestern Canada. Peaceful. Heat requires a different approach from most other climate risks, in part because every piece of man-made infrastructure and technology and every living thing has an upper temperature limit.

Agencies should incorporate the implementation of the reinstated Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS) into their plans.

In May 2021, the Biden-Harris administration formally reinstated the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS), which requires that the location and design of all federally funded projects take risk into account. increasing flooding and sea level rise. While this recovery may have occurred too late for some agencies to fully integrate FFRMS into their adaptation plans, CEQ and OMB should ensure that agencies move quickly to implementation.

Agencies should integrate more nature-based solutions into their climate strategies.

Our review suggested that agencies do not fully appreciate the role of nature-based solutions in addressing climate change. Nature-based solutions such as the conservation of existing natural areas and better management of agricultural land have the potential to reduce pollution from climate change and protect communities against heat, floods and other climatic hazards. All federal agencies should do more to explain how they integrate green infrastructure and other nature-based solutions into their planning and funding programs.

A US Forest Service volunteer collecting seeds from native plants in Illinois.

Forest Service, Eastern Region, public domain

Agencies need to devote additional resources and capacity to developing and implementing equitable and just adaptation policies, programs and practices.

We were encouraged by the stated intention of federal agencies to identify and remedy the inequitable harms of climate change. However, the plans generally lacked specifics on how equity will be incorporated into accommodation measures. Agencies should also more deliberately and vigorously tackle the threat of maladjustment, particularly in vulnerable communities. Even well-intentioned climate adaptation strategies can have a host of negative consequences for populations already suffering disproportionate damage from climate hazards. This phenomenon, known as “maladaptation”, should be an integral consideration for agencies when reviewing existing practices, policies and programs and designing new ones.

The adaptation plans are expected to spark a sustained national conversation about the urgency of climate adaptation, job creation, and the resources still needed to build a resilient and climate-smart United States.

Agencies should take every possible opportunity to make climate adaptation visible to the public and key stakeholders. The CEQ and OMB are also expected to produce a focused summary of the 26 plans to help Congress identify major funding gaps, legislative remedies against obstacles to agency actions or inappropriate policies, and other actions to be taken.

The catastrophic forest fires, hurricanes, floods and heat waves of just last year – not to mention the seven-plus years since agencies last updated their adaptation plans – illustrate the urgent need for an ambitious approach to climate adaptation. Through the Biden-Harris administration, the federal government is once again working to understand how its own operations, facilities, services and missions must adapt to the reality of climate change. We look forward to working with CEQ, OMB and individual agencies to build a nation that is safer and healthier for people, communities and nature.


NRDC’s comments to CEQ and OMB are based on extensive reviews of the 13 agency plans listed below and keyword searches of the remaining 13.

  • Department of Defense (DOD)
  • Department of Energy (DOE)
  • Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
  • Department of the Interior (DOI)
  • Department of Transportation (DOT)
  • General Service Administration (GSA)
  • Health and Social Services (HHS)
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
  • United States Agency for International Development (USAID)
  • United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)
  • United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

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