Boxer-Kerry Centralizes Procedures for Adaptation But Lacks Substantive Guidance

by Alejandro Camacho

October 07, 2009

This post is the sixth in a series from CPR Member Scholars examining different aspects of the Boxer-Kerry bill on climate change, which was released September 30.

Though the Boxer-Kerry bill's take on climate change adaptation is similar to the approach adopted by the House of Representatives through the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), a number of significant features are different (see my post from May, with Holly Doremus, analyzing an early version of that bill's provisions on adaptation). Like ACES, the Boxer-Kerry bill seeks more centralized executive oversight of federal and state natural resource adaptation, but it drops a number of details from ACES on international and domestic adaptation while adding several new funding programs for state and utility adaptation efforts. In the end, the adaptation provisions are an important step, but have some of the same key weaknesses as those in ACES.

Like ACES, this bill’s climate adaptation section, included in large part in Title III, §§341-384, would include or require:

  1. a National Climate Change Adaptation program in the existing U.S. Global Change Research Program;
  2. a National Climate Service established in NOAA to develop and disseminate climate information;
  3. a National Climate Change Adaptation Panel, headed by the chair of the CEQ and including the heads of federal public land and natural resource agencies, to develop and implement a National Resources Climate Change Adaptation Strategy;
  4. data gathering on adaptation to be coordinated between NOAA’s National Climate Service, a National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center created in USGS, and a Science Advisory Board;
  5. adaptation plans for each federal natural resource agency, to be approved by the President, implementing and consistent with the National Resources Climate Change Adaptation Strategy;
  6. state natural resources adaptation plans, required for the state to be eligible for federal funding, reviewed and approved by the Secretary of the Interior.
  7. a Natural Resources Climate Change Adaptation Fund; and
  8. a National Wildlife Habitat and Corridors Information Program to develop a national geographic information system database on fish and wildlife habitat and corridors.

This new framework would mark a substantial shift in natural resource management in the United States, leading to a significant centralization of decision-making authority over natural resources. Not only would all federal natural resource adaptation plans have to be consistent with the National Resources Climate Change Adaptation Strategy; any state that would like to receive federal funding to assist it to adapt its natural resources to the effects of climate change would have to submit its plan to the Interior Department. More significantly, to be approved a state’s adaptation plan would have to be consistent with the detailed provisions of the bill on state plans as well as the adopted federal National Resources Climate Change Adaptation Strategy. Though states will certainly play a substantial role in natural resource adaptation planning, this framework is a much more centralized management framework than currently exists in the U.S.

In addition, there are a number of key omissions and additions from the ACES Act. The Boxer-Kerry bill has eliminated many of the detailed provisions in a number of key areas. These include: (1) removal of about 21 pages establishing an international climate change adaptation program, dedicating only a couple sections in skeletal frameworks that provide adaptation assistance to and support climate change adaptation by vulnerable developing countries; (2) all of the detail (about 26 pages) approved by the House reauthorizing and modifying the U.S. Global Change Research Program; (3) elimination of about 34 pages setting forth the authority of the National Climate Service; and (4) about 11 pages further explaining the distribution of allowances to states and Indian Tribes as well as some of the requirements for state adaptation plans. While the eliminated provisions on allowances and state plans appear to be seeking to remove areas of duplication in the House bill, the rest appear to have no analog in the Senate bill. Whether these will be fleshed out in further bill revisions is unclear, but it is likely that at least some of these omissions—for example, those detailing federal funding and support for international, state and local adaptation efforts—were withheld to serve as bargaining chips, and thus are likely to be subject to intense lobbying efforts and negotiations among legislators.

Finally, the Boxer-Kerry discussion draft proposes adding several new domestic programs for addressing specific climate change threats. These include:

  1. a research program to assist utilities in adapting to the effects of climate change on drinking water;
  2. a water system partnership program to provide funds to States for water system adaptation projects;
  3. a program to provide funds to States for flood control, protection, prevention and response projects;
  4. a program to minimize increased risks from wildfires; and
  5. funding for coastal and Great Lakes states to prepare for the effects of climate change on coastal resources.

Most of these programs seek to provide additional opportunities for states to receive financial support from the federal government for adaptation efforts beyond the modest financial resources that the bill provides to the states through the auctioning of greenhouse gas emissions allowances. Because these are some of the most likely resources to be impaired by climate change in the United States, and because the states certainly are on the forefront of domestic adaptation efforts, these additions seem reasonable. Like any government funding program, they may be vulnerable to pork-barrel politics. However, as currently written, the bill appears to provide detailed provisions that seek to limit the discretion of EPA to funding legitimate efforts for adapting to climate change.

In the end, though the discussion draft bill is an important move forward toward long-needed climate change adaptation planning, like its House counterpart it is nonetheless missing some components that would likely make federal climate change adaptation efforts more successful. Though the Boxer-Kerry discussion draft provides detailed lists of items that the various plans and strategies must contain, it—like Waxman-Markey—fails to provide clear, concrete substantive goals or standards that natural resource adaptation plans must achieve. In doing so, the bill punts to the agencies the difficult questions about what the objectives of natural resource adaptation in a world of climate change should be. Second, by creating an entire set of new programs dedicated to climate adaptation, on top of the already dizzying array of local, state and federal natural resource agencies and programs, the bill runs the risk of further fragmenting natural resource management and planning. Rather than ripping nascent programs out of their parent agencies and placing them in a wholly new and untried federal structure, the national adaptation plan should be integrated into existing planning and implementation structures, and agencies should be required to include adaptation within their mandates.

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