Noah Matson, Vice President of Landscape Conservation & Climate Adaptation
On Tuesday I testified in Congress before the Environment and Public Works Committee, on the impacts of climate change on wildlife and the natural world, and the critical importance of helping wildlife and ecosystems face this overwhelming threat.
I began my testimony by asking the senators to imagine a country where a single storm could kill almost 2,000 citizens and level over $100 billion of damage. Imagine a country where the majority of its fruit and vegetable crops are threatened because of a prolonged drought. Imagine a country where whole villages have to be relocated to escape an eroding coast.
Am I talking about the Philippines, Namibia, or the Maldives? No. All of these things have happened or are happening right now here in the United States, where Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast, California’s three year-long drought is shriveling crops, and the native
Alaskan village of Newtok is making plans to move as its coast washes away.
We are woefully unprepared for quote “natural” disasters – and even less prepared as these and other disasters are magnified by a changing climate. Taking reasonable steps now to prepare for the future will save lives, jobs, money, our communities and the nature that supports us.
As the nation begins to prepare for a future of more powerful storms, more prolonged droughts and more intense wild fires, we need to look to nature to help protect our communities, and we need to support our wildlife and natural resource managers to help nature adjust to a warming planet.
By preserving and rebuilding our “green” infrastructure—floodplains, wetlands, forests and other natural components of our ecosystems that work together as a whole to provide “ecosystem services” such as flood control and water filtration—we can harness nature to help provide protection from extreme events. Maintaining and restoring our green infrastructure is often cheaper than traditional built and technological approaches, and don’t have the unintended consequences many built approaches create. It is critical that federal, state and local governments plan to address the impacts of climate change and maintain and restore these and other benefits nature provides.
Although nature can provide all of these benefits to help protect our communities, nature is also in trouble. Some of the signs that climate change is already affecting our planet are apparent through changes we are seeing in wildlife populations. Species are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, such as the polar bear, dependent on drastically shrinking sea ice. In another example, moose populations from Maine to Minnesota have plummeted, driven down by warm winters that have allowed ticks and other parasites to thrive.
The impacts on species are often complex. Exotic, introduced mosquitoes in Hawaii are finding more favorable conditions further upslope of Hawaii’s volcanic mountains, spreading deadly avian malaria to many of Hawaii’s endangered birds. Snowshoe hares turn white in the late fall and brown in the spring in response to light, but with winters coming later and snow melting earlier than in the past, researchers are finding white hares on brown earth, making them easy prey.
Land and fish and wildlife managers need more resources to be able to detect and plan for these types of changes, and they need clear policy direction to implement much-needed protective measures.
The good news is that the federal government, and many states and local communities, are already taking action.
The Obama administration is taking this issue seriously. Not only is the administration tackling the causes of climate change head-on, limiting greenhouse emissions from power plants and vehicles and improving energy efficiency, the president has also issued an executive order (E.O. 13653) on preparing for climate impacts. This important policy statement requires federal agencies to integrate climate change preparedness into their programs, to evaluate and reduce the risks of climate change on their missions and local communities, to coordinate their actions, and to support state, local, tribal and private-sector efforts to improve climate preparedness and resilience. The executive order recognizes the importance of “natural infrastructure,” safeguarding natural resources, and managing lands and waters for climate resilience. Too many of our federal lands and water projects have not assessed or planned for the impacts of climate change, and this executive order is a critical first step in addressing this deficiency.
The administration also released the National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy. For too long, individual land and fish and wildlife managers have been struggling with responding to the real-time impacts of climate change on their own. This strategy is the beginning of an effort to develop, coordinate and implement shared approaches to dealing with climate change impacts. The administration now needs to put leadership and resources behind implementing this important national strategy.
And thanks to congressional direction and funding, the National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center has been established within the U.S. Geological Survey to help provide ongoing critical scientific and technical information to land and wildlife managers in order to understand and plan for the impacts of climate change.
At the state level, many fish and wildlife agencies have conducted climate vulnerability assessments of the wildlife in their states and have amended their State Wildlife Action Plans and other species management plans to address climate adaptation. State, county and city governments have developed over 100 climate adaptation plans to reduce the risks of climate change.
Despite these important developments, more needs to be done. In my testimony, I recommended Congress to:
- Enact the Securing America’s Future and Environment (SAFE) Act. Introduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) and former Senator Max Baucus (MT), the SAFE Act, S. 1202, is designed to protect American communities, wildlife and natural habitat from the increasingly destructive effects of climate change. This broadly supported bill recognizes the countless benefits that healthy natural resources provide to our country’s health, safety, economy and well-being, underscores the urgent need to help them adapt to a more rapidly changing climate and provides a road map to do so.
- Provide funding. Congress should provide adequate funding to maintain and expand key federal programs supporting adaptation efforts and natural resources conservation. Federal, state, and tribal agencies are starving for critically needed funds for both basic operations and for assessing, planning for, and implementing future-oriented adaptive actions.
- Prepare for disasters. Protecting and restoring natural systems is often the least expensive method of buffering human communities against disaster and therefore must be considered in disaster preparation and recovery. Preparing for extreme climate impacts will save lives, property and tax dollars.
- Integrate climate change into all relevant programs and activities. In addition to disaster response programs, climate change places great risk to the achievement of many agency missions and programs. Even though the administration has released high-level adaptation policies, many federal agencies still aren’t accounting for climate change when planning their programs.
- Protect large, connected landscapes. Climate change is highlighting the value of protecting and reconnecting large landscapes that serve as critical watersheds, carbon storage banks and wildlife habitat. Climate change forces species to move, but movement is restricted unless we protect a network of conservation areas connected by wildlife habitat corridors that allow species to respond to climate impacts. These natural areas will in turn provide us with clean water, flood protection, replenishment of our groundwater, open space and recreation.
Today’s hearing was yet another small step on the long road to climate resilience. It’s now time for our leaders to make the significant strides our wildlife and communities need.