A newly created Climate Change Response Council at the Interior Department is a good reminder that the Executive Branch has much power to effect positive change under existing statutory authorities, even without a major climate bill or other new climate legislation.  The Council, announced by Interior Secretary Salazar, will attempt to bring about a “coordinated Department-wide strategy to increase scientific understanding of and development of effective adaptive management tools to address the impacts of climate change on our natural and cultural resources.”  Shouldn’t all federal agencies and departments be dealing with the climate change problem head on, regardless of what Congress does, and shouldn’t leadership articulating the need to do so be coming straight from President Obama?

Post by Anne Polansky

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed a Secretarial Order on September 14 that blazes a new trail at the mammoth, multifaceted Department of Interior by creating a new Climate Change Response Council representing DOI’s “first-ever coordinated strategy to address current and future impacts of climate change on America’s land, water, ocean, fish, wildlife, and cultural resources,” according to Salazar. 

The Council is charged with bringing about “an integrated strategy for responding to climate change impacts” affecting all of the natural and cultural resources under the purview of the Department.  The Council is also to work to improve the sharing and communication of climate change impact science and “coordinate its climate change activities with all relevant Federal Departments and agencies” (e.g., the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Defense, and the EPA) and related White House entities such as the Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

In DOI’s press release Sec. Salazar targets the challenge:

“Across the country, Americans are experiencing first-hand the impacts of climate change, from growing pressure on water supplies to more intense droughts and fires to rampant bark beetle infestations. Because Interior manages one-fifth of our nation’s landmass and 1.7 billion acres on the Outer Continental Shelf, it is imperative that we tackle these impacts of a failed and outdated energy policy.  This secretarial order is another milestone in our continuing effort to change how Interior does business to respond to the energy and climate challenges of our time.”

The Order also establishes eight regional Climate Change Response Centers (for Alaska, the Northeast, the Southeast, the Southwest, the Midwest, the West, Northwest, and Pacific regions) to synthesize existing climate change impact data and management strategies, help resource managers put them into action on the ground, and engage the public through education initiatives.  And a network of Landscape Conservation Cooperatives is created to bring federal agencies together with local and state partners and the public to craft practical, landscape-level strategies for managing climate change impacts within the eight regions.  The cooperatives will focus on impacts such as the effects of climate change on wildlife migration patterns, wildfire risk, drought, or invasive species that typically extend beyond the borders of any single parcel of land managed by the Department.  The Carbon Storage Project will continue to explore geologic and biological sequestration opportunities; and the department will pursue initiatives to reduce its energy consumption and carbon footprint. 

This ambitious mandate is a big step in the right direction of reorienting the federal government to work in concert to take climate change causes and consequences into account as its many disparate missions and mandates are carried out.  But pulling this off will be no small feat:  the various bureaus and agencies of Interior each have their own unique missions and cultures, and are unaccustomed to working together in a coordinated fashion.

The Interior Department employs 67,000 people in eight different bureaus: 

  • National Park Service
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • Office of Surface Mining
  • Minerals Management Service
  • U.S. Geological Survey
  • Bureau of Reclamation

Some of these are further along than others in addressing climate change as part of their overall mission (to put it mildly)—a short synopsis and commentary for each:

The National Park Service has created a series of Climate Friendly Parks and in 2007 appointed Dr. Leigh Welling to the role of Climate Change Coordinator for the entire park system.  Welling has been profiling the climate vulnerability of our 391 national parks and using climate change scenario planning as a collaborative tool for science-based planning and decision-making for the parks, a daunting challenge given their diversity.  Much is at stake; climate change threatens these natural icons, for example, Glacier National Park is rapidly losing its glaciers and Joshua Trees may not survive at Joshua Tree National Park.  In recent congressional testimony, a high-ranking NPS official warned,  “Climate change challenges the very foundation of the National Park System and our ability to leave America’s natural and cultural heritage unimpaired for future generations,” and noted, “Our national park units can serve as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, a place where we can monitor and document ecosystem change without many of the stressors that are found on other public lands.” 

Climate Science Watch interviewed Dr. Welling in 2007; she credited her involvement in the 2000 US National Assessment of climate change impacts with providing her with useful approaches for addressing climate change:

“I represent the entire National Park Service in their efforts to respond and adapt to the impacts of climate change.  When I look at the challenges that climate change is presenting to our parks and work with others to plan the most effective response, I draw on many of the skills and techniques I learned doing the National Assessment. For example, in trying to understand and communicate park impacts, we are using the National Assessment approach in terms of summarizing information on bio-regional levels, looking at a cross-cutting issues, and applying IPCC-type levels of confidence to the impacts and projections and so on.  Whether people make the connection or not, the work of the National Assessment is in many ways still with us and serves as a backdrop.  I think it was a real definitive work, and I’m a strong proponent of that process.” 

The US Fish & Wildlife Service, the nation’s principal federal conservation agency, is currently preparing a Climate Change Strategic Plan and 5-Year Action Plan.  The Service “is dedicated to helping reduce the impacts of climate change on fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats.”  Its 8,000 employees specialize in wildlife management and ecosystem dynamics. Its website lists priorities for 2009:  identifying and filling knowledge gaps, expanding capability to plan and work with partners, identifying habitats and corridors most important across landscapes, and engaging the public in our efforts to conserve the nature of America in a changing climate. 

The Bureau of Indian Affairs manages 562 recognized native American Indian tribes and Alaskan natives residing on a total of 55.7 million acres.  It has some ways to go in incorporating climate change into its role, which typically has been one of setting rules for tribes but is shifting to a more advisory capacity.  As Alaskans are particularly hard hit by climate impacts, BIA (and other federal agencies) will need to step up to the plate to assist.  One example points to the difficulties ahead. 40 years ago the BIA threatened to take custody of one tribe’s (the Yup’ik) children if the community did not abandon its traditionally itinerant lifestyle and construct a permanent school, so the tribe established a permanent settlement that now has 350 residents in Newtok, in southwest Alaska.  But now the permafrost is melting, causing buildings to crumble and sink into the mud that once remained frozen year-round, and rising sea waters are intruding and causing coastal erosion as fast as 100 feet a year.  More than 200 Native Alaskan villages face similar problems, and at least 12 of them are exploring relocation.  The village is forced to move to higher ground, at a cost the Army Corps of Engineers estimates to be between $80 and $130 million. Appeals for federal assistance in the way of funding or technical support have not been fruitful, as agencies struggle to figure out who is responsible and for what part of the problem—there is no mandate to fund preparation for a slow-moving disaster like climate change as there is to assist communities following a sudden natural disaster such as hurricane Katrina. 

The Bureau of Land Management employs 10,000 people to manage 264 million acres of public lands—including 205,498 miles of fishable streams, 2.2 million acres of lakes and reservoirs, 6,600 miles of rivers, nearly 10,000 miles of trails, and 300 Watchable Wildlife sites.  Its mission is “to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”  Its congressional authority refers to “multiple use” management, or “management of the public lands and their various resource values so that they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people.”  Ten of the 12 western States with significant proportions of BLM-managed lands have among the fastest rates of population growth in the US.  BLM’s public lands are expected to generate approx. $6.2 billion in revenues in 2009, mostly from energy development:  domestic production from over 63,000 onshore oil and gas wells provides 11% of US natural gas supply and 5% of our oil (ref).  During the last days of the Bush administration, dozens of parcels of land were put up for auction to the highest bidders for oil and gas drilling, in an expedited manner bypassing critical environmental reviews; and many of BLM’s actions under Bush are being questioned.  CSW covered the civil disobedience action of Univ. of Utah student Timothy DeChristopher, who crashed an auction in December 2008 and purchased millions of acres of land he couldn’t afford to avert the drilling of pristine landscapes and draw attention to climate change; his trial is still pending. 

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement enforces the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) and regulates active mines, reclaims lands damaged by surface mining and abandoned mines, and provides resources for technical assistance, training, and technology development.  Environmental groups and other stakeholders have been highly critical of OSMRE’s track record, and strongly oppose President Obama’s nomination of Joseph Pizarchik to head the Office.  For the past 17 years Pizarchik has been with Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Mining and Reclamation, first as legal counsel and then as director.  In a post on Grist, Jeff Ruch at Public Employees for Environmental Responsiblity (PEER) claims “Pizarchik has hewn a solidly pro-industry line on topics such as acid mine drainage, subsidence from longwall mining and using mining slag as valley fill.”  Nicknamed “Coal Ash Joe” Pizarchik for his position that the law should allow surface coal mines to be used as major dumping operations for coal ash, a toxic substance loaded with heavy metals and the substance that spilled at the TVA Kingston coal plant last winter, Pizarchik has raised the ire of dozens of groups.  “Given the environmental crisis our country faces, we can’t afford to have someone in this position with a record of consistently downplaying the devastating effects of coal mining and coal ash on the environment,” says Tierra Curry, biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity.  Jeff Stant with the Environmental Integrity Project says EPA “has serious concerns about Mr. Pizarchik’s nomination as Director of OSM because his record over the past seven years as the architect of the largest program in America to dispose of coal ash in mines demonstrates that he does not believe that SMCRA should be enforced to minimize if not prevent harm.”  Given his position on coal ash, what might his position be on climate change and how will OSMRE contribute to the new DOI climate council created this week?  His Senate confirmation hearing was held Sept. 15; no word yet on a Senate vote. 

The Minerals Management Service manages the mineral resources on federal and Indian lands as well as the Outer Continental Shelf (the Offshore Minerals Management Program (and to manage and distribute mineral revenues generated from onshore and offshore land (the Royalty Management Program).  One of the government’s largest sources of revenue other than taxes, MMS collects $10 billion in royalties annually.  MMS also regulates offshore renewable energy resources (wind, wave, and solar) on the OCS.  Last year at this time, reports of widespread unethical behavior on the part of MMS employees alleged that federal officials accepted gifts from energy companies and went on expensive outings with energy executives, consumed illegal recreational drugs on the job, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives.  We were startled to find the following statements about climate change on a page of the MMS official website: “In recent years there has been a great deal of concern about possible anthropogenic effects on global climate caused by emissions of the so-called “greenhouse” gases…. It must be remembered that there are natural greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, most notably carbon dioxide and water vapor.”  What will the MMS role be in preparing for and mitigating global climate disruption?

The US Geological Survey (USGS) has been actively involved in climate science for decades, participates formally in the US Global Change Research Program, and is engaged a variety of climate science programs.  The USGS participated in writing several of the Climate Change Science Program’s 21 synthesis reports, and has an extensive cadre of scientists conducting research that is directly relevant to understanding climate change impacts.  It is probably the farthest along in addressing climate change of all of the eight DOI bureaus. 

The Bureau of Reclamation oversees water resource management, specifically as it applies to the oversight and operation of a host of water diversion, delivery, storage, and hydroelectric power generation projects it has built throughout the western United States.  Its mission is to “manage, develop, and protect water and related resources in an environmentally and economically sound manner in the interest of the American public.”  One of its biggest challenges going forward will be how to deal with growing water shortages in the west as a result of climate impacts.  Sec. Salazar made a statement in August that “the West’s limited water supplies face growing pressure from agricultural uses, changing demographics and climate change—underscoring the need for more federal money for water projects.”  Just how the Bureau addresses the strong link between energy use and water supply will also be important. 

Brenda Ekwurzel, a PhD climate scientist and ally at the Union of Concerned Scientists, was quoted by Juliet Eilperin in Tuesday’s Washington Post this week.  While the development is no substitute for a mandatory cap on greenhouse gas emissions, she said, “it means the United States will be much better prepared to respond to the current and coming changes due to global warming.  The Interior Department manages 20 percent of the land in the United States, so its role in developing strategies to cope with the unavoidable consequences of global warming is critical and could potentially save lives.” 

Just how much this bold and much-needed department-wide initiative will lead to actual enhanced preparedness for climate change and reach its full potential to save lives—as well as critical ecosystems and natural resources—remains to be seen.  CSW will watchdog progress made and report periodically on our findings.