Adaptation: Not Just for the Developing World

Florida with 2-Meter Sea Level Rise

Since a large portion of the negotiations at COP15 have been about the financing of adaptation projects in the developing world, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that climate change is already posing a grave threat to coastal communities and ecosystems within the United States.  The areas most at risk within the lower 48 states include the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Florida, and the Gulf Coast, as well as the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Oregon coast.  We’re talking about some of our most iconic American landscapes and population centers, such as Cape Cod, downtown Manhattan, and the Chesapeake Bay.  And, we’re not talking about the remote possibility of impacts far into the future.  We’re talking about dramatic impacts that are already occurring now and will continue to harm coastal communities and ecosystems in the years to come, even if we achieve an aggressive climate change agreement here in Copenhagen.  Hence, the U.S. government has recognized the need for adaptation programs within just about every federal agency.

Prominent U.S. officials discussed the comprehensive programs that the Department of the Interior, NOAA, USGS, EPA, and other federal agencies are undertaking to address the effects of climate change.  Tom Strickland, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, gave an overview of a number of efforts relating to the 500 million acres of federal land managed by the Department of the Interior, including roughly 200 million acres of protected areas, such as National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges.  He referred to Ken Salazar’s recently released Secretarial Order No. 3289 (Sept. 14, 2009),, which calls for better coordination within and among agencies, as well as (1) climate change adaptation planning, (2) regional climate change adaptation centers, (3) landscape conservation cooperatives, (4) carbon storage projects, and (5) carbon footprint projects.  Strickland also noted that the Department of the Interior has prioritized and fast-tracked both on-shore and off-shore solar, wind, and other renewable energy projects.  DOI has also recently issued regulations that will guide the development of wind projects in federal waters, particularly on the East Coast of the U.S.

As examples of numerous efforts to restore natural ecosystem protections to improve our resilience in the face of extreme weather, storm surges, and salt water intrusion, Strickland highlighted an ongoing DOI project to restore water flows in the Everglades National Forest; strategies to mitigate impacts to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore; and the Gulf Coast Restoration Task Force.  One statistic that caught my attention was the fact that we have lost 34 square miles of land every year for the past 50 years due to our channelization of the Mississippi River.  This channel system sends soil and sediment far out into the Gulf instead of letting it flow into and replenish wetland areas.  Government projects have recently started to restore the natural sediment deposition system in an effort to rebuild wetland areas as a natural defense against severe storms like Hurricane Katrina, which are expected to increase in frequency and intensity in the coming years.

Chesapeake Bay with 4-Meter Sea Level Rise

EPA officials John Wilson and Jeremy Martinich also offered an update on the work of the Climate Ready Estuaries program and the multi-agency Global Change research program. Some examples of this work include research and other projects relating to lobster fisheries in Casco Bay, Maine, stormwater infrastructure vulnerability in New Hampshire, economic impacts to the Delaware Estuary from property damage and lost ecosystem services, and the comprehensive planning approach in Charlotte Harbor, Florida.  Further information is available at, including two adaptation reports just issued this year “Climate Ready Estuaries: 2009 Progress Report,”, and “Synthesis of Adaptation Options for Coastal Areas,” More information is also available at

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