Making the US say the C word

I spent the previous Thursday and Friday in the company of mostly US-based environment evaluators here in Washington DC.  Half of the participants work for the US federal government, and a smattering from NGOs, consulting firms, and the academe. As this was a gathering of US-based evaluators it provided a cursory view of its climate change politics.

The topics of the concurrent sessions, while mostly centering on US experiences, were varied and interesting. They covered challenges and best practices in evaluation methodologies, case studies in marine protection, wildlife conservation, and other ecological ecosystems. One of the more livelier sessions was a talk-show type discussion on the relative success/failure of the clean up efforts in the Chesapeake Bay. Discussants and those who gave their comments often cited the contentious coverage of the Washington Post, which exposed the perceived ineffectiveness of the program (presumably this feature).

The C word mentioned in the title does not stand for “Chesapeake”. It was a euphemism for climate change, that was a topic of a panel discussion particular to adaptation during the second and last day. It started as a cheeky joke to treat climate change as words you dare not say, that was picked-up and carried on by the panelists as well as the audience throughout the day. The climate issue is no hush-hush in American politics but it’s as if they will be reprimanded for saying the C word just like for cursing. I sensed their frustration during the lively exchange for the absence of a national policy on climate change. Environment advocates wrestle to raise the climate change agenda at the federal level, which remains a second-tier problem to the stumbling US economy. It is proof, albeit a small one, that the country’s aversion to discuss climate change is not shared by everyone.

While some developing countries already have broad climate change policies already in place, Talks on adaptation are only starting to permeate the EPA and other federal offices. A US Cross-Agency Adaptation Framework for Adaptation is on the works. Government offices are sometimes the testing ground of policies before they are rolled out to the public. The EPA hosted one of the sessions to solicit comments on the climate adaptation initiative that seem to still have a long way to go as shown by the lack of common definition and unit of analysis. But some questions must first be answered. First, is the actual purpose and usefulness of this policy. How do the federal agencies actually adapt? Do they adapt to extreme weather events, gradual sea-level rise or both? Or do they only adapt to climate risks or a whole range of risks? Second, will it gain traction for other levels of governance to follow suit?

As the US refuses to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a national climate adaptation policy may seem more realistic. However, support for this policy needs to come from the ground up, because of localized impacts of climate change. The EPA talked about ‘upscaling’ the policy and was met by doubt by a participant. A blanket policy designed for cities may be useless to rural areas, and vice versa. Adaptation strategies between cities, say a coastal city threatened by rising sea levels needs tailor-made approaches different from one lying on the path of hurricanes. A more feasible strategy is to collaborate with already formed city networks like ICLEI, and identify and work with willing cities. Linking adaptation the issue of disaster risk reduction or prevention may also help, at least as shown by the experience in the Philippines and other developing countries.

I’ll try to be a ‘proactive’ observer in this process, and see how it will unfold in the coming months.

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