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Obama's "Secret" Climate Adaptation Plan

Whether he'll talk about climate change publicly or not, the President is preparing all federal agencies for its inevitable impacts.

On March 4th, in a move surely designed to side-step Congress, Obama's Council on Environmental Quality issued instructions to all federal agencies on how to adapt to climate change. All agencies, from the Food and Drug Administration to the Department of Defense, will be required to analyze their vulnerabilities to the impacts from climate change and come up with a plan to adapt. Thousands of governmental employees will be trained on climate science, like it or not.

The changes aren't limited to just federal agencies. Countless numbers of private businesses that sell, build, provide logistics or maintenance, or anything else to the government will be forced to comply with new Federal climate adaptation guidelines—all because of Presidential Executive Order 13514.

How far reaching is this adaptation action? The National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) is holding a training and workshop conference on Obama's Executive Order in May. NDIA is the primary private industry group that supports the Department of Defense. To be clear, NDIA connects the DoD to bomb makers Raytheon, bullet manufacturers Sierra Bullets, and the designer of the stealth bomber, Northrup-Grumman. Now NDIA is training defense contractors on climate science and analysis based on a little known Executive Order.

How did this happen?

At first glance, President Obama's little-reported Executive Order 13514 (PDF) is a straightforward, environmentally-friendly one-two punch that boosts the sustainability of our government. The Order aims to lower the amount of greenhouse gases that the Federal Government emits, reduce environmental pollution and waste, and establish a permanent Sustainability Officer in each agency. It also "requires Federal Agencies to set a 2020 greenhouse gas emissions reduction target within 90 days; increase energy efficiency; reduce fleet petroleum consumption; conserve water; reduce waste; support sustainable communities; and leverage Federal purchasing power to promote environmentally-responsible products and technologies."

But tucked into EO 13514 is a provision that requires all Federal Agencies to also adapt to climate change. The Order's brief Section 16 (PDF) will have profound and long lasting effects on how our Federal Government responds to climate change. For here, each agency is required, among other things, to:

  • Appoint a Climate Adaptation specialist
  • Establish an Agency wide Climate Change Adaptation Policy and Mandate by June 2011
  • Participate in Climate Adaptation workshops and then educate all employees throughout 2011
  • Identify and analyze climate vulnerabilities that would interfere with accomplishing the Agency's mission by March 2012
  • Implement the adaptation plan by September 2012
  • \n

Serious Business

The U.S. Navy's Task Force Climate Change created a 5-year climate action plan, called the Navy Arctic Roadmap. The Roadmap is concerned with protecting U.S. interests in the Arctic Circle from impacts that melting ice—to the point of conducting Joint war games with allies. Other agencies are scrambling, as well. The USDA, for example, is evaluating how climate change impacts crops and commodities markets, and then make a plan to avoid food shortages and price collapses. Even the Army Corps of Engineers is required to reassess all water resources and coastlines in the United States for vulnerabilities to climate change. It is unclear what this will mean for those new dikes protecting New Orleans.

Is Credit Due to George W. Bush?

The mainstream media hasn't given this executive order much attention over the last year and a half but its implications are far-reaching. An Executive Order is a powerful and enforceable law, and it takes a (rare) Congressional super-majority to override the President's pen.

What might surprise you is that this was not Obama's idea. It was President George W. Bush's. You see, back in 2007, it was Bush who forced the Federal Government to lower emissions and become more sustainable. Executive Order 13423 (PDF) "Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management" was a short, sweet 5-pager that required all Federal Agencies to adopt sustainability plans. Two years later, in 2009, Obama merely expanded on Bush's idea. Obama tweaked the former requirements by upping the percentages of emissions cuts, boosting sustainability requirements, and adding in adapting to climate change.

Executive Orders are somewhat controversial because they seem to subvert the legislative process. Through the use of Executive Orders, presidents have substantial formal powers to make their own policies without interference from Congress or the courts. Abraham Lincoln used the EO to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, for example. And Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, keen on avoiding losing several political battles, bypassed the Congress to establish many civil rights laws and racial discrimination law. Most controversial, however, was George H.W. Bush's EO 13292, which created the concept of the "unitary executive," substantially expanding the powers vested in the Office of the Vice President.

Collectively, EOs do in fact expand the powers vested in the Executive Office. It pushes the boundaries of what is possible to get around the Congress. Obama's EO 13514 not only forces agencies to green their operations without signing on to Kyoto or passing domestic legislation, it also trains all employees to believe, analyze, and make decisions on the controversial topic of climate change. Obama has stated many times that he represents all people—right, left, and center. This top down decision forces tens of thousands of federal employees—right, left, and center—to be trained openly on the science of climate change. It may be his best kept secret.

Editor's note: Michael Cote, the author of this piece, is a climate adaptation and urban planning expert, friend (and once-upon-a-time newspaper reporter) who I first met in Copenhagen before the COP15 climate talks. Over the past couple of months, I've been working with Cote to develop a regular feature for GOOD's environment hub on climate adaptation solutions from around the world. We're still working on a title for his regular, recurring series of posts, so let us know if you have any suggestions! —Ben Jervey

Image: Icebreaker from

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