What is Climate-informed Natural Resource Management and Environmental Assessment?
Climate-informed natural resource management and environmental assessment incorporates climate vulnerability and risk evaluation as well as adaptation into environmental assessment and natural resource management. It ensures that our nation’s resources are appropriately managed to preserve their value and that taxpayer dollars are spent in a fiscally prudent manner. A host of planning and regulatory processes are in place to safeguard our nation’s air, water, species, and ecosystems, and the practice of climate-informed management and assessment varies depending on context. This summary focuses on two categories of environment-related policies: environmental review under NEPA and natural resource management planning.
Environmental reviews under NEPA. Because climate change can have significant direct and indirect effects on a wide variety of federal actions, affected environments, and interactions between the two, environmental reviews that fail to account for climate change may drastically misrepresent the environmental effects of an action. The federal government could require NEPA reviews to fully account for the impacts of climate change in all stages of environmental reviews. Because approaches to implementing such a mandate are not always clear to practitioners, the mandate would need to be accompanied by guidelines or protocols and associated training to promote consistency and adequacy. Consistency and adequacy can also be supported by an ongoing review and compilation of current practice to create informative examples and lessons learned.
Land and natural resource management. Climate-informed natural resource management is a way to increase the likelihood that management goals and objectives are met despite climate changes and effects, and to limit wasting resources on unnecessary, ineffective, or counterproductive measures. It has been applied across agencies and ecosystems, from relatively simple plans to more complex ones.
How does Climate-informed Natural Resource Management and Environmental Assessment work?
NEPA. Under existing law and regulations, any NEPA process must include some level of climate vulnerability and risk evaluation. With climate change, as with other aspects of environmental review, the depth of analysis reflects the scope and scale of the action and its possible impacts. A comprehensive approach would consider climate change at every step of the NEPA process, including whether to grant a categorical exclusion and whether an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement is necessary.
It is most important to consider climate change in the evaluation of expected impacts, including environmental, social, economic, and cultural impacts, as well as costs and timelines for the proposed action and alternatives. Comprehensive impact assessments would consider the direct, indirect, and cumulative effects of climate change over the complete life cycle of the proposed action and alternatives. For infrastructure, this may extend beyond the service life of the project if physical structures or chemical or biological contaminants remain in the area. All impact assessments, along with any cost-benefit analyses, would account for uncertainties associated with climate change and its effects. The Record of Decision (for EISs) and Finding of No Significant Impact (for EAs) would indicate that climate change’s direct, indirect, and interactive effects, along with uncertainty, have been considered for the entire life of the project.
Land and natural resource management. Two general approaches include integrating climate considerations into other planning processes (bottom up) and developing stand-alone adaptation plans that can be used to guide priorities and actions within and beyond other planning processes (top down). They are not mutually exclusive. In both cases, the basic steps are the same but in a slightly different order. These are: clarifying the planning purpose; assessing the climate vulnerability of the resources being managed; developing or refining goals and objectives in light of vulnerability assessment results; developing management options that address or incorporate climate vulnerabilities, and evaluating and selecting among management options. Throughout the process, attention must be paid to a range of uncertainties, including uncertainty about how climate change will unfold, how changes will affect species and ecosystems over time and space, and the effectiveness of different management options in light of changing conditions. A range of established approaches exist for planning and decision making under uncertainty, including scenario planning, robust decision making, and decision sensitivity analysis.
Key design considerations
Is the assessment required as part of any assessment or is it recommended? To what projects should it be applied – all that require current evaluation, fewer, more? Should planners and project proponents be required to develop adaptation measures for identified climate risks?
Is the assessment conducted internally by an agency or is it conducted by an external agency or other entity? Who is qualified to undertake this assessment? Will it require training of federal employees, will it be undertaken by qualified external personnel, or will it be designed not to require specific training?
Does this become part of existing planning and assessment processes such as NEPA or is it developed as its own process?
- California has adopted comprehensive amendments to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) Guidelines that address both climate mitigation and adaptation. In terms of adaptation, the amendments address when it’s allowable to include projected future conditions as part of the environmental baseline, when and how the assessment must address the potential for a project to exacerbate existing environmental hazards and challenges such as wildfire and water supply, and provides some flexibility to use deferred mitigation, wherein the mitigation measures (here referring to a remediation from damage rather than greenhouse gas emissions reductions) are identified after the project is approved.
- Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law guidance documents help agencies and practitioners consider climate change effects in environmental review and planning documents, including one focused on natural resources and another on the built environment. The latter includes recommended protocols for use with impact assessments under NEPA and State laws.
- In 2016, the federal Council on Environmental Quality released guidance clarifying that adaptation and resilience should be considered in agencies planning actions, and that environmental reviews must describe the affected environment for the expected lifespan of the proposed project based on available climate change projections.
Land and natural resource management
- In 2014, a coalition of federal agencies and non-profit organizations published Climate Smart Conservation: Putting Adaptation Principles into Practice, which became the basis for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services trainings and workshops, as well as a springboard for developing guidance targeting specific audiences such as the Department of Defense’s Integrated Natural Resource Management Plans and restoration projects funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
- A partnership led by the U.S. Forest Service Northern Institute for Applied Climate Science developed a Climate Change Response Framework (CCRF) targeting forests in the Northeast and upper Midwest. The CCRF is built around an adaptation workbook that includes menus of adaptation strategies and approaches to support land managers in developing tactics to address their specific objectives and vulnerabilities. A version of CCRF is applicable to forested watersheds as well, and is available online, as detailed worksheets, and in a streamlined version for more experienced users.
- Three Step Adaptation Decision Support Framework for Native Salmonids focuses on a group of species in a specific region rather than a particular planning process. This allows the tool to provide questions targeting key climate-related threats, and to link responses to those questions to specific sets of possible climate-informed management goals and adaptation strategies. The final step provides example actions to implement each adaptation strategy.
- Best Practices for Consideration of the Effects of Climate Change in Project-Level Environmental Assessments. Ontario Centre for Climate Impacts and Adaptation Resources http://www.climateontario.ca/doc/reports/BestPracticesForConsiderationOfEffectsOfClimateChangeInProjectEAs2017.pdf
- Assessing the Impacts of Climate Change on the Built Environment under NEPA and State EIA Laws: A Survey of Current Practices and Recommendations for Model Protocols. Columbia Law School Sabin Center for Climate Change Law http://columbiaclimatelaw.com/files/2016/06/Wentz-2015-08-Climate-Change-Impact-on-Built-Environment-.pdf
- 2016 Final Guidance for Federal Departments and Agencies on Consideration of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the Effects of Climate Change in National Environmental Act Policy Reviews. Council on Environmental Quality. https://ceq.doe.gov/docs/ceq-regulations-and-guidance/nepa_final_ghg_guidance.pdf
- Guidance on Integrating Climate Change and Biodiversity in Environmental Impact Assessment. European Commission. https://ec.europa.eu/environment/eia/pdf/EIA%20Guidance.pdf
- IEMA Environmental Impact Assessment Guide to Climate Change Resilience and Adaptation. Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment. https://www.iema.net/assets/templates/documents/iema_guidance_documents_eia_climate_change_resilience_and_adaptation%20(1).pdf
Natural resource management
- Restoring the Great Lakes’ Coastal Future: Technical Guidance for the Design and Implementation of Climate-Smart Restoration Projects. National Wildlife Federation. https://www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Reports/2011/06-15-2011-Restoring-Great-Lakes-Coastal-Future
- A three-step decision support framework for climate adaptation: Selecting climate-informed conservation goals and strategies for native salmonids in the northern U.S. Rockies. Wildlife Conservation Society, EcoAdapt, Center for Large Landscape Conservation. http://rmpf.weebly.com/cold-water-ecosystem-management-tool.html
- Climate-Smart Conservation: Putting Adaptation Principles into Practice. National Wildlife Federation and partners. https://www.nwf.org/climatesmartguide
- Stein, B. A., D. M. Lawson, P. Glick, C. M. Wolf, and C. Enquist. 2019. Climate Adaptation for DoD Natural Resource Managers: A Guide to Incorporating Climate Considerations into Integrated Natural Resource Management Plans. Washington, D.C.: National Wildlife Federation.
- Forest Adaptation Resources: climate change tools and approaches for land managers, 2nd ed. U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station. https://www.fs.usda.gov/treesearch/pubs/52760
- U.S. Forest Service Climate Change Resource Center. https://www.fs.usda.gov/ccrc/adaptation/adaptation-planning