Vulnerability Assessments Needed to Inform Climate Policy and Program Decisions

December 16, 2020

Those who recognize the threats climate change poses to this nation’s well-being must be heartened by the seriousness with which President-elect Biden is taking the growing menace.

The naming of a climate “czar” who will hold a prominent position in the White House suggests a coordinated domestic effort to take on the threat. Biden also has pledged to reverse a move made in 2017 by outgoing President Donald Trump to take the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement. The pact was adopted in December 2015 by 196 nations, including the U.S.

The Biden transition team last month introduced a “Climate 21” document offering dozens of recommendations that tapped the expertise of more than 150 experts with high-level government experience, including nine former cabinet appointees, to deliver actionable advice for a rapid-start, whole-of-government climate response coordinated by the White House and accountable to the President.

The project memos contain the Climate 21 Project’s recommendations for 11 White House offices, federal departments (including the USDA) and federal agencies, as well as cross-cutting recommendations on personnel and hiring.

It is encouraging to see dozens of climate-related recommendations among the document’s 19-page segment devoted to the Department of Agriculture, including a call for the USDA to partner with farmers, ranchers and forest owners to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases (GHGs) through carbon sequestration and emissions reductions.

Public discussion of agriculture’s role in combatting climate change tends to train the big spotlight on reducing emissions, an emphasis that overshadows some of the equally important steps that must be taken for farmers, ranchers and forestland owners to be successful going forward. These include sustainably intensifying production of all the goods and services that come from the land, as well as adapting and improving operational resilience against the changing climate.

Taken together, carbon emission reduction, sustainable intensification and operational resilience make up the three pillars of Climate Smart Agriculture – the integrated approach to managing working landscapes (cropland, livestock, forests and fisheries) that addresses the interlinked challenges of food security and accelerating climate change.

Another important early action item not included in the Climate 21 USDA report is the need for federal and state governments to team up and prioritize the development of state-level agricultural climate change vulnerability assessments, which are a useful planning tool in increasing an agriculture sector’s adaptation to climate change. The tool can improve the decision-making process of planners in generating policies or programs that may increase the resilience of agricultural systems during the occurrence of hazardous events.

The agriculture sector is among the fields of focus in vulnerability assessments that share knowledge on climate change, its causes, potential impacts and response options at the global level through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); the national level through the quadrennial National Climate Assessments; and regionally, through initiatives such as the USDA Climate Hubs. Adding state-level assessments would enable a more focused examination of each state’s unique assets and the challenges its farmers, ranchers and foresters will face in a changing climate.

California has been demonstrating how this can be done. The state published its Fourth Climate Change Assessment in 2018 (the first came out in 2006); state officials say the document translates climate science into useful information for action, presents findings in the context of existing knowledge, and includes both strategies to adapt to climate impacts and key research gaps needed to spur additional progress on safeguarding the state from climate change. The agricultural assessment provides information to build the sector’s resilience to climate impacts, including temperature, wildfire, water and sea level rise.

SfL-supported work groups are calling for state-level vulnerability assessments in Florida, Iowa and Ohio (see Page 32). Other states should follow their lead. An approach likely to prove effective in determining unique agricultural risks in each state would be for state Departments of Agriculture, land grant colleges, and regional USDA Climate Hubs to join together in constructing state by state vulnerability assessments. This collaborative effort can work towards developing a more targeted approach that serves the growing needs of state and local-level decision-makers, and will better equip them to provide the policy tools those in agriculture need to take on climate change.

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