U.S. Forest Service firefighters battle a fire along near Los Angeles in 2009. Forest Service managers are going to be expected to monitor for the effects of climate change on watersheds and wildlife, set targets for reducing adverse environmental impacts from their operations, and have at least one employee serving as a point person for climate change issue, according to the service's climate change adviser. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)
Starting this year, top Forest Service managers are encountering an added yardstick in their performance evaluations: how well they are meeting benchmarks for confronting the effects of climate change in the national forests?
The standards will apply to some 80 Senior Executive Service members, said David Cleaves, the forest service's climate change adviser.
In addition, forest managers will be expected to monitor for the effects of climate change on watersheds and wildlife, set targets for reducing adverse environmental impacts from their operations, and have at least one employee serving as a point person for climate change issues, according to a scorecard released last month.
"We're looking for 100 percent compliance by 2015," Cleaves said.
The move puts the Forest Service at the forefront of federal agencies looking to retool for a warming planet. The long-term challenges are immense: Not only are billions of dollars worth of government real estate potentially at risk, but officials could be faced with politically delicate decisions on how to run programs and manage resources. Ten months after President Obama issued an executive order summoning federal agencies to "lead by example," many are still in the study phase.
"I think there are a number of local governments and community-based organizations who are far out in front of us feds," Margaret Davidson, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's coastal services center, told a workshop last month sponsored by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Washington, D.C.
In an interim report this March, a White House interagency task force on climate change adaptation found substantial activity already underway in both the public and private sectors. "However, there still are significant gaps in the U.S. government's approach to climate change adaptation and building resilience," the report said.
Among them: a unified strategic vision and approach; coordinated efforts across state, local and federal lines; and "coherent research programs" to assess the regional effects of near-term, long-term and abrupt global climate change.
The task force will release a final report this fall, but the possible perils are already coming into focus. Two years ago, a Transportation Department study concluded that much of the Gulf Coast could be inundated over the next 50 to 100 years, assuming that sea levels rise between two and four feet. "Based on these levels, an untenable portion of the region's road, rail and port network is at risk of permanent flooding," the study found.
For the military, rising seas could threaten more than 30 installations, the Pentagon recently warned in its latest four-year defense review. From a medical standpoint, global warming poses "the single biggest threat to public health in the 21st century," Dr. George Luber, associate director for climate change at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the audience at the Pew workshop. Even road building and maintenance could be affected if higher temperatures cut into the amount of time workers can safely spend on the job, a Federal Highway Administration official indicated.
"Resources aren't the issue right now," Bill Hohenstein, director of the global change program office at the Agriculture Department, the Forest Service's parent agency, said at the same event. "It's marshaling those resources and moving them in the right direction."
Last week, for example, the Commerce and Interior departments announced an agreement to cooperate on climate-related activities involving everything from science to education. "Understanding the effects of ocean acidification and climate variability is critical to developing proactive responses that keep American businesses and communities competitive and resilient," Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said in the release.
Another milestone could come next month, when the National Academy of Public Administration releases a study on organizing a NOAA climate service to meet the demand for a reliable information source. Announced in February, the proposed service is supposed to provide a one-stop shop for business and local governments in need of NOAA's forecasting and modeling expertise to make critical strategic decisions, Locke said at the time. NOAA is part of the Commerce Department.
Once the academy's report is out, the White House intends to ask Congress to redirect several hundred million dollars within NOAA's fiscal 2011 budget request for the proposed service. Veteran climate scientist Thomas Karl is already serving as its transitional director.
"The biggest challenge that we're going to have is to take the culture of delivering the best science that we have and continue to strengthen that science but at the same time recognize that the value of that science comes only with strong, interactive engagement on the service side," Karl said in an interview. "That's a change in culture."
While skeptics remain, most climate scientists agree that the planet is heating up and that manmade releases of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases bear much of the responsibility. Globally, average temperatures have risen by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, and could increase another two to 11 degrees by the end of this century, according to a government report last year.
But pinpointing the potential changes in specific regions is an even more uncertain enterprise. In its roadmap, the Forest Service highlighted the need for examining the vulnerability of individual ecosystems. At the same time, "scientists know a great deal about climate change, but not enough to help land managers fully facilitate successful adaptation," the document says.
Beyond gauging the direct impact on their own operations, federal agencies are likely to face a host of calls for changes in program direction.
Last week, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility petitioned the Obama administration to bar federal agencies from buying cement and other products made with coal ash waste produced by coal-fired power plants. In a letter to the Council on Environmental Quality, PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch argued that existing guidelines — which encourage such purchases — run counter to last October's executive order requiring agencies to reduce indirect greenhouse gas emissions.
But Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, an industry organization, called the argument specious and predicted it would lead to added emissions because more Portland Cement would have to be produced.
"What PEER is proposing would increase the federal government's carbon footprint," Roewer said.