New Systems of Governance Are Needed to Address Climate Change

We must rethink the scope, scale, tools and partnerships of natural resource management.

In the age of coronavirus, the United States is facing many extraordinary public health and economic challenges. But we should not lose sight of another problem of hugely significant proportions—climate change. 

Recognizing that climate change is a leading cause of sea level rise, precipitation pattern changes, droughts, wildfires, and high-intensity storms, the National Academy of Public Administration recently identified “Steward Natural Resources and Address Climate Change” as one of its 12 grand challenges of public administration.

It is critical that we change the way we manage natural resources to address climate change and improve community resilience. We can look to nature itself for some solutions. Research led by The Nature Conservancy and others finds that reforestation, improved forest management, enhancing soil health, and other “natural climate solutions” can deliver 30% of greenhouse gas emission reductions needed by 2030, establishing a trajectory to keep temperature increases well below 2 degrees Celsius by 2050. And nature can also enhance resilience. Conservancy researchers have shown, for example, that coastal reefs can dramatically reduce storm surge and protect coastal communities.

To be effective, resource managers need to rethink the scope, scale, tools and partnerships of natural resource management. But this is easier said than done for several reasons:  

Many climate effects transcend jurisdictional boundaries. Sea level rise, for example, occurs along the Gulf of Mexico, affecting multiple communities, states, and federal lands and waters. We need institutions and decision processes that facilitate coordination across boundaries. But this is not easy. Policy makers face practical challenges such as limited authorities to expend funds outside of their jurisdictions even when such expenditures are vital. Beach replenishment along coasts, for example, may require sediment deposition outside a city’s boundaries to secure desired protections.

Despite the difficulties, some promising approaches have emerged. For example, in the Tualatin Basin, the Environmental Protection Agency has allowed water managers to combine four wastewater permits and one stormwater permit into a single cluster; the managers have partnered with the farmers and the Agriculture Department to plant trees within the watershed to reduce water temperatures. Still, we do not have many U.S. examples of multi-purpose, multi-issue, cross-jurisdictional governance.

Climate effects are highly uncertain. These uncertainties underscore the need for flexibility and adaptive management and highlight the central role of scientific expertise regarding whether, when, and how to respond to the effects of a changing climate.

Science is essential, yet decisions affect people, their safety and their livelihoods. These effects heighten the relevance of community collaboration and present a fundamental question: How is it possible to increase public involvement in decision-making when scientific and technical issues associated with some climate effects are so complex? Scenario planning can help but it’s neither quick nor easy.

Climate change effects are characterized by interconnected complexity. This presents additional challenges for resource managers. Flood protection and coastal management, for example, are interconnected and require consideration of both river flows and sea level together, but agency silos usually divide responsibilities for these issues and treat them as separate. This reinforces the importance of scale—basin-scale planning in water management, for example.

The pace of climate change is sometimes dramatic. One example is the rapid melting of sea-ice in the Arctic. Like uncertainty, the highly dynamic nature of climate change effects implies the need for adaptive management. It also heightens the need for resilience and solutions that provide functionality across a broad range of conditions.

Traditional flood surge protection has relied on “gray” infrastructure such as dikes and levees. This infrastructure may be effective under certain conditions but increasing performance of grey infrastructure to withstand more frequent, intense storms may be exorbitantly expensive and disruptive to ecosystem functioning.

Solutions that supplement or replace existing gray infrastructure with natural infrastructure like beach nourishment, wetlands restoration, or sea marsh protections may provide greater functionality and more resilience across a broader range of conditions than traditional infrastructure. Similarly, revising reservoir operations to maximize water storage capacity in combination with restoring flood plains as flood protection may offer communities greater resilience than building ever-larger reservoirs that operate as dual-purpose systems.

Perhaps philosopher Bertrand Russell’s observation sums up the natural resource management challenges: “It’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” Ultimately, this grand challenge will require the creation of new governance systems and processes that move beyond traditional notions of line authority and accountability. Such a system would incorporate more stakeholder collaboration, shared power, networks, consensus, and iterative problem-solving informed by the best available science.  This will help stave off the worst effects of climate change and ensure that natural resource decisions are seen as accountable and legitimate. 

Lynn Scarlett is Chief External Affairs Officer of The Nature Conservancy and a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.