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Climate Change Adaptation: Implications for the Public Sector

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Zachary Wurtzebach
September 23, 2016

Climate change is no longer an abstract concept, or a concern for the distant future. This year is on track to be the planet’s hottest in the modern era, and by a terrifyingly large margin. In the United States, the effects are already evident in the frequency and severity of wildfires, rising sea levels, intense droughts and floods, and the spread of infectious diseases.

But complexity and uncertainty confound effective action. To a large degree, we don’t know how climatic variables—such as precipitation—will change at regional and local scales or what exactly can be done to ensure our social and natural systems will be resilient in the face of change. There may also be unpredictable spill-over effects; natural disasters or sea level rise in one region may spur migration to another.

In short, the implications for the public sector are enormous. How can public organizations support adaptation and continue to provide public value in an era of rapid change?

Gupta et al. note that climate change adaptation requires resources. It also depends on the capacity of institutional actors to reduce uncertainty by generating and integrating relevant information into planning and decision-making processes at multiple levels of organization. On the one hand, public managers need to know how to respond to existing or emergent problems. This requires flexibility for effective decision-making, but it also depends on the generation and dissemination of knowledge about what works (or doesn’t). Public organizations also need knowledge and information to support proactive adaptation by reducing existing vulnerabilities, or planning for future impacts. However, little attention has been given to the administrative tools needed to programmatically support these objectives in public agencies.

In my own research on public land management agencies, I have found there are several organizational challenges associated with implementing strategies that can promote adaptation, particularly at the unit level (i.e., an individual National Forest or National Park). First, generating credible information about what works (or doesn’t) depends on the rigorous collection and analysis of data associated with the outcomes of management actions that respond or promote resilience to change. Secondly, in order to reduce vulnerabilities and plan for future change, managers also need to understand the long-term trends associated with climatic patterns and resource conditions. This depends on robust sampling and consistent data collection, and the ability to analyze and interpret data from external sources. However, at the unit level, there is often limited capacity—in in terms of expertise, time and funding—to effectively accomplish these tasks.

There are also few programmatic incentives. Management performance measures emphasize “outputs,” such as the number of management actions accomplished, rather than outcomes. As a result, managers often have a hard time dedicating funding for “learning” rather than “doing,” especially in light of decreasing budgets, and political pressures for substantive actions.

Knowledge generation and transmission also depends on effective data management, particularly across different units. However, many administrative databases are often difficult to use, and data collection, quality control and assessment protocols are often inconsistently applied. As a result, data is often stored on hard drives or isn’t credible, limiting the ability of an organization to effectively analyze and generate information across multiple units. Finally, in order to be effectively integrated into decision-making processes, information needs to be relevant and communicated to decision-makers and stakeholders in a way that is easily understood.

Despite these challenges, there are several important administrative strategies for generating and integrating knowledge into decision-making and planning processes. One approach is to centralize funding for knowledge management at higher levels of an organization, with dedicated staff for data collection, data management, analysis and communication. The National Park Service (NPS), for instance, has developed a national program, with regional “networks” dedicated to tracking long-term trends in climate and natural resource conditions across several different National Parks. Importantly, funding for the program is distinct from Park operations, and approximately 30 percent of the program budget is dedicated to database management. This ensures effective and consistent data collection and analysis over time, and has created significant efficiencies in terms of human and financial resources. The NPS also dedicates staff to science communication, and delivers information to public stakeholders, managers, and Congress in a variety of different formats.

In light of resource scarcity, collaboration and coordination with other governmental and non-governmental organizations is also a critical tool for generating knowledge and sharing best practices. In order to ensure effective intergovernmental coordination, “Service First” agreements, in which federal agencies share staff and pool resources, are particularly useful tools for leveraging resources, and sharing knowledge across agencies. Long term contractual agreements with research institutes or NGOs with expertise in monitoring, predictive modeling, structured decision-making, and scenario planning can also support reliable science integration over time.

While these examples and considerations are drawn from natural resource management agencies, they are also relevant for a wide range of public sector organizations, from municipal planning departments, to state public health agencies. Scholars in the field of public administration are well placed to investigate the policy and administrative aspects of climate change adaptation. The future of public service provision may depend on it.


Author: Zachary Wurtzebach is a doctoral candidate in the department of forest and rangeland stewardship at Colorado State University. His research focuses on natural resource policy and administration in the context of public land management agencies. He is currently working with the U.S. Forest Service on challenges related to the implementation of new regulations for forest planning.

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