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Keeping Pace With Climate Change

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

By Joshua Morales
May 19, 2015

Current situation:

In the 21st century, public administrators involved in natural resource management (NRM) face the challenge of human-induced climate change. Communities across the world are experiencing incremental (and extreme) impacts of this global phenomenon. As public administrators, the paradigm has increasingly shifted toward sustainable management of climate adaptation, resilience and disaster mitigation. Beyond the smokescreen, this new frontier has placed NRM as the keystone practice of economic, social and environmental survival.

With a scientific consensus of 97 percent among climate scientists around the world, it has become clear that climate change is a result of human activity in terms of patterns of natural resource use. Despite a mixture of ownership realities, the tragedy of the global commons has come to fruition. Carbon dioxide levels are the highest they have been in 650,000 years. This has resulted in desertification, drought, rising sea levels, extreme weather events and decreased ice/snow coverage. Environmental conditions are rapidly becoming more constraining. As a result, less resilient areas and communities are being disproportionately impacted.

The social and economic consequences are experienced with each passing day. Due to mismanagement of natural resources, environmental degradation can have much more severe consequences now than any time in the past 143 years. Growing recognition of the inseparable bond between the environment and people means the role of public administrators has become increasingly important.

Case study:

In recent times, we have seen the high costs and impacts of natural resource mismanagement for communities, economies, wildlife and landscape. In the United States, this is best seen in California where only one year of surface water is left to use after three years of record drought. This is causing a shift to an unrestricted use and reliance on groundwater to supply California’s social and economic needs.

Historically, California’s water policy and management had a focus on the individual rather than the commons. Until recently, for most of the state’s history,  surface water was considered public while groundwater was a private environmental resource. Facing a severe drought for the past few years, the California state government passed a groundwater act on Sept. 16, 2014.

Despite this finally happening, managers are commenting that implementation may be too slow. Administrators have been proposing frameworks for quite some time to policymakers, but it has been slow to pass priority — until recently. Without the support of effective policy, public administrators have to work with boundaries of outdated legislation, minimal financial resources and worsening environmental conditions. California has a number of systems that interconnect to NRM and these systems have been highlighted by administrators. However, support is needed to improve management of the state’s natural resources.

The example of California also highlights a new need to expand the scope of NRM to better incorporate socio-economic, cultural and institutional context. Human engagement with natural resources is complex and cannot truly be comprehensive without the inclusion of underlying social, cultural and political forces. This will require qualitative analysis and NRM integration beyond what quantitative indicators can tell managers.

Evolving Strategies

So what does natural resource management look like in an exponentially changing climate? From local to international levels of government, the proactive approach of preparedness and mitigation has become the new dominant discourse even though reactive policies are still in place.

Management approaches are beginning to emphasize uncertainty over top-down protectionist strategies. Three common uncertainty frameworks are adaptive conservation, ecosystem-based management and adaptive co-management.

One of the growing management approaches is adaptation through conservation. This approach places emphasis on social vulnerability reduction, biodiversity promotion, increased carbon sink capacity and targeted NRM. The method of adaptation through conservation primarily has a focus on strengthening the weakest links for systemic barriers to disaster.

Ecosystem-based management is a systems-based approach toward NRM that takes into account all interactions within an ecosystem. This management approach was born out of conflicting environmental interests and rights. To lessen conflict, a broader and more inclusive approach was developed. This approach is scalable and broad, yet is responsive to changing climate conditions. Strong emphasis is placed on relationships, cumulative impact, resilience and cross-sector cooperation.

Adaptive co-management is a recent development in NRM that is a synthesis of adaptive management and collaborative project management. Dynamic learning, cross-sector relationships and knowledge integration are at the heart of this approach. Complexity and self-organization are embraced in adaptive co-management which results in a localized framework for diverse communities and systems. As discussed earlier this approach is more inclusive of the broader contexts that are crucial in NRM.

As the climate changes so does civilization and the relationship between humans and the environment. Treating the environment as an externality with particular places or species protection is no longer sustainable. Natural resource management must change in stride with our climate for the sustainability of the environment, society and respective economies around the world.


Author: Joshua Morales is a student at Presidio Graduate School, pursuing a master’s of public administration and master’s of business administration with a concentration in sustainable management. Joshua can be reached at [email protected]

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