US agencies are most concerned about these climate threats

WASHINGTON – Less food. No more road accidents. Extreme weather conditions hit nuclear waste sites. Migrants rushing to the United St...


WASHINGTON – Less food. No more road accidents. Extreme weather conditions hit nuclear waste sites. Migrants rushing to the United States, fleeing even worse calamities in their own country.

These scenarios, once dystopian fiction, are now guiding American policy making. Under President Biden’s orders, senior officials from every government agency spent months examining the top climate threats their agencies are facing it and how to deal with it.

On Thursday, the White House offered a first look at the results, releasing the climate adaptation plans of 23 agencies, including the ministries of Energy, Defense, Agriculture, Homeland Security, Transport and Trade. The plans reveal the dangers posed by global warming to all aspects of American life and the difficulty in dealing with those threats.

The federal government has already attempted this exercise under the Obama administration. This work effectively ended under former President Donald J. Trump, whose disregard for climate science led most agencies to put their planning on hold for climate change or stop talking about it.

Weeks after taking office, President Biden asked officials to quickly get back to work. Stressing the urgency of the threat, the president gave agencies four months to develop plans listing their main vulnerabilities to climate change and strategies to address them.

“Almost all services provided by the government will sooner or later be affected by climate change,” said Jesse Keenan, a professor at Tulane University who focuses on climate adaptation and has advised federal agencies.

The plans released Thursday are brief, many of them under 30 pages. They include main themes: ensuring that new facilities meet stricter building standards, using less energy and water in existing buildings, better protecting workers against extreme heat, educating staff on the climate science and create supply chains that are less likely to be disrupted by storms or other shocks.

The documents also reflect Mr Biden’s focus on racial equity, examining the effects of climate change on minority and low-income communities and how agencies can address it. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services has said it will focus research grants on the health effects of these communities.

But the most telling information from the recently released plans might be their description, sometimes in blunt terms, of the dangers of climate change.

The Department of Agriculture lists ways in which climate change threatens the United States’ food supply: changes in temperature and rainfall regimes, more pests and diseases, reduced soil quality, less pollinating insects and more storms and forest fires will combine to reduce crops and livestock.

To address these challenges, the department calls for more research on climate threats and better communication of these results to farmers.

The plan is also straightforward about the limits of what can be done. In response to drought, for example, farmers can build new irrigation systems and governments can build new dams. But irrigation is expensive, notes the department, and dams affect the ecosystems around them.

Climate change is also threatening Americans’ ability to move within and between cities, restricting not only mobility, but also the movement of goods that boost the economy. In a list of potential effects of climate change, the Department of Transportation notes that rising temperatures will make it more expensive to build and maintain roads and bridges.

And the experience of moving will become slower and more frustrating. As warmer days cause the asphalt to break down, congestion will increase as traffic slows down. Severe weather events “will require flight cancellations, sometimes for long periods,” and more heat will force planes to travel shorter distances and carry less weight.

Some of the effects anticipated by the Department of Transport are dangerous. They include “more frequent / severe flooding of underground tunnels” and “increased risk of vehicle accidents in severe weather”.

Even the quality of driving could deteriorate. The plan warns of “decreased driver / operator performance and decision-making abilities, due to driver fatigue due to adverse weather conditions”.

Sometimes the plans show how much work remains to be done. The Energy Ministry, for example, said it has assessed climate risks for only half of its sites, which range from cutting-edge research laboratories to nuclear weapons program radioactive waste storage facilities.

“The DOE’s nuclear security mission is essential to national security and is also largely conducted at DOE sites that are vulnerable to extreme weather conditions,” the department’s plan says. “The DOE’s environmental mission could also experience disruptions if the facilities dedicated to the treatment and disposal of radioactive waste are impacted by climatic hazards.

The ministry says it is able to deal with this threat, but does not go into details. “DOE has a well-established risk assessment and adaptation process focused on its high-risk nuclear facilities. This process ensures that the most critical facilities are well protected from climate risks, ”says the plan.

For the Department of Homeland Security, climate change means the risk of large numbers of climate refugees – people reaching the US border, driven out of their countries by a mix of long-term challenges like drought or sudden shocks like a tsunami.

“Climate change is likely to increase population movements from Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean,” says the department’s plan. The department is trying to develop “a responsive and coordinated operational plan for mass migration events,” he said.

The plan comes just weeks after President Biden sentenced Border Patrol officers on horseback for their treatment of Haitian migrants crossing the Texas border. The administration was later criticized for sending many of these migrants return to Haiti, which continues to grapple with the type of environmental challenges outlined in the plan.

The department does not say how it plans to react in the future as more people flee to the United States, beyond saying it “will focus on national security and balanced and fair outcomes “.

Climate change will bring new sources of conflict and also make it harder for the military to function, the Defense Ministry wrote in its climate plan.

Water shortages could even become a new source of tension between the US military overseas and the countries where the troops are based. At DOD sites outside the United States, “military water needs could compete with local water needs, creating potential areas of friction or even conflict.”

But learning to operate in extreme weather conditions should also be seen as a new type of weapon, according to the plan, which can help the United States defeat its enemies. “This allows US forces to gain distinct advantages over potential adversaries,” the plan says, “if our forces can operate in conditions where others must take cover or go to the ground.”

Not all of the climate threats facing the federal government are insurmountable.

The Department of Commerce, which heads the US Patent and Trade Office, said that as the effects of climate change worsen, it expects an increase in patent applications for “technologies related to adaptation to climate change ”. Such an increase “would impact the department’s ability to process such requests in a timely manner, which would have a direct impact on the competitiveness and economic growth of the United States.”

For this challenge, at least, there is a solution. For inventions that promise to help meet environmental challenges, the department said, patent applications may be able to move forward – or, as the plan says, “advanced out of round for consideration when ‘a petition is filed “.

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