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Part One: “Building In” a Balanced Response to Climate Change … and Being Accountable

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from the USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

On July 20, the Forest Service announced a new system for integrating consideration of climate change into agency operations. This system is based on our Strategic Framework for Responding to Climate Change, adopted by leadership in 2008, and tiers to the new USDA strategic plan that emphasizes forest resilience to climate change.

Our climate change performance system is anchored by three tools – a national Roadmap, a Performance Scorecard, and the Climate Change Resource Center (CCRC). Each of these tools has full leadership support and commitment. The Roadmap outlines sets of ongoing, short-term, and longer-term actions that will enhance the resiliency of our ecological and human systems to climate-driven changes. The Scorecard breaks our accountability into four dimensions – agency capacity, engagement (partnerships/education), adaptation, and mitigation/sustainable consumption. The CCRC, now a national resource, provides information and tools to support performance and innovation.

All National Forests and Grasslands will assess their response to climate change using the questions in the Scorecard. The national office is developing guidance that will be completed by the end of the calendar year. After the release of this guidance, forests and grasslands will complete a reference assessment for the FY 2010 Scorecard. Regions, research stations, and national program offices will also take stock of what they are already doing and what they plan to do, allowing us to develop a coherent national picture and to identify resource, technology, policy, or other gaps that we need to fill.

The Scorecard was built on three principles: balance, flexibility, and accountability. Balance in our climate change response – reflected in the four dimensions of the scorecard – means that the elements of the scorecard support one another and that we can’t go off the deep end with a single emphasis. For example, we can’t mitigate greenhouse gas emissions through forest management without also adapting to climate change. This is because the role of our nation’s forests in the carbon cycle depends on sustained health and is intertwined with so many other ecosystem services.

Another example is the balance and integration between agency capacity and engagement. We can’t create enough impact unless we engage partners on a landscape scale around a shared vision. We also need to balance engagement, adaptation, and mitigation with agency capacity. The success with which we adapt to climate change and help mitigate emissions depends on employee awareness, a strong connection between science and forest management, and actions based on well-informed judgment.

Flexibility means that this system was not meant to be one-size-fits-all. The impacts of climate change and the options for responding vary regionally and across the rural to urban spectrum. Forests must be able to respond to these unique patterns and problems. The flexibility to operate at the most effective scales and across traditional boundaries will be vital. Some of the tools for dealing with the pervasive influence of climate change may be better developed at the regional or even national level.

It may be inefficient and inconsistent for each forest to devise vulnerability assessments, adaptation and carbon management strategies, and landscape-level partnerships. These foundational actions are probably better done at the multi-forest or regional level. This will take coordination and a strong partnership between the national forest system, state and private forestry, and the research stations.

This story has two parts. Please look for part two tomorrow.

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