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Federal Agencies Not Prepared for Climate Threats, Says New RFF Research: Experts recommend policies to manage unknowns, extremes of climate change

FOR RELEASE:  June 1, 2011
CONTACT: Pete Nelson, RFF Director of Communications, 202-328-5191

WASHINGTON—The United States is ill-prepared to manage the impacts of climate change, according to new studies from Resources for the Future. New research suggests federal agencies lack the necessary policies and flexible institutional capacity to respond effectively to extreme climatic events and changing weather patterns. The report—Reforming Institutions and Managing Extremes: U.S. Policy Approaches for Adapting to a Changing Climate—provides concrete steps that the federal government can take to effectively address climate impacts.

“The good news is that many of the most important steps we recommend make sense on their own merits. There is an opportunity here for lots of ‘win-wins,’” said RFF Research Director Molly Macauley, a lead author of the summary report, the culmination of a two-year effort.

The project brought together experts in economics, ecosystems, insurance markets, and risk management from around the country to examine current federal capacity in multiple areas including agriculture, infrastructure, water management, public health, and disaster preparedness, among others. Their findings, including specific recommendations for policy reform, are presented in the summary report.

Examples of the potential threats from a changing climate include more extreme weather events, such as storms and floods that are likely to be increasingly expensive to insure, along with water shortages, additional heat-related fatalities, and changes in the spread of epidemic disease. 

More than 20 specialized studies were developed to help policymakers grapple with the inherent uncertainties associated with climate change. A primary theme across the research is the need for better institutions, incentives, and information to empower governments, communities, and individuals to adapt.

“The effects of climate change will primarily be local, but they won’t fall within neat state governmental boundaries,” said Macauley. “There is a key federal government role both in terms of implementing new policies and jettisoning some current ones that prevent a sensible response.”

Recommendations from the project are tailored to areas including freshwater resources, infrastructure, agriculture, coastal areas, and others. Legal and policy matters are also addressed, as well as analysis on how to better utilize data, prepare for megadisasters, and manage risk. The recommendations include reforming subsidies for water use and flood insurance, investing in the collection and public provision of information on climate change (such as tipping points where climate itself could change abruptly), and creating new institutions to address cross-boundary challenges.

“Even if the U.S. had comprehensive legislation in place, there is little we can do at this point to stop climate change,” said RFF Senior Fellow Ray Kopp, director of RFF’s Center for Climate and Electricity Policy. “Adaptation has to be part of the response and this report offers some compelling ideas on how to make it work.”

For more information and to read Reforming Institutions and Managing Extremes: U.S. Policy Approaches for Adapting to a Changing Climate, visit

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Founded in 1952, Resources for the Future is an independent and nonpartisan institution devoted to research and publishing about critical issues in environmental and natural resource policy.

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