If you’re planning to build a road, doesn’t it make sense to place it somewhere that won’t be washed away by rising seas within a few years? If you’re working on a water project that will impact a salmon stream, wouldn’t you want to plan for the fact that future droughts will also affect the amount and quality of water in that stream? If you’re creating a solution to protect cities and infrastructure from flooding, wouldn’t you want to make sure you plan for the floods you are likely to have in a future with more severe storms, rather than just taking cues from the past? And don’t all these considerations make even more sense for projects that are built with public funding, to make sure that they are sound long-term investments of our tax dollars?
With little fanfare, in the week before Christmas, the Obama administration released a draft policy that would bring this common sense to all these kinds of projects and more. The policy in question isn’t even a new regulation, but rather “guidance” to agencies on how to incorporate the impacts of climate change into the analysis and decisions that they make through one of our most important laws, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Under the dual realities of shrinking budgets and an increasingly unstable climate, this guidance has the potential to considerably improve how major federal decisions are made in the coming decades. But to understand the ramifications of this guidance, you need to understand NEPA.
NEPA is one of the most important environmental laws that most people have never heard of. It applies to every federal agency and any project that gets federal funding or permits. Signed into law by President Nixon on New Year’s Day in 1970, NEPA declares a national policy “to use all practical means and measures”
In a manner calculated to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.
One of the key ways that NEPA advances this policy is by instituting a sound, transparent planning approach to large-scale government decisions. Before taking an action that could have a significant effect on the environment, NEPA requires those involved to develop alternative ways to achieve the same goal, and to evaluate the environmental impacts (good and bad) that each different approach would have. For instance, if the goal is to enable commuters to travel between two cities, the alternatives might be a highway that cuts straight through a wetland, a longer highway going around it, or a new rail line. NEPA requires the agency to lay out and weigh the pros and cons of each approach.
NEPA also requires agencies to provide the public with an opportunity to review and comment on the documents describing these trade-offs. Interestingly, the law doesn’t actually require the agency to choose the alternative that is best for the environment. But by taking a hard look at all the impacts and opportunities for public involvement, NEPA seeks to improve the government’s decisions affecting the environment.
To continue to improve how we put NEPA into practice as new science is discovered, the government will periodically releases “guidance” on implementing the law. These guidelines are not binding, but they show agencies how to align NEPA with related laws (like The Clean Air Act) or other stated governmental goals, like promoting environmental justice or preserving biodiversity.
In 2010, the Obama administration released its first draft of guidance on how agencies should consider climate change. It included how to account for a project’s greenhouse gas emissions, and also how to think about the effects that climate change will have on the project, and on the affected environment. From a wildlife standpoint, the guidance was pretty weak. It stated that the new rules didn’t apply to federal natural resource agencies, like the Forest Service. Since those agencies are responsible for so much important wildlife habitat, we believe they have to take climate change into account as well.
During the ensuing years, our team at Defenders analyzed more than 150 environmental documents to see how well climate change was incorporated into agency decisions. We found that most agencies had a long way to go in accounting for the ways that climate change could worsen the environmental impacts of their proposals. And in our report, we included recommendations for how to better protect wildlife and the environment from the effects of climate change and federal actions.
Thankfully, the new guidelines released in December reflect many of our recommendations. Most importantly, it now explicitly applies to agencies in charge of our natural resources. This is a critical step toward ensuring that federal projects and investments are able to withstand the effects of climate change, and also toward knowing how much these projects contribute to the problem through greenhouse gas emissions. Given all the dramatic climate-related impacts we have already experienced – floods, storms, droughts, rising sea levels and more – it would be irresponsible for major federal taxpayer-funded projects not to take climate change into account. We know these changes are coming, and that federal agencies must adapt to them. Our communities, wildlife, ecosystems, and pocketbooks will depend on it.
Unfortunately, like many environmental laws, NEPA has come under attack in recent years with numerous bills containing provisions that would gut the Act. Some provisions would put limits on how much officials need to look at the environmental impacts of different alternatives to a project. Others would keep the public from being able to comment on the projects, or keep groups like Defenders from taking agencies to court when they do a bad job at their analysis. And just last week, Senator Deb Fischer (R- NE) submitted an amendment on the Keystone XL pipeline legislation that would prohibit federal agencies from considering greenhouse gas emissions that their major projects would lead to – a direct attack on the administration’s new NEPA and climate change guidance.
These attacks on NEPA are reckless and short-sighted. It makes sense for government to make decisions with as much relevant information as possible, to be transparent in how they make decisions, to look at alternative approaches to achieve their goals, and to allow me or you to have a voice in their decisions. Spurred by anti-environmental zealots, I fear common sense and good public policy will be in short supply in the halls of Congress in the coming year.
Noah Matson, Vice President of Landscape Conservation & Climate Adaptation
Aimee Delach, Senior Climate Adaptation Policy Analyst