Thursday, February 14, 2013

GAO Adds Climate Change To "High-Risk" Government Operations

Feb 14: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has added climate change to its list of government operations that it identifies as high risk. In a new report -- GAO's 2013 High-Risk Series An Update -- and testimony before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, House of Representatives,  GAO indicates that, "Climate change creates significant financial risks for the federal government, which owns extensive infrastructure, such as defense installations; insures property through the National Flood Insurance Program; and provides emergency aid in response to natural disasters. The federal government is not well positioned to address the fiscal exposure presented by climate change, and needs a government wide strategic approach with strong leadership to manage related risks." GAO indicates further:

"Climate change poses risks to many environmental and economic systems -- including agriculture, infrastructure, ecosystems, and human health -- and presents a significant financial risk to the Federal government. The United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) has observed that the impacts and costliness of weather disasters will increase in significance as what are considered 'rare' events become more common and intense due to climate change [See WIMS 1/14/13]. Among other impacts, climate change could threaten coastal areas with rising sea levels, alter agricultural productivity, and increase the intensity and frequency of severe weather events such as floods, drought, and hurricanes.

"Weather-related events have cost the nation tens of billions of dollars in damages over the past decade. For example, in 2012, the administration requested $60.4 billion for Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts. These impacts pose significant financial risks for the federal government, which owns extensive infrastructure, insures property through federal flood and crop insurance programs, provides technical assistance to state and local governments, and provides emergency aid in response to natural disasters. However, the federal government is not well positioned to address this fiscal exposure, partly because of the complex, cross-cutting nature of the issue. Given these challenges and the nation's precarious fiscal condition, we have added limiting the federal government's fiscal exposure to climate change to our 2013 list of high-risk areas.

"Climate change adaptation -- defined as adjustments to natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climate change -- is a risk-management strategy to help protect vulnerable sectors and communities that might be affected by changes in the climate. For example, adaptation measures may include raising river or coastal dikes to protect infrastructure from sea level rise, building higher bridges, and increasing the capacity of storm water systems. Policymakers increasingly view climate change adaptation as a risk-management strategy to protect vulnerable sectors and communities that might be affected by changes in the climate, but, as we reported in 2009, the federal government's emerging adaptation activities were carried out in an ad hoc manner and were not well coordinated across federal agencies, let alone with state and local governments.

"The federal government has a number of efforts underway to decrease domestic greenhouse gas emissions, but decreasing global emissions depends in large part on cooperative international efforts. Further, according to the National Research Council [See WIMS 1/9/12] and USGCRP, greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere will continue altering the climate system for many decades. As such, the impacts of climate change can be expected to increase fiscal exposure for the federal government in many areas."

    GAO concludes that the increasing fiscal exposure for the Federal government calls for more comprehensive and systematic strategic planning including, but not limited to, the following:

  • A government-wide strategic approach with strong leadership and the authority to manage climate change risks that encompasses the entire range of related federal activities and addresses all key elements of strategic planning.
  • More information to understand and manage Federal insurance programs' long-term exposure to climate change and analyze the potential impacts of an increase in the frequency or severity of weather-related events on their operations.
  • A government-wide approach for providing: (1) the best available climate-related data for making decisions at the state and local level; and (2) assistance for translating available climate-related data into information that officials need to make decisions.
  • Potential gaps in satellite data need to be effectively addressed.
  • Improved criteria for assessing a jurisdiction's capability to respond and recover from a disaster without federal assistance, and to better apply lessons from past experience when developing disaster cost estimates.
    Representative Elijah Cummings, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent a letter to Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) requesting that the Committee hold a series of hearings in light of what he called "the historic announcement that the nonpartisan experts at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for the first time have added climate change to their High Risk Report warning about the most pressing challenges facing the nation and the federal government."
    Representative Cummings said, "GAO's landmark decision to list climate change in its High Risk Report is a critical wake-up call for Congress and the country. Although some may continue to disregard the science, this report warns that climate change is real, it is here now, and the economic consequences to our nation will be catastrophic if Congress ignores it any longer. It is my hope that Chairman Issa agrees to convene oversight hearings to examine GAO's findings and recommendations."
    Chairman Issa issued a brief statement saying, "The GAO's latest High Risk List includes seventeen items that have been on the list more than a decade, and six that have been on the list since it began in 1990. The inability of government to effectively address ongoing concerns about health care and insurance programs that have become fixtures on the high risk list, as well as new additions like our government's ability to prepare for and respond to future weather events and concerns about the solvency of the Federal Housing Agency, are all reminders that taxpayers deserve better from their government."
    Access the GAO testimony (click here). Access the complete GAO 275-page report which includes much more on the climate change risk (click here). Access a short video on GAO climate change risks (click here). Access more information from GAO on better managing climate change risks (click here). Access a video of the GAO testimony at the Oversight Committee hearing (click here). Access a release from Rep. Cummings with a link to his letter to Rep. Issa and his opening statement at the hearing (click here). Access the statement from Rep. Issa (click here). [#Climate]
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