GAO says we'll pay a high price for lack of climate preparedness

The thoughtful and wonky gang over at the Government Accountability Office quietly released a major study this week that makes climate change a little more concrete regarding our nation’s infrastructure. According to the GAO, federal agencies are doing a poor job assisting state and local governments with infrastructure decisions in the face of climate change.

When it comes to building roads and maintaining our water treatment services, our nation needs to acknowledge and proactively manage the risks that a rapidly warming climate poses to our critical and aging infrastructure. As just one example, the GAO report describes a Louisiana highway that serves as the only access to a port servicing 18% of the nation's oil supply. Within 15 years, this single road is likely to flood roughly 30 times a year due to climate impacts, effectively closing this port of national significance with every flood. That’s simply one road in one state, so imagine the implications when multiplied by 50 states. Our inaction on climate change and lack of preparedness will have a very big and very real financial cost for the entire country.

Taxpayers are already paying a high price for climate change

The GAO study underscores the costs we’ll pay if we don’t change our ways on climate preparedness, but we are paying a stiff price right now for climate-related disasters. A report released by NRDC this week shows that U.S. taxpayers paid nearly $100 billion in response to extreme weather damages in 2012. If you're a U.S. taxpayer, you contributed about $1,100 to that total amount. This past March, GAO analysts added climate change to the annual list of high-risk areas in need of federal attention, citing the government's "fiscal exposure" to risks of climate change impacts.

Taxpayers pay costs of climate-related disasters

The NRDC report and both GAO reports cite multiple federal agencies as examples of creating climate-related fiscal liabilities, but let’s focus on the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) since its mission is highly related to climate preparedness (or the lack thereof).

In describing the fiscal exposure of climate change, the GAO references the dozens of recent billion-dollar weather disasters, highlighting that FEMA is currently $20 billion in debt to the Treasury Department. While FEMA is very visible for emergency response aid and flood insurance payments, the Agency's disaster prevention spending is less well-known. The GAO did not address FEMA’s failure to incorporate climate change into disaster reduction programs, even though much of this funding is used to reduce infrastructure vulnerability to natural hazards.

FEMA and other government agencies must move faster on climate change

In the last two decades, FEMA has distributed nearly $8.5 billion in hazard mitigation grants to state governments. Unfortunately, FEMA does not require states to incorporate climate change into disaster prevention planning, and provides no guidance on addressing climate change. This means states are failing to account for the increased risks of storms, droughts, and flooding attributable to climate change. For example, Florida receives FEMA grants to implement a hazard mitigation plan that does not recognize projected increases in hurricane intensity due to climate change.

In October, NRDC filed a petition with FEMA to require states to address climate change in disaster prevention planning before awarding hazard mitigation grants. FEMA recently identified some actions to address climate change resilience in the Department of Homeland Security’s draft adaptation plan, but the Agency has been slow to respond to the NRDC petition. Although FEMA and other federal entities might perceive climate change as a faraway problem, we’re already feeling the impacts here in our backyard. Nearly half of the U.S. experienced climate extremes last year. The reports released this week by GAO and NRDC show that climate change is occurring faster than our government is responding, to the detriment of taxpayers. It’s time for the government, especially FEMA, to prepare for climate change impacts and minimize taxpayer costs while protecting public health and safety.

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