Watch out for the Watch Dog: Climate Threat to the Federal Government.

Earlier this week the Government Accountability Office (GAO) added Climate Change to its “High Risk” list. The agency biennially updates its list of programs and operations at “high” risk for waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement or needing broad-based transformations.

The agency noted:

Climate change poses significant financial risks to 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. GAO added this area because 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.

The GAO acknowledged that policymakers see climate adaptations measures as a risk management strategy to protect people and businesses, “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 GAO is the federal government’s non-partisan watchdog agency, and its investigations are taken very seriously. Thus it was sobering to read in the GAO release this week that:

In May 2011, we found no coherent strategic government-wide approach to climate change funding and that federal officials do not have a shared understanding of strategic government-wide priorities  At that time, we recommended that the appropriate entities within the Executive Office of the President clearly establish federal strategic climate change priorities, including the roles and responsibilities of the key federal entities, taking into consideration the full range of climate-related activities within the federal government. The relevant federal entities have not directly addressed this recommendation.

So what does the GAO say is at stake here?

The federal government as property owner/manager-- The federal government manages about 650 million acres–29 percent of the 2.27 billion acres of U.S. land– for a wide variety of purposes, such as recreation, grazing, timber, and fish and wildlife.

Agriculture and housing-- The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation don’t factor climate change into their planning and decision making. GAO in its release this week noted that they had warned as far back as 2007 these two massive insurance programs were at much greater financial risk due to climate impacts like increased extreme weather events, and that the agencies responsible for them had done next to nothing to better understand these risks. Those agencies have said little about their increased financial exposure since then.

Increased risk to states and localities—They don’t have enough local data on things like temperature and precipitation projections to justify spending money to prepare for a changed future, the GAO reported in 2009. The GAO called on the White House to develop plans to help states and towns get this much needed data. Very little of that data is currently available.

Appropriate Disaster Response—Disaster relief money comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but Congress woefully underfunds the agency’s relief budget, leaving the government with vast financial exposure. To wit, the GAO reported in September of 2012 that disaster declarations have increased to a record of 98 in fiscal year 2011 compared with 65 in 2004. Over that period, FEMA obligated more than $80 billion in federal assistance for disasters. FEMA currently does not require states to consider climate change in the emergency management plans they must file to be eligible for federal funding. NRDC has petitioned FEMA to change that, and we are still waiting for a response.

Dangerous Disorganization—In 2009 GAO recommended the White House produce a over-arching climate adaptation plan, “including the establishment of clear roles, responsibilities, and working relationships among federal, state, and local governments.” Yet in 2011 the watchdog agency found “no coherent strategic government-wide approach to climate change funding and that federal officials do not have a shared understanding of strategic government-wide priorities.” Not much has changed since then.

So what does GAO recommend the feds do to limit the financial exposure of the government to climate impacts? More of the same, but some items are worth repeating:

  • 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.
  • 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.

We’ll see what happens.

There is some good news coming from some parts of the government, though. On Tuesday President Obama in his State of the Union speech said:

I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago


But if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct -- (applause) -- I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take now and in the future to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

That means the Environmental Protection Agency continuing to protect the air we breathe and the environment we live in by limiting climate pollution from the number one single source: power plants.

As my colleague Dan Lashof recently wrote:

There are many, many actions the executive branch can take in the near term to help fight global warming. The most important of them is limiting pollution from the nation’s existing fossil-fuel power plants. They’re responsible for almost 40 percent of our country’s carbon pollution. And an NRDC proposal released in December shows how, using its existing authority under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency can cut power plant carbon dioxide emissions by 26 percent by 2020 and 34 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels.

Let’s hope we see some action soon. The risks are very clear.


Thanks to Kelly Henderson for her assistance in preparing this blog entry.

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