Report: federal government not prepared for climate change, risks billions

Parker Bunch Contributor
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The federal government is not prepared for the billions of dollars in damage potentially caused by climate change and must take immediate counteractive measures, said a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Thursday.

The report was part of a biennial briefing of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the largest potential threats to the federal government. The entities on the list were determined to threaten either national security, public health, national defense, economic growth or citizens’ rights. Climate change was added to the list as “high-risk area” in 2013.

“The federal government is not well positioned to address the fiscal exposure presented by climate change,” said Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, who presented the report.

“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,” said Dodaro, citing a U.S. Global Change Research Program study in the report.

These worsening weather patterns include rising sea levels, more frequent and dramatic floods and droughts, as well as more powerful hurricanes.

“We’ve always had hurricanes and other severe weather events,” said Mark Gaffigan, Director of National Resources and Environment for GAO, who contributed to the report. “We’re just saying we’re going to be seeing more of them, and they’re going to be more intense.”

Rising sea levels could threaten cities and communities on the coast, while droughts and floods could threaten cities and agriculture farther inland.

“You can’t pick [just] one area and say its particularly vulnerable,” Gaffigan said.

Additionally, the GAO report found that the federal insurance policies of the National Flood Insurance Program and Federal Crop Insurance Corporation were based on “conditions, priorities, and approaches that were established decades ago and do not account for climate change.”

These antiquated federal insurance policies lag behind the private insurance sector, which appears much more up to date with contemporary risks.

“Private insurance agencies are ahead of the game in terms of climate change and potential risk,” Gaffigan said.

The federal government is also responsible for dispensing disaster aid to damaged communities, such as the $60.4 billion requested for the Superstorm Sandy relief efforts. This disaster aid is not allotted according to a budget, Gaffigan said, which puts the federal government at financial risk.

An investigation led by GAO in May 2011 found that “no coherent strategic government-wide approach to climate change funding” had been established, and that “federal officials [did] not have a shared understanding of strategic government-wide priorities.”

In the report Thursday, GAO called on the Executive Office of the President to establish a broad, “government-wide strategic approach” that would “[encompass] the entire range of related federal activities and [address] all key elements of strategic planning.”

Gaffigan said it would be fiscally prudent to invest in improving infrastructure now, rather than waiting to rebuild after a natural disaster.

“We need to think about it up front, how things are evolving in terms of threats to various infrastructures,” Gaffigan said. “If we can be a bit smarter in terms of how we can prepare … they’ll be paid off in some good investments that will survive well into the future.”