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GAO Report: U.S. Government Has Regressed on Managing Climate Change Risks

200th RED HORSE and 179th Airlift Wing Airmen aid in Hurricane Michael Recovery Efforts

Ohio Air National Guard’s 200th RED HORSE Squadron and 179th Airlift Wing at Tyndall Air Force Base after Hurricane Michael (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Capt. Ashley Klase)

On March 6 the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a new risk report titled “High-Risk Series: Substantial Efforts Needed to Achieve Greater Progress on High-Risk Areas.” The last such report was issued in 2017. While the study covers a number of high-risk issues, its findings on how the U.S. government is managing climate change risks are important to note. According to the report (page 45):

“In the 2 years since our last High-Risk Report, three areas—NASA Acquisition Management, Transforming EPA’s Process for Assessing and Controlling Toxic Chemicals, and Limiting the Federal Government’s Fiscal Exposure By Better Managing Climate Change Risks have regressed in their ratings against our criteria for removal from the HighRisk List. (emphasis added)

In elaborating on this worrying assessment, the GAO report notes a range of growing risks, vulnerabilities and regressive actions that have contributed to their conclusion, with many references to the 2018 National Climate Assessment (NCA4). We include the passage in full below (from pages 49-50):

Numerous studies have concluded that climate change poses risks to many environmental and economic systems and creates a significant fiscal risk to the federal government. The rising number of natural disasters and increasing reliance on the federal government for assistance is a key source of federal fiscal exposure. As of December 2018, total federal funding for disaster assistance since 2005 is approaching half a trillion dollars (about $430 billion), most recently for catastrophic hurricanes, flooding, wildfires, and other losses in 2017 and 2018. The costliness of disasters is projected to increase as extreme weather events become more frequent and intense due to climate change. There are five areas where government-wide action is needed to reduce federal fiscal exposure, including, but not limited to, the federal government’s role as (1) the insurer of property and crops; (2) the provider of disaster aid; (3) the owner or operator of infrastructure; (4) the leader of a strategic plan that coordinates federal efforts and informs state, local, and private-sector action; and (5) the provider of data and technical assistance to decision makers.

Neither global efforts to mitigate climate change causes nor regional adaptation efforts currently approach the scales needed to avoid substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health over the coming decades, according to the November 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment. Government-wide action is needed to improve the nation’s resilience to natural hazards and reduce federal fiscal exposure to climate change impacts.

Congress continues to show its commitment to progress on this high-risk issue by enacting legislation such as the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018, which among other things required DOD to report on climate impacts to its installations. However, the federal government has not made measurable progress since 2017 to reduce its fiscal exposure to climate change, and in some cases, has revoked prior policies designed to do so. Specifically, since 2017, the ratings for four criteria remain unchanged—three at partially met and one at not met. The rating for one criterion—monitoring—regressed to not met. Limiting the federal government’s fiscal exposure to climate change requires significant attention because the federal government has revoked prior policies that had partially addressed this high-risk area and has not implemented several of our recommendations that could help reduce federal fiscal exposure. For example, since our 2017 high-risk update, the federal government:

• revoked Executive Order 13690, which had established a governmentwide federal flood risk management standard to improve the resilience of communities and federal assets against the impacts of flooding. This action could increase federal fiscal exposure, as taxpayer-funded projects may not last as long as intended because they are not required
to account for future changes in climate-related risk.

• rescinded its guidance directing agencies to consider climate change in their National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 reviews for certain types of federal projects.

• has not implemented our July 2015 recommendation to establish a comprehensive investment strategy identifying, prioritizing, and implementing federal disaster resilience investments that could reduce federal fiscal exposure to climate change.

• has not implemented our November 2015 recommendations to create a national climate information system providing authoritative, accessible information useful for state, local, and private-sector decision making. We have made 62 recommendations related to this high-risk area, 12 of which were made since our February 2017 high-risk update. As of December 2018, 25 remain open. The federal government needs a cohesive strategic approach with strong leadership and the authority to manage climate change risks across the entire range of federal activities. See appendix II for additional detail on this high-risk area, including actions that need to be taken.

Additional details on vulnerabilities and recommendations are on pages 110-122.

As the security risks of climate change continue to grow, significant leadership will be required to both reduce the scale and scope of those risks, and to adapt to the unavoidable ones. This report makes a strong case that the U.S. is moving backwards in that effort, despite the regular warnings coming from the defense, intelligence and science agencies of our government, and the broader national security community. That will need to be remedied sooner rather than later.

Read the full report here.


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