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GAO: Climate change poses big financial risk to US government

Mike Groll / AP file

In this aerial photo, people walk amid the destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, on Oct. 31 in Seaside Heights, N.J.

The federal government is facing significant financial risks related to extreme weather events, and states and cities can no longer depend on it for extra help after such events occur, the Republican chairman of House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said Friday.

The warning from Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., came at a press conference about the release of a new report by the Government Accountability Office, which identified “climate change” on its 2013 list of items presenting high risk to the federal government.

The report said the federal government faces financial challenges from climate change, including the costs of weather-related damage to property it owns, losses through flood insurance and crop support programs, and costs of emergency aid in disasters.

“These events are primarily the responsibilities of the cities and states,” Issa said at the news conference. “And I will point out that we can no longer assume that the federal government will come in with an emergency supplemental [funding] every time there is an [extreme weather] occurrence. We have a responsibility to be proactive: Proactive in asking the states and the cities to be prepared to meet more of these requirements.  Proactive in making sure that we withhold the funds, either through insurance funds or through actual appropriations, that are appropriate for the real anticipated events.”

The GAO noted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is on the hook for more than $80 billion in aid for disasters declared during the 2004-2011 fiscal years -- and the White House asked for more than $60 billion in aid to help the East Coast recover from Hurricane Sandy.

Read the GAO report in PDF form

And yet, the report says, the government has not been coordinating a response to climate change among its agencies --- partly a problem of the complexity of the issue. The report advises that a strategic plan be developed, directed at common goals for all federal agencies.

The report is a biennial assessment of government operations it deems at high risk for fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement or as otherwise "needing broad-based transformation." Some of its other recommendations:

  • Develop a better understanding of how a changing climate will affect the large federal flood and crop insurance programs. For instance, the report said, sea-level rise and long-term erosion should be considered when flood maps are updated.
  • Develop a federal approach to providing climate data to state and local governments so they can make better decisions.
  • Develop better criteria for FEMA to assess a jurisdiction's ability to recover on its own after a disaster.

In a related issue, the report also says looming gaps in coverage by polar-orbiting weather satellites could affect forecasts and "warnings of extreme events."

The satellites provide a global perspective each morning and afternoon. The report said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has acknowledged there could be a gap of 17 to 53 months between the time the current afternoon satellite fails and the time a new one can be launched to replace it. 

The report also noted that the risk of a gap exists in coverage by the satellite in the morning orbit -- if the Department of Defense's next satellites don't work as intended.

The report said NOAA officials believe these gaps "would result in less accurate and timely weather forecasts and warnings of extreme events, such as hurricanes, storm surges and floods."

After the report’s release, members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a news conference at which both Democrats and Republicans acknowledged the government’s significant fiscal exposure as a result of weather related disasters.

Issa called it a “nonpartisan” issue, while ranking Democrat Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., labeled the GAO report “a wake-up call” for Congress to start paying attention to impacts of climate change.

In total, the GAO report listed 30 federal programs and operations on its high-risk list. Climate change risk and the weather satellite gap were both new additions. Management of interagency contracting and IRS business systems modernization both were removed from the list because the GAO decided that sufficient progress had been made to address past vulnerabilities.

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