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GAO Sets Out Opportunities to Reduce Fiscal Exposure to Climate Risks

Natural disasters in the U.S. have caused an average of almost $150 billion in damages per year over the past five years, and these costs are likely to rise as the climate changes.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has various work underway to boost climate resiliency, including identifying federal policy options to help enhance the climate resilience of Army Corps of Engineers infrastructure for flood risk management. The watchdog says there are opportunities for Congress and federal agencies to further improve climate resilience planning and response. 

GAO’s own Disaster Resilience Framework is intended to help Congress and federal agencies improve federal climate resilience planning and implementation. The framework is organized around three guiding principles: information, integration, and incentives.

Under the information principle, Congress and federal agencies can help decision makers access climate information that is authoritative and understandable. For example, in November 2015, GAO reported that the federal government needs a government-wide approach for providing decision makers with authoritative climate information. GAO recommended that the Executive Office of the President (EOP) designate a federal entity to develop and update such information and designate a federal entity to create a national climate information system. EOP has not implemented the recommendation as of March 2022.

Congress and federal agencies can also help decision makers integrate analysis and planning to take coherent and coordinated resilience actions. In March 2021, GAO reported that the Department of Energy (DOE) did not have a department-wide strategy to enhance the resilience of the electricity grid to the risks of climate change. GAO recommended that the department develop and implement such a strategy but the government watchdog said in March 2022 that this remains to be fully addressed.

Additionally, GAO believes that Congress and federal agencies could make risk-reduction investments more viable and attractive. GAO cited an example from September 2021, where it identified a suite of policy options the Federal Highway Administration could take to incentivize states and localities to enhance the climate resilience of federally funded roads. At the time, GAO suggested that Congress direct the agency to implement one or more of these options, and to give it statutory authority to do so.

“Limiting the Federal Government’s Fiscal Exposure by Better Managing Climate Change Risks” has been on GAO’s High-Risk List since 2013, in part because of the increasing costs of federal disaster response and recovery efforts. While GAO testified in March 2022 that agencies have taken some actions, including in the areas of climate resilience planning, much work remains to be done.

GAO maintains that Congressional action is necessary to enable the federal government to reduce its fiscal exposure to climate change risks through investment in climate resilience projects that help communities prepare for hazards such as sea level rise. Currently, the federal government makes ad hoc investments and does not have a strategy for prioritizing projects.

The government watchdog is calling for a federal organizational arrangement to be established, which would periodically identify and prioritize climate resilience projects for federal investment. In addition, GAO wants to see a pilot program focusing on climate migration that has leadership from a defined federal organizational arrangement. Currently no federal agency has the authority to lead federal assistance for climate migration.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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