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GAO Updates on Enhancing Federal Resilience to Climate Change

Over the years, the government watchdog has made several recommendations to help increase climate resilience in the United States. As of September 2022, some of these remain unaddressed.

Between FY 2015-2021, the United States government spent hundreds of billions of dollars on disaster assistance and such costs are projected to increase as certain extreme weather events like drought or floods become more frequent and intense due to climate change.

Indeed, just two days ago President Biden announced that federal emergency aid has been made available to the government of Puerto Rico to supplement the local government’s response efforts to the emergency conditions resulting from then Tropical Storm Fiona, now a Hurricane.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says future losses could be reduced by planning and preparing for climate hazards and that the federal government needs a cohesive, strategic approach, with strong leadership and the authority to manage risks.

GAO identified five areas in which government-wide action is needed to reduce federal fiscal exposure to climate change. These areas encompass the federal government’s roles as an insurer of property and crops, a provider of disaster aid, an owner or operator of infrastructure, a leader of a strategic plan to coordinate federal efforts, and a provider of data and technical assistance to decision makers.

Over the years, the government watchdog has made several recommendations to help increase climate resilience in the United States. As of September 2022, some of these remain unaddressed.

In December 2015, GAO recommended designating a federal entity to develop and update climate information and to create a national climate information system. The watchdog pointed out at the time that several other countries already had similar systems in place whereby the government provides direction and funding, and entities within and outside the government provide technical assistance to help decision makers understand how to use climate information in planning.

Across numerous other reports, GAO has also determined that the federal government needs a comprehensive approach to improve the resilience of the facilities it owns and operates and the land it manages. As early as 2013, GAO recommended incorporating climate resilience into agency infrastructure and facility planning. The report focused on infrastructure such as roads and bridges, and wastewater facilities that were already facing increasing risks from climate change. More recently, in February this year, GAO called for natural hazards and climate change to be incorporated into agency risk management programs. Then, the Environmental Protection Agency said that the agency plans to develop materials and products on risks from natural hazards and climate change, such as compliance assistance and guidance, and that it expects to do so in 2023.

More than ten years ago, the watchdog recommended developing a strategic plan—with clear priorities, roles, and responsibilities—to guide the nation’s efforts to adapt to climate change. It is perhaps surprising to see this 2011 recommendation listed in GAO’s September 2022 update, not least because of the raft of federal climate resilience and adaptation strategic plans that were announced in October 2021. Many of these were a direct result of President Biden’s January 28, 2021, Executive Order Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. Not all of the actions announced in these plans have been completed yet, which may explain why strategic plans remain on GAO’s unaddressed recommendations list. For example, the Department of Homeland Security said when announcing its plan in October that it would take two to four years to fully review policy and implement changes. Some changes such as replacing vehicle fleets with greener alternatives could take years.

In 2017, GAO found that information on the economic effects of climate change was “developing and imprecise”, and could convey insights into the nation’s regions and sectors that could be most affected. As an initial step in establishing government-wide priorities to manage climate risks, GAO recommended that the Executive Office of the President use information on economic effects to help identify significant climate risks and craft appropriate federal responses. At the time of the report, the Environmental Protection Agency did not provide any comment on the recommendation of the watchdog’s findings. This recommendation is included in GAO’s September 2022 update as unaddressed. 

The update also notes GAO’s previous comments to Congress. The watchdog says Congress has taken some actions, like creating programs for water, wastewater, transportation, and electric grid infrastructure resilience projects, in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. GAO has also addressed Congress regarding the potential establishment of a federal organizational arrangement to periodically identify and prioritize climate resilience projects for federal investment. In 2019, GAO said its analysis showed the federal government did not strategically identify and prioritize projects to ensure they address the nation’s most significant climate risks.

Additionally, in 2020, GAO suggested a pilot program on climate migration to identify and provide assistance to communities interested in relocation as a climate resilience strategy as a matter for Congress to consider. As of July 28, 2022, no action had been taken to establish a pilot program to identify and provide assistance to climate migration projects.

However there has been more action on climate resilience in the last two years than the United States has seen before, and GAO’s report focuses on the outstanding recommendations rather than work underway or completed, such as the creation of the National Climate Task Force, executive orders and agency planning and policy.

In March this year, a group of climate security experts monitored the Biden-Harris administration’s work on climate resilience and found progress in leadership as well as action, with still some room for improvement.

“We are deeply appreciative of the way this Administration, members of Congress in both parties, and the uniformed services have prioritized the threat that climate change poses to national security,” said Erin Sikorsky, Director of the Center for Climate and Security, who added that “it’s important to see this as more of a job well begun than a job well done.”

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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