Climate change could burn a hole in the government’s finances, GAO says

As climate change leads to more frequent and destructive natural disasters and threatens crop yields, bridges and other infrastructure, the federal government faces big financial risks that it is poorly positioned to address, auditors said Thursday.

These risks, along with the threat of gaps in critical weather forecasting satellites that could last years, topped a biennial list released Thursday of federal programs at high risk of waste, fraud, abuse or financial loss.

“The federal government is terribly exposed to this change,” Gene L. Dodaro, comptroller general and director of the Government Accountability Office, said in announcing why climate change made his agency’s high-risk list. “The government needs a much more strategic and centralized approach.”

The government owns vast swaths of land, runs flood and crop insurance programs with millions of policyholders and regularly pours billions of dollars into emergency aid. But it has no system to address these costs as global warming escalates them, the GAO said in a report on the high-risk list. A White House task force “has no mechanisms for making or enforcing important decisions and priorities,’’ the report said.

Gaps in accurate weather forecasts are expected because a program to launch the next generation of polar satellites has a “troubled legacy of cost overruns, missed milestones, technical problems, and management challenges,” auditors wrote. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting a gap of up to two years after existing satellites wear out, but GAO said the new ones could be delayed as long as 53 months.

In the meantime, weather forecasts will be less accurate, with shorter warning times on hurricanes, floods and storm surges, auditors said.

Although NOAA is looking for ways to compensate, its steps “are only the beginning,” the report said.

The high-risk list, released at the start of each Congress, is a to-do list for committees that oversee government operations. This year’s list of 30 problem areas includes federal oversight of food safety, management of government real estate and federal oil and gas resources, several military management systems, fraud in the Medicare and Medicaid programs, and a shortage of federal workers with crucial skills as retirements increase.

Six areas have been on the list since it was created in the 1990s, including Medicare and management of the military supply chain.

Two long-standing problems fell off this year: management of contracting among federal agencies and the Internal Revenue Service’s modernization of its business systems.

Dodaro said contracting has improved since the days when “there was no appropriate competition and interrogators in Iraq came from an information technology contractor.” The IRS, “mired in technological and management programs for years,” has made “slow, steady progress” updating taxpayer records and using industry best practices, he said.

Lawmakers in charge of government oversight said that while Americans may disagree about the science of climate change, Congress must address its financial fallout.

“Let’s assume for a moment that there is no such thing as climate change,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “If we see an escalation in these types of catastrophes, we need to be prepared because it’s going to cost [the government] money.”

Several experts said the GAO has underscored what scientists and economists already have suggested: Even developed countries will have to devote significant resources to coping with global warming’s impact.

“It really highlights the true cost of climate change on federal assets, as well on other national interests like agriculture and responding to disasters,” said Bruce Stein, the National Wildlife Federation’s director of climate change adaptation.

Under an executive order signed by President Obama, each federal agency must specify plans to address future climate impacts, and during his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Obama reiterated he would instruct agencies to take steps “to prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change.”

“It’s another sign that it’s finally sinking in that this is the new normal, that sea level, extreme weather and the impact of climate change is something that’s going to cost us both today and long into the future,” said Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center.

Still, not all agencies are responding with the same fervor. Stein noted that while the Interior Department has focused intensely on the issue, “there’s clear and present danger to Department of Defense facilities, but they have not been moving as aggressively on this as we hope to see.”

Robert Stavins, who directs the Harvard Environmental Economics Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, said that while the issue of global warming remains politically polarized, the GAO report may have an impact because “they’ve always had a reputation for sound analyses unaffected by who’s in the White House or which parties are in the majority.”

NOAA spokeswoman Ciaran Clayton said in an e-mail that the agency has done its best to keep the satellite program “on track” despite inheriting in 2009 “a failed management structure, cost overruns and schedule delays that jeopardized its mission.”

She said funding shortfalls have hampered the agency’s effort to get the program back on track.

“Our top priority is ensuring NOAA’s National Weather Service is able to maintain the accuracy and timeliness of its forecasts and warnings,” Clayton wrote.

Josh Hicks contributed to this report. Discuss this topic and other political issues in the Post’s Politics Discussion Forums.

Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.
Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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