Climate-change risk management and weather satellites make GAO’s 2013 High-Risk List. Part 1. Climate-change.

With all the kerfluffle about sequestration, the Hagel and Kerry nominations, and the pope stepping down, maybe you missed this.

Every two years, at the start of each new Congress, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) publishes a High-Risk List, a compilation of “agencies and program areas that are high risk due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or are most in need of transformation.” The current list contains about thirty entries, covering issues ranging from modernizing the U.S. financial regulatory system (anyone recall the financial sector meltdown of 2008?) to funding the nation’s surface transportation system (did you pass any orange cones or Jersey barriers on your way to work this morning?) to revamping food safety (tired of having your peanut butter recalled…or not knowing what fish is really in that sushi?).

This year, two new entries have made the GAO list: (1) limiting the federal government’s fiscal exposure by better managing climate change risks, and (2) mitigating gaps in weather satellite data. The reports are well written and worth reading in their entirety, and they provide brief videos and a generous amount of background material. This and a companion post on Living on the Real World provide extended excerpts. First up:

Better management of climate change risks.

Why it’s high risk. Climate change is a complex, crosscutting issue that poses risks to many environmental and economic systems—including agriculture, infrastructure, ecosystems, and human health—and presents a significant financial risk to the federal government. Among other impacts, climate change could threaten coastal areas with rising sea levels, alter agricultural productivity, and increase the intensity and frequency of severe weather events. As observed by the United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), the impacts and costliness of weather disasters—resulting from floods, drought, and other events such as tropical cyclones—will increase in significance as what are considered “rare” events become more common and intense due to climate change. In addition, less acute changes in the climate, such as sea level rise, could also result in significant long-term impacts. According to the National Research Council (NRC)—the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering—although the exact details cannot be predicted with certainty, there is a clear scientific understanding that climate change poses serious risks to human society and many of the physical and ecological systems upon which society depends, with the specific impacts of concern, and the relative likelihood of those impacts, varying significantly from place to place and over time.

These impacts will result in increased fiscal exposure for the federal government in many areas, including, but not limited to its role as (1) the owner or operator of extensive infrastructure such as defense facilities and federal property vulnerable to climate impacts, (2) the insurer of property and crops vulnerable to climate impacts, (3) the provider of data and technical assistance to state and local governments responsible for managing the impacts of climate change on their activities, and (4) the provider of aid in response to disasters. For example, disaster declarations have increased over recent decades, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has obligated over $80 billion in federal assistance for disasters declared during fiscal years 2004 through 2011. In addition, on December 7, 2012, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) within the Executive Office of the President requested $60.4 billion in federal resources for Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts to “build a more resilient Nation prepared to face both current and future challenges, including a changing climate.” To prepare adequately in the event of such a disaster, federal agencies need to work with state and local governments and volunteer agencies to produce and evaluate information so that they can fully assess risk and make appropriate response and recovery decisions.”

This section of the GAO report goes on to discuss tools available for climate change in risk management, including mitigation (reduction of CO2 emissions) and adaptation.

What GAO found.The federal government is not well organized to address the fiscal exposure presented by climate change, partly because of the inherently complicated, crosscutting nature of the issue. GAO reported in 2009 that while policymakers increasingly viewed climate change adaptation as a risk-management strategy to protect vulnerable sectors and communities that might be affected by changes in the climate, the federal government’s emerging adaptation activities were carried out in an ad hoc manner and were not well coordinated across federal agencies, let alone with state and local governments. Subsequently, GAO’s 2011 report on climate change funding found no coherent strategic government-wide approach to climate change.

The federal government would be better positioned to respond to the risks posed by climate change if federal efforts were more coordinated and directed toward common goals. With regards to providing climate-related information, NRC observed that no single government agency or centralized unit could perform all the required functions, and that coordination of agency roles and regional activities is a necessity. In 2009, GAO recommended that the appropriate entities within the Executive Office of the President, such as the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), in consultation with relevant federal agencies, state and local governments, and key congressional committees of jurisdiction, develop a strategic plan to guide the nation’s efforts to adapt to climate change, including the establishment of clear roles, responsibilities, and working relationships among federal, state, and local governments. In written comments, CEQ generally agreed with the recommendations of the report, noting that leadership and coordination is necessary within the federal government to ensure an effective and appropriate adaptation response and that such coordination would help to catalyze regional, state, and local activities. Some actions have subsequently been taken to improve federal adaptation efforts—including the development of an interagency climate change adaptation task force. However, a 2012 NRC report describes the task force as having largely been confined to convening representatives of relevant agencies and programs for dialogue, without mechanisms for making or enforcing important decisions and priorities.

GAO’s May 2011 report on climate change funding also found that federal officials do not have a shared understanding of strategic government-wide priorities…”

This section of the report went on to discuss the need for more specific planning and action with respect to management of federally-owned properties, federal flood- and crop insurance programs, technical assistance to state and local governments, and federal disaster aid.

What remains to be done. “The federal government needs a strategic approach with strong leadership and the authority to manage climate change risks that encompasses the entire range of related federal activities and addresses all key elements of strategic planning. Such an approach includes the establishment of strategic priorities and the development of roles, responsibilities, and working relationships among federal, state, and local entities. Recognizing that each department and agency operates under its own authorities and responsibilities—and can therefore be expected to address climate change in different ways relevant to its own mission—existing federal efforts have encouraged a decentralized approach, with federal agencies incorporating climate-related information into their planning, operations, policies, and programs. While individual agency actions are necessary, a centralized strategy driven by a government-wide plan is also needed to reduce the federal fiscal exposure to climate change, maximize investments, achieve efficiencies, and better position the government for success. Even then, such approaches will not be fully sufficient unless also coordinated with decisions at the state and local levels that drive much of the federal government’s fiscal exposure. The challenge is to develop a cohesive approach at the federal level that also informs action at the state and local levels.”

This section of the report concludes with a reiteration of specific areas needing more attention, including federal flood and crop insurance programs, technical assistance to state and local governments, and disaster aid…but also adds the need to address potential gaps in weather satellite data. [The GAO considered this latter concern to be sufficiently urgent and far-reaching as to merit its separate emphasis.]

The report is sobering. Climate-change risk management is big a big task: complex, shrouded in uncertainty, and consequential. The clock is ticking. Government at all levels can’t reorganize to meet this challenge. Instead, all the individuals involved must find ways to work together, and develop a strategic view. That view need not be unified… diversity of perspective and goals and approach is not merely desirable here but essential. But the arena does need to be civil and allow all the players, and the nation, to move forward.

There is a positive side. With all the dramatic optics and choreographed drama attendant on the sequestration, it’s easy to forget that the Congress really is a deliberative body… and tackling, simultaneously, a broad range of issues. This GAO discussion of managing climate change risk…and the similar treatment of the other issues under Congressional scrutiny… suggest that the members of Congress are really functioning as leaders rather than mere managers. They may not be doing things right (too much invective and hoopla), but like true leaders, they are focused on the right things.

All in all, especially for those in the federal agencies laboring on these problems, and for their state-and-local and private-sector counterparts… and, for that matter, the American public… rather heartening.

The GAO conclusions with respect to weather satellites will be considered in a companion post.

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2 Responses to Climate-change risk management and weather satellites make GAO’s 2013 High-Risk List. Part 1. Climate-change.

  1. Bill:-

    As a grandfather, I fear that the staggering debt our generation is “bequeathing” our grandchildren is a much bigger problem than the relatively minor impacts of 2.7% budget cuts. So I disagree with you and call out, “Cry Havoc, and let loose the budgetary hounds [or hawks]!” Where we agree, however, is that sequestration is a meat ax; our budget needs to be dissected with a scalpel. The President is right to call for [re-]investment in ourselves; but wrong to call for more taxes (he just got a big injection in January) by themselves.

    It’s time for politicians on all sides to level with the American people – we are on an unsustainable course, we are going to have to make cuts, we are going to have to make hard choices. The House has twice passed its ideas on to the Senate in the form of bills that embody tough choices. The Senate has failed to come forward with its own plan. The excuse we hear is, “The Republicans in the House will never agree.” How do we know? From down here in SC, it looks to me as if the House has twice voted to put its hand on the tiller to steer a safer course; the Senate has failed to extend its hand – in fact, has not had the courage even to identify a safer course.

    At its most basic, sequestration isn’t wrong because of its cuts, but because of its cowardice.

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