The threat of significant losses to the federal budget due to climate change topped the GAO's 2013 list of government programs it considers to be at "high-risk" of resulting in financial losses or waste, fraud or abuse.
"Climate change," wrote the GAO in its 2013 High Risk Series Update, "creates significant financial risks for the federal government, which owns extensive infrastructure, such as defense installations; insures property through the National Flood Insurance Program; and provides emergency aid in response to natural disasters."
According to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), federal funding for climate change-related activities increased from $4.6 billion in 2003 to $8.8 billion in 2010. In addition, OMB reported $26.1 billion for climate change programs and activities provided in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and $7.23 billion in tax expenditures in 2010 related to climate change, which are federal income tax provisions that grant preferential tax treatment to encourage emissions reductions by, for example, providing tax incentives to promote the use of renewable energy.
More Often and More Severe
The GAO based the climate change assumptions in its report on the United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), which concluded that once "rare" events like floods, droughts, tornadoes and hurricanes will become more common and more severe due to climate change. Even more subtle effects of climate change, such as slowly rising sea levels, could result in significant long-term financial impacts, according to the USGCRP.
Uncertain, Unpredictable, yet Unavoidable
GAO also cited research from the National Research Council (NRC) showing that while the exact effects of climate change remain uncertain and unpredictable, "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."
Both the NRC and the USGCRP agree that limiting greenhouse gas emissions is the key to reducing the effects of climate change due to global warming.
However, says the GAO, even if U.S. and international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions begin to work, limiting the federal government's financial exposure to climate change risks will continue to be a challenge, in part because greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere will continue altering the climate system for many decades.
Government is 'Terribly Exposed'
In explaining why climate change rated a spot on his agency's list of high risk issues, Gene L. Dodaro, comptroller general and director of the GAO stated, "The federal government is terribly exposed to this change."
While it maintains vast areas of publicly-owned land, is responsible to millions of flood and crop insurance policyholders and spend billions of dollars in natural disaster response and recovery aid every year, the federal government still lacks any coordinated system for dealing with the financial costs of climate change and global warming, stated the GAO.
Going all the way to the top, the GAO reported that even President Obama's Climate Change Adaptation Task Force "has no mechanisms for making or enforcing important decisions and priorities."
"The government needs a much more strategic and centralized approach," concluded Comptroller Dodaro.
Faulty Weather Forecasts, Too?
And just when we are apparently going to need them the most, forecasts and warnings of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, storm surges, and floods may become less accurate and timely, according to the GAO.
The weather forecasting ability of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was added to the GAO's 2013 high-risk programs list due to potential gaps in weather satellite data beginning as early as 2014 and lasting from 17 to 53 months, or over 4 years.
The weather data gaps result from the delay between the time the current polar environmental satellite reaches the end of its functional lifespan and when the first satellite in NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program is ready for operational use.
In addition, noted the GAO, the final two satellites in the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program may not work as intended. The satellites, which provide early morning data, were built in the late 1990s and due to their age, may not work reliably when finally launched.