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GAO adds climate change, weather satellite delays to high-risk list

Feb. 14, 2013 - 10:26AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
Above, New York City firefighters look Nov. 7 at several boats washed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in front of homes on the shoreline of the Great Kills community on Staten Island, New York.  As scientists predict that climate change will lead to more frequent and more destructive natural disasters, the government “is not well positioned to address this fiscal exposure, partly because of the complex, cross-cutting nature of the issue,” GAO said in its latest biennial list of federal programs that are at high risk of waste, fraud, abuse and financial loss.
Above, New York City firefighters look Nov. 7 at several boats washed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in front of homes on the shoreline of the Great Kills community on Staten Island, New York. As scientists predict that climate change will lead to more frequent and more destructive natural disasters, the government “is not well positioned to address this fiscal exposure, partly because of the complex, cross-cutting nature of the issue,” GAO said in its latest biennial list of federal programs that are at high risk of waste, fraud, abuse and financial loss. (Paul J. Richards / AFP)

The federal government is facing significant financial risks posed by climate change and expected gaps in weather satellite data, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The government owns large amounts of property, runs flood and crop insurance programs with millions of policyholders, and regularly pours vast sums of money into emergency aid. But while scientists predict that climate change will lead to more frequent and more destructive natural disasters, the government “is not well positioned to address this fiscal exposure, partly because of the complex, cross-cutting nature of the issue,” GAO said in its latest biennial list of federal programs that are at high risk of waste, fraud, abuse and financial loss.

GAO’s so-called high-risk list, released Thursday, is issued at the start of each new Congress and now features 30 problem areas, most of which have been on the list for many years.

The White House has created a governmentwide task force on climate change adaptation, but “it has no mechanisms for making or enforcing important decisions and priorities,’’ the GAO said.

Weather satellite data gaps are expected because of delays and cost overruns in launching the next generation of polar satellites. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting a gap of up to two years after existing spacecraft wear out later this decade.

In the meantime, weather forecasts will be less accurate, with shorter warning times on hurricanes, floods and storm surges. Although NOAA is looking for ways to compensate, its steps “are only the beginning,” the report said. Among other issues, NOAA managers must decide whether to look abroad to tap data from other nations’ systems, “and how best to resolve any security issues with the foreign data,” according to the report.

Other problem areas on the list include federal oversight of food safety, federal real estate management and NASA acquisition programs. Of the 30, six — including Defense Department supply chain management and Medicare — have been on the list since it began in 1990.

Two programs previously rated high risk are now off the list: the Internal Revenue Service’s business systems modernization and interagency contracting.

Eighteen years after GAO first deemed the IRS modernization effort to be at high risk because of serious management and technical weaknesses, the tax agency made significant headway in fixing the problems and is committed to keeping it up in the future, the report said.

Interagency contracting had been on the list since 2005, in part because of the potential for avoiding competition and other abuses. In opting to remove it, GAO cited better management by the General Services Administration and stronger oversight by Congress and the Office of Management and Budget.

At his 2010 Senate confirmation hearing, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro pledged close attention to helping agencies get programs off the list.

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