The federal government must invest in resilience and make governmentwide plans to manage climate change risks in order to prevent billions of dollars in future disaster aid costs, according to a report released by the Government Accountability Office June 11.
The government has spent $450 billion in disaster aid since 2005, and vulnerability to climate change will further impact federal disaster aid, federal flood and crop insurance programs and federal property and land – posing a huge hit to the federal budget.
The problem, however, is that the government does not have important “information needed by policymakers to help understand the budgetary impacts” of climate change necessary for them to anticipate changes and make informed spending decisions, said the report.
The government “had no comprehensive strategic approach for identifying, prioritizing, and implementing investments for disaster resilience,” according to the report, and the lack of strategic governmentwide planning is “partly because of the inherently complicated and crosscutting nature of the issue.”
For example, “the federal budget does not generally account for disaster assistance by Congress or long-term impacts of climate change on existing federal infrastructure and programs.”
Also, the federal crop and flood insurance programs “were not designed to generate sufficient funds to fully cover all losses and expenses,” and the programs need budget authority from Congress to operate. As of April, the National Flood Insurance Program is $21 billion in debt.
The federal government also owns and operates hundreds of thousands of facilities and millions of acres of land that could be affected by climate change. Just last year, two military installations — Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida — were both damaged by hurricanes, which cost billions of dollars in repairs.
The federal government does include some “individual agency efforts that could help build resilience within existing programs or projects,” according to the report. For example, “the U.S. military integrates climate risks into its analysis, plans and programs, with particular attention paid to climate effects on force readiness, military bases, and training ranges.”
Also, “elevating homes and strengthened building codes in Texas and Florida prevented greater damages during the 2017 hurricane season.”
Congress also passed the Disaster Recovery Reform Act in 2018, “which could improve state and local resilience to disasters.” However, “it is too early to tell what impact the implementation [DRRA] will have on state and local resilience.”
According to the report, the government must develop a strategic and cohesive plan to “manage risks across the entire range of related federal activities.”
As of December 2018, 25 of GAO’s 62 recommendations to reduce federal fiscal risk remain open. Recommendations included providing policymakers with the best possible information and providing “best-available forward-looking climate information to organizations that develop design standards and building codes to enhance infrastructure resilience.”
The House Budget Committee held a hearing the same day the report was released where they discussed the risk of climate change on federal finances and the U.S. economy.
“Climate change is an environmental issue. It’s a public health issue. It’s a national security issue. And, as we’ll talk about today, it’s increasingly an economic and fiscal issue,” Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said in his opening statement.
“The only people who fail to understand the seriousness of climate change are the Trump administration and some of our Republican colleagues,” Yarmuth said. “If they are not moved by environmental, health and security consequences, I hope the economic costs and the impact on the federal budget will get their attention — because we cannot afford to wait for them to catch up.”
“The effects of climate change have already and will continue to pose risks that can create fiscal exposure across the federal government and this exposure will continue to increase,” J. Alfredo Gómez, a director in GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment team, said in his testimony.
Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, criticized the Democrats for not passing a budget and asked Chairman Yarmuth “how can we have a discussion serious discussion about climate change on this committee without addressing the primary plank of the platform that you and your colleagues have offered — the Green New Deal — to resolve climate change?”
Yarmuth noted that “there are 11 committees that have jurisdiction over [Green New Deal] legislation and we’re not one of them” and that the Green New Deal does not have the support of a majority of Democrats.