Audit, Compliance and Risk Blog

Government Accountability Office Encourages Federal Consideration of Climate Change Costs

Posted by Jon Elliott on Tue, Nov 14, 2017

As I’ve discussed in recent blogs, President Trump’s executive agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are dramatically reducing federal attention to “climate change.” Obama-era initiatives are being terminated or reversed, and planning and communication are being reduced or eliminated. (For example, I noted in my recent discussion of EPA’s draft Strategic Plan, here, that the draft does not mention the phrases “climate change” or “greenhouse gas” even once).

In contrast, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just published a major report recommending federal efforts to evaluate and respond to climate changes. GAO is an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress. It’s frequently assigned by legislation to act as a “watchdog" over federal programs and priorities, and also responds to formal requests from individual Representatives and Senators – typically committee chairs – to investigate related matters. It maintains enough autonomy and public respect that it can sidestep political impasses to collect and evaluate information.

What Is This Report About?

The Republican chair and Democratic ranking minority member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee asked GAO to review the potential economic effects of climate change and risks to the federal government. GAO divided its efforts to examine:

  1. “Methods used to estimate the potential economic effects of climate change in the United States.

  2. What is known about these effects.

  3. The extent to which information about these effects could inform efforts to manage climate risks across the federal government.”

GAO searched for nationwide studies and found 2 national studies and 28 other studies with more limited scopes; interviewed experts (agency officials, researchers, and consultants) “knowledgeable” about the methodological strengths and weaknesses of these studies; compared federal efforts to manage climate risks with leading practices for risk management and economic analysis; and obtained expert views.

GAO Identified Estimates of High Costs From Climate Change

GAO interpreted these studies to suggest that potential economic effects from climate change could be “significant and unevenly distributed across sectors and regions.” GAO has identified a number of areas in which the federal government faces fiscal exposure from climate change risks, including its roles as:

  1. The owner and operator of extensive infrastructure and federal property vulnerable to climate impacts.

  2. The insurer of property and crops vulnerable to climate impacts.

  3. The provider of aid in response to disasters.

GAO cited President Obama’s budget proposal for fiscal year (FY) 2017 for statements that “over the last decade, the federal government has incurred direct costs of more than $350 billion because of extreme weather and fire events, including $205 billion for domestic disaster response and relief; $90 billion for crop and flood insurance; $34 billion for wildland fire management; and $28 billion for maintenance and repairs to federal facilities and federally managed lands, infrastructure, and waterways.” As another example, GAO cited one study as estimating $4-$6 billion in annual coastal property damages from sea level rise and more frequent and intense storms during 2020-2039, with the southeastern US facing the greatest risks. Another study projects annual costs to the federal government as a result of climate change could increase by $12 -$35 billion by mid-century and by $34 - $112 billion by late-century.

What Risk Assessment Efforts Does GAO Recommend?

GAO recommends that more information be developed, analyzed and synthesized, and distributed. Information about the potential economic effects of climate change could inform decision makers about the scale and distribution of significant potential damages in different U.S. sectors or regions. GAO starts with the observation that compiling and organizing information about costs incurred to date provide baseline information about the magnitude and distribution of such costs, which can create historical baselines for projections of future risks.

For example, GAO notes that for example, the approximately $50 billion appropriated for recovery from Hurricane Sandy could help decision makers understand the potential magnitude of risks to coastal areas and identify vulnerable coastal infrastructure as a source of potentially high fiscal exposure.GAO also encourages the continuing development of government-wide cooperative approaches to information development, sharing, and evaluation. GAO does not point out that the Trump administration is moving in the opposite direction, by minimizing attention to potential climate impacts.

What Is GAO’s Formal Recommendation?

GAO offers the following recommendation to the Executive Office of the President:

“The appropriate entities within the Executive Office of the President, including the Council on Environmental Quality, Office and Management and Budget, and Office of Science and Technology Policy, should use information on the potential economic effects of climate change to help identify significant climate risks facing the federal government and craft appropriate federal responses. Such responses could include establishing a strategy to identify, prioritize, and guide federal investments to enhance resilience against future disasters.”

Self-Assessment Checklist

  • Has the organization evaluated its activities to assess how climate changes would affect them?

  • Has the organization considered how it could change its activities in order to adapt to anticipated effects of climate change to reduce negative impacts?

  • Has the organization considered how it could change its activities in order to adapt to anticipated effects of climate change to enhance positive impacts?

  • Has the organization evaluated its activities to assess changes that would reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases and to reduce other contributions to climate change?

Where Do I Go For More Information?

Specialty Technical Publishers (STP) provides a variety of single-law and multi-law services, intended to facilitate clients’ understanding of and compliance with requirements. These include:

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About the Author

Jon Elliott is President of Touchstone Environmental and has been a major contributor to STP’s product range for over 25 years. He was involved in developing 13 existing products, including Environmental Compliance: A Simplified National Guide and The Complete Guide to Environmental Law.

Mr. Elliott has a diverse educational background. In addition to his Juris Doctor (University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1981), he holds a Master of Public Policy (Goldman School of Public Policy [GSPP], UC Berkeley, 1980), and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Princeton University, 1977).

Mr. Elliott is active in professional and community organizations. In addition, he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the GSPP Alumni Association, and past member of the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California's Environmental Law Section (including past chair of its Legislative Committee).

You may contact Mr. Elliott directly at:

photo credit: Traveller-Reini Washington D.C.: The dome of the United States Capitol building - 289 feet / 88 m high, 96 feet / 29 m in diameter via photopin (license)

Tags: Environmental risks, Environmental, EPA, climate change