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by Anne Siders

On February 14, for the first time ever, climate change was added to the Government Accountability Office (GAO)’s “High Risk List.”  The GAO risk review is conducted every two years at the start of a new Congress and lists government operations deemed to be at high risk for fraud, waste, abuse, or mismanagement.  The latest GAO list features two new risk areas:

  • Limiting the Federal Government’s Fiscal Exposure by Better Managing Climate Change Risks; and
  • Mitigating Gaps in Weather Satellite Data


Climate Change:

The 2013 High Risk List is the first to acknowledge the threat posed to federal installations by climate change.  The GAO notes that the federal government is exposed to “significant financial risks” from climate change on several levels: (1) as a property owner of extensive infrastructure, including defense installations, (2) as an insurer through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), and (3) as a provider of emergency aid in response to natural disasters.

The GAO report is important for its explicit recognition of the costs of inaction: “While implementing adaptive measures may be costly, there is a growing recognition that the cost of inaction could be greater and—given the government’s precarious fiscal position—increasingly difficult to manage given expected budget pressures which will constrain not just future ad hoc responses but other federal programs as well.”

NFIP receives special mention for its potential to create substantial losses of taxpayer money due to the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events.  The GAO states explicitly that the NFIP is “based on conditions, priorities, and approaches that were established decades ago and are not well suited to addressing emerging issues like climate change.”  NFIP has been on GAO’s High Risk List since 2006 due to concerns about its long-term financial solvency and operations.  According to the GAO, the NFIP “program was, by design, not actuarially sound.”  It recommends that climate-related factors such as sea level rise and long-term erosion be considered when updating flood maps.

The report is critical of existing government efforts to address climate change.  It concludes that “The federal government is not well positioned to address the fiscal exposure presented by climate change, and needs a government wide strategic approach with strong leadership to manage related risks.”

In particular, the GAO notes that its previous recommendations for the federal government to address climate change, made in 2009  and 2011, have not yet been implemented, and that existing government efforts are “ad hoc” and “not well coordinated across federal agencies, let along with state and local governments.”

Watch the GAO video on climate change risk here.

Weather Satellites

A gap between the time existing U.S. polar satellites wear out and new satellites can be launched would reduce the accuracy of future weather predictions and the timeliness of storm warnings – “including warnings of extreme events such as hurricanes, storm surges, and floods.”  This gap could begin in 2014 and last as long as 53 months.  According to the GAO, “Such degradation in forecasts and warnings would place lives, property, and our nation’s critical infrastructures in danger.”

It is still possible that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) satellite acquisition programs will resolve this gap.  However, the GAO states that “ these programs have troubled legacies of cost increases, missed milestones, technical problems, and management challenges that have resulted in reduced functionality and slips to planned launch dates.”  The GAO has therefore concluded that the risk of a gap and subsequent exposure to natural disasters is a high risk scenario.

Watch the GAO video on weather satellites here.

One comment

  1. Has government failure to act to mitigate the risk of something on a GAO list ever lead to a lawsuit to recover costs for collateral damage to private property? Allowing the degradation of storm-warning weather satellites looks like it’s got just this kind of potential, assuming the sovereign immunity of the federal government can be pierced

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