Beveridge & Diamond

GAO Advocates for Increased Attention on Adapting to the Effects of Climate Change

Beveridge & Diamond, P.C., August 13, 2013

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO), the federal government’s non-partisan internal auditor, has jumped into the climate change fray, arguing that the federal government must improve how it is addressing the effects of climate change, in addition to and irrespective of any actions taken to prevent or reverse it.  In two reports issued earlier this year, the GAO describes shortcomings in federal efforts to address the “significant financial risks” from climate change and recommends both macro and micro level changes to address these risks.

The first of the two reports is the biennial update to GAO’s list of federal programs and operations at “high risk” for waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement or needing broad-based transformation (High Risk List).[1]  The High Risk List was originally compiled in 1990 and is released at the start of each new Congress to help in setting oversight agendas.  An issue is added to the High Risk List if it meets the following four criteria:

  • the issue is of national significance;
  • it is key to government performance and accountability;
  • the associated risk involves public health or safety, service delivery, national security, national defense, economic growth, or privacy or citizens’ rights; and
  • the issue could result in significant impaired service, program failure, injury or loss of life, or significantly reduced economy, efficiency, or effectiveness.

The 2013 High Risk List adds climate change to the list of now 30 issues that meet these “high risk” criteria.[2]  According to the GAO, the federal government allocates greater sums of money each year to climate change adaptation activities, but it is “not well organized to address the fiscal exposure presented by climate change, partly because of the inherently complicated, crosscutting nature of the issue.”  In particular, the GAO is concerned that the federal government is exposed to “significant financial risks” from climate change: (1) as a property owner of extensive infrastructure; (2) as an insurer through the National Flood Insurance Program; (3) as an investor in infrastructure projects that state and local governments prioritize and supervise; and (4) as a provider of emergency aid in response to natural disasters.

In determining the scope of its policy recommendations, the GAO considered whether to focus on responses to prevent or reverse climate change or responses to adapt to the effects of climate change.  In choosing to focus on adaptation strategies, GAO cites research from the National Research Council (NRC) and the United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) concluding that greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere will irrevocably alter the climate system for many decades.[3]  The resulting policy recommendations advocate for key entities within the Executive Office of the President, including the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, in consultation with federal, state, and local stakeholders, to develop “a government-wide strategic approach with strong leadership and the authority to manage climate change risks that encompasses the entire range of related federal activities and addresses all key elements of strategic planning.”  The GAO anticipates that this centralized approach will increase efficiencies in these efforts and take advantage of economies of scale.  Private entities that operate in the infrastructure sector, and in related industries, should monitor the executive and legislative responses to these broad-based recommendations.

The second report centers on one of the areas of concern from the climate change addition to the High Risk List -- the federal government’s role in supporting state and local governments in their efforts to strengthen infrastructure vulnerable to the effects of climate change.[4]  In it, the GAO examines (1) the impacts of climate change on infrastructure; (2) the extent to which climate change is incorporated into infrastructure planning; (3) factors that enabled some decision makers to implement adaptive measures; and (4) federal efforts to address local adaptation needs, as well as potential opportunities for improvement.  Similar to the recommendations made in the climate change portion of the High Risk List, GAO advocates for a centralized system of information and data, as well as streamlined access to that data for local infrastructure decision makers, as one of the primary means to increasing and improving climate-related adaptions in infrastructure planning.  Of the specific projects that GAO studied in order to prepare the report, those that had easy access to climate data and expertise to help interpret that data were more likely to incorporate adaptions to address the effects of climate change into their plans.

Furthermore, the GAO specifically recommends that CEQ finalize its 2010 guidance on how federal agencies should consider the effects of climate change in their evaluations of proposed federal actions under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  Until the guidance is final, it is “unclear how, if at all, agencies are to consistently consider climate change in the NEPA process, creating the potential for inconsistent consideration of the effects of climate change in the NEPA process across the federal government.”[5]  Therefore, entities involved in projects that fall under NEPA’s purview should monitor CEQ’s activities on this issue and consider submitting comments on any resulting guidance or regulation.

For more information, contact David Friedland at, (202) 789-6047, or Geoff Goode at, (202) 789-6031.

[1] GAO, High-Risk Series: An Update, Report No. GAO-13-283 (Feb. 2013)

[2] Id. at 61-76 (“Limiting the Federal Government's Fiscal Exposure by Better Managing Climate Change Risks”).

[3] Id. at 63 (“[L]imiting the federal government’s fiscal exposure to climate change risks will present a challenge no matter the outcome of domestic and international efforts to reduce emissions”).

[4] GAO, Climate Change: Future Federal Adaptation Efforts Could Better Support Local Infrastructure Decision Makers, Report No. GAO-13-242 (Apr. 2013).

[5] Id. at 87.