Climate Change: Enhancing Federal Resilience

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To reduce federal fiscal exposure to climate change, the federal government needs a cohesive, strategic approach, with strong leadership and the authority to manage risks.

The Big Picture

Between fiscal years 2015 and 2021, selected appropriations for disaster assistance totaled $315 billion. Disaster costs are projected to increase as certain extreme weather events like drought or extreme rainfall become more frequent and intense because of climate change, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Limiting the Federal Government’s Fiscal Exposure by Better Managing Climate Change Risks has been on GAO’s High Risk List since 2013. This list identifies government operations that, among other things, need transformation to address effectiveness challenges. Managing climate change is on the list in part because of concerns about the increasing costs of disaster response and recovery efforts.

We identified five areas in which government-wide action is needed to reduce federal fiscal exposure to climate change. These areas include the federal government’s roles as:

  1. insurer of property and crops,
  2. provider of disaster aid,
  3. owner or operator of infrastructure,
  4. leader of a strategic plan to coordinate federal efforts, and
  5. provider of data and technical assistance to decision makers.

Federal fiscal exposure to climate change can be limited by enhancing climate resilience—that is, taking actions to reduce potential future losses by planning and preparing for potential climate hazards.

What GAO’s Work Shows

Congress and federal agencies can enhance climate resilience by pursuing opportunities related to the three guiding principles of GAO’s Disaster Resilience Framework—information, integration, and incentives.

Fig01_3
GAO’s Disaster Resilience Framework Principles

GAO has made numerous recommendations related to these principles. The examples highlighted below have not been addressed as of September 2022.

1. Information

Congress and federal agencies can help decision makers access climate information that is authoritative and understandable to identify current and future risks and the impact of risk-reduction strategies. A government-wide approach is needed to provide decision makers with the best available climate-related information.

We recommended:

The federal government also needs a comprehensive approach to improve the resilience of the facilities it owns and operates and the land it manages.

We recommended:

2. Integration

Congress and federal agencies can help decision makers integrate analysis and planning to take coordinated action to enhance climate resilience.

We recommended:

  • Developing a strategic plan—with clear priorities, roles, and responsibilities—to guide the nation’s efforts to adapt to climate change
  • Using information on potential economic effects from climate change to help identify significant climate risks and to craft appropriate federal responses

In some instances, congressional action is necessary to enable the federal government to invest in projects to enhance climate resilience and help communities prepare for climate change.

We also suggested that Congress consider:

Fig02_3
Federal infrastructure projects, like this system in New Orleans, help protect against coastal storms and flooding

3. Incentives

Congress and federal agencies can enhance federal climate resilience by making long-term, forward-looking risk-reduction investments more viable and attractive among competing priorities.

We suggested that Congress consider:

Challenges and Opportunities

The federal government faces increasing fiscal exposure from climate change, in part because of the complicated crosscutting nature of the issue. GAO’s work shows that opportunities exist for the federal government to develop an approach to manage climate change risks by building resilience into every federal program. In this regard, Congress has taken some actions, like creating programs for water, wastewater, transportation, and electric grid infrastructure resilience projects, in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

More from GAO’s Portfolio

For more information, contact J. Alfredo Gomez at (202) 512-3841 or GomezJ@gao.gov.

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