Science

Climate Change Will Strain Federal Finances


The federal government is ill-prepared to shoulder what could be a trillion-dollar fiscal crisis associated with extreme weather, floods, wildfires and other climate disasters through 2100, federal investigators have found.

In the latest of a series of reports, the Government Accountability Office says that costs of disaster assistance to taxpayers since 2005 have swelled to nearly $500 billion—and they keep getting higher.

“The federal budget, however, does not generally account for disaster assistance provided by Congress or the long-term impacts of climate change on existing federal infrastructure and programs,” GAO found in the 16-page report, which was presented as testimony to Congress by Alfredo Gómez, director of the office’s natural resources and environment team.

Moreover, the government “does not have certain information needed by policymakers to help understand the budgetary impacts of such exposure,” GAO found.

The findings follow a dramatic escalation in federal spending on disaster assistance since 2005. Much of that money—upward of $450 billion—has been appropriated under supplemental spending packages following disasters rather than through the normal budgetary process.

In 2018, Congress approved $91 billion in disaster spending to help communities recover from hurricanes, floods, wildfire and drought. The outflow of disaster dollars has continued into 2019; Congress has passed bills authorizing an additional $19.1 billion, according to federal figures.

The growing frequency and intensity of disasters is being felt in every region of the country and across a broad cross-section of the economy, from energy and real estate to farming and fisheries.

The report includes 21 examples of climate change’s economic impacts, most of which will place additional strain on federal resources. They include infrastructure damage in coastal zones from sea-level rise and storm surges, increased heat-related mortality in the Southeast and Midwest, changes in water supply and demand in the West, and decreased agricultural yields in the southern Plains and Southwest.

GAO also identified two types of potential benefits from climate change: fewer deaths from cold weather in the Upper Midwest and improved agricultural yields in the northern Great Plains and parts of the Northwest, mainly associated with longer growing seasons.

Financial exposure to climate disasters will be felt hardest in three pots of government spending: disaster response, flood and crop insurance, and operation and management of federally owned property and public lands.

Investigators noted that the National Flood Insurance Program, for example, owes the U.S. Treasury $21 billion associated with massive payouts to flood victims dating back to 2005.

Similarly, the Congressional Budget Office estimated in May 2019 that federal crop insurance would cost the government an average of about $8 billion annually from 2019 through 2029 due to worsening floods, droughts and other climate stressors.

Federal properties, like Tyndall Air Force Base on the Florida Panhandle, are also facing increased financial exposure from hurricanes and other extreme weather events, GAO said. Hurricane Michael virtually destroyed Tyndall in 2018, and its reconstruction is estimated to cost more than $4 billion (Climatewire, July 3).

Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst and expert on climate adaptation and resilience at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said GAO’s findings are consistent with previous warnings from financial experts that the costs of climate disasters are far exceeding the government’s ability to pay.

Federal agencies “are still treating these disasters as random events. We just throw a bunch of money at them after the fact and assume they won’t happen again. The problem is we’re having these types of disasters every year now,” Moore said.

Spending hundreds of billions of dollars in disaster-specific supplemental relief cannot continue, he added.

“We need to both start accounting for the growing need to respond to disasters within the regular appropriations process,” Moore said. “More importantly, we need to start making investments that reduce our exposure and vulnerability to these types of damages.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.


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