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    U.S. Accountants Finally Realized Climate Change Is a “High Risk” to the Government's Fiscal Health

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    There are a number of plausible scenarios that may have led the Government Accountability Office to finally recognize that global climate change poses a “high” level of risk to the nation’s fiscal health, after having failed to do so until 2013.

    Perhaps the unusually strong frankenstorm Sandy smashed into the East Coast, costing the government $50 billion to clean up, and something clicked— this must be what all those scientists and economists mean when they talk about the future costs of climate change, the bureaucrats thought, frantically reshuffling their papers under fluorescent lights.

    Perhaps it was upon viewing the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual State of the Coast report, which may have reminded them that 52% of the country’s population lives in low-lying coastal areas, and that 9% more will live in them by the end of the decade. That’s a lot of people, a governmental accountant, perhaps the one with the floral print tie may have considered. Sea levels are rising, after all, and those storms seem to impact those coastal areas above all—I imagine it’d be expensive to account for something that threatens the federally-maintained transportation networks, federally-subsidized electrical grid, and the federally-insured homes million people rely upon.

    And then there’s all that drought, wildfire, and flood stuff too. Shit. Well, in it goes; into the big books.

    In this case, the big book is the 275 page “High-Risk Series” report (pdf), which, as Philip Bump notes, is compiled to address “the main economic risks the government faces.” Now, in 2013, nearly a quarter of a century after the NASA scientist James Hansen first testified before Congress that climate change was a serious threat, it is finally being added to the list of “high risks” to the government’s fiscal health. Yes, Uncle Sam’s pencil pushers have finally decided that it might be time to start planning for this thing, here.

    From the report:

    Limiting the Federal Government’s Fiscal Exposure by Better Managing Climate Change Risks. Climate change creates significant financial risks for the federal government, which owns extensive infrastructure, such as defense installations; insures property through the National Flood Insurance Program; and provides emergency aid in response to natural disasters. 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.

    You think? The report also notes that weather satellites used to forecast such disasters aren’t well enough funded, which also creates a “high risk” to the government’s fiscal integrity.

    Obviously, climate scientists, economists, and activists have been making the case for years that global warming will bear massive, very tangible costs in the not-so-distant future, and that it would be exponentially cheaper to work to mitigate the problem now than to pay up later.

    Perhaps now that the GAO has awoken to the first part of this reality, it might look into the second tenet as well—perhaps it should realize that the most economically responsible way to “limit the fiscal exposure” of climate risks to the government is to stop subsidizing fossil fuels, to stop promoting oil and gas extraction, and to promote more pointedly the increased use of clean power and energy efficiency. Then we’d have a sound strategy for protecting the government—and the people it serves—from the immense costs of climate change.