Senator Whitehouse: Climate Change On GAO High Risk List

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse: "Mr. President, it is time for Congress to wake up to its duties, and to get to work."

In his weekly Time to Wake Up speech, Sheldon speaks about climate change making the Government Accountability Office's (GAO) High Risk List for the first time this year.

"According to GAO, and I’ll quote again, “The nation’s vulnerability can be reduced by limiting the magnitude of climate change through actions to limit greenhouse gas emissions. . . . While implementing adaptive measures may be costly, [GAO continues] 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.”'

"Mr. President, Congress has been asleep long enough. We have a tradition in this body of taking the accounting of GAO, our non-partisan watchdog, seriously, and of taking GAO’s High Risk List seriously. GAO now joins our defense and intelligence communities, our scientific research communities, and our state and local governments, and major sectors of private industry, who have all elevated climate change from their “to-do” list to their “must-do” list. Mr. President, it is time for Congress to wake up to its duties, and to get to work."

Full transcript of Senator Whitehouse's remarks below the fold.

I’m here, actually, MR PRESIDENT, to once again urge Congress that we really have got to wake up to the growing threat of climate change. The alarm bells are ringing. The signs are all around us. Yet we continue to sleepwalk through history, ignoring the warnings from the scientific community, from economists and business leaders—even from our military—of long-term shifts in the climate of our planet.

Another alarm has now sounded—this time by the Government Accountability Office, the taxpayers’ watchdog. For the first time ever, the threat to the federal government of climate change has been included on Government Accountability Office’s High Risk List.

Every two years, at the start of a new Congress, GAO, the Government Accountability Office, provides the House and Senate with a list of program areas that are high risk. GAO is the government’s nonpartisan auditor, and the High Risk List is its catalog of threats to the integrity and performance of the Federal Government. I quote: “Solutions to high-risk problems,” says GAO, “offer the potential to save billions of dollars, improve service to the public, and strengthen the performance and accountability of the U.S. government.”

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa has called the High Risk List, I quote “the most important report published.” And as we face the indiscriminate spending cuts of the multi-billion-dollar sequester, Chairman Issa pointed out that, and I quote again, “the list represents tremendous opportunities to save those billions of dollars,” it’s enough, actually, to prevent the sequester that we’re careening towards twice over.

Only 55 issues have been elevated to the High Risk List since it first began in 1990. The current list comprises 30 big-ticket problems, such as improving defense program management, protecting the nation’s cyber infrastructure, and modernizing federal health programs. When a problem reaches GAO’s High Risk List, it shouldn’t matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican: these issues must be among the top priorities of Congress—and of the nation.

Add now to this list of serious national problems the destabilizing fiscal risk posed by climate change.

The Federal Government and our military—and by definition, the American taxpayer—own and operate hundreds of thousands of buildings and extensive infrastructure in every state, including utilities, flood control and navigation systems, power plants and distribution networks, and irrigation systems, not to mention the usual roads and bridges. The Federal Government also manages about 650 million acres of land for grazing, for timber, for conservation, and for recreation. That is nearly 30 percent of the total area of the United States and climate change is affecting virtually all of it.

The overwhelming majority of climate scientists tell us that the air and oceans are warming, that sea level is rising, and that we are changing the chemistry of our oceans. These changes, some of them unprecedented in human history, increase the risk of extreme weather like heat waves, floods, droughts, and storms. As GAO points out, federal assets in every corner of the country are at risk.

Storms crashing into the Southeast, wildfires burning throughout the West, and floods inundating the Northeast are not just local problems. Droughts draining aquifers in the Midwest; warm temperatures melting permafrost in Alaska; and rising, warming, more acidic oceans eroding our national coastline and threatening life in our seas—these are not just local problems. Climate change is a high-risk threat to our shared national well-being, our shared national wealth, and our shared national heritage. The GAO High Risk List sounds yet another alarm that we are fools to ignore.

For instance, GAO found that neither the National Flood Insurance Program nor the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation is prepared to deal with climate change. Between 1980 and 2005, the flood insurance program’s exposure quadrupled to nearly $1 trillion, the crop insurance program increased 26-fold to $44 billion. Yet GAO reports these programs have not even developed, and I quote, the “information needed to understand their long-term exposure to climate change and . . . not yet analyzed the potential impacts of an increase in the frequency or severity of weather-related events.” Now, major private insurance companies like Allianz, Swiss Re, Munich Re, and Lloyds of London have for years been developing strategies to address climate change. But our federal insurance programs don’t even have the basic information to address these risks.

Understanding and preparing for these risks is essential to protect our communities from catastrophic loss. According to NOAA, the value of flood insurance coverage in my home state of Rhode Island was $2.2 billion in 2011. The Ocean State has received $57 million in payouts since 1978, some of which helped Rhode Islanders recover from the record floods of 2010, brought on by extremely heavy rainfall. Folks who have flood coverage through the National Flood Insurance Program should know that heavy rainfall has increased in the Northeast by 74 percent since the 1950s, and scientists predict that warmer air will continue to increase the frequency of heavy rainfall, and consequent flooding in the Northeast.

Disaster aid is expensive. FEMA has obligated more than $80 billion in federal disaster aid between 2004 and 2011. Another $50.5 billion in emergency aid was just approved for the Northeastern communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy. PSE&G, New Jersey’s largest utility, plans to spend $4 billion over 10 years to make its electric and gas systems more resilient to these severe storms. New Jersey’s second largest utility, JDP&L, announced it intends to spend $200M to do the same. According to Jeanne Fox, who’s a commissioner on the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, and I quote, “This is a cost of climate change, pure and simple.”

Mr. President, it is really time to wake up. In the private sector, the insurance and utility industries are facing the threat. Congress must now act responsibly. House Oversight Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings asked GAO Comptroller General Gene Dodaro if it was, and I quote, “GAO’s opinion that regardless of the outcome of global negotiations to reduce carbon emissions, the United States government should take immediate action to mitigate the risk posed by the climate change.” Comptroller General Dodaro responded with a simple and unequivocal “yes.”

In the High Risk List, GAO states that despite any possible future reduction of emissions, and I’ll quote, “greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere will continue altering the climate system for many decades.” That’s the way the laws of physics and chemistry work. Damage with lasting consequences is already done. But many effects of climate change can be mitigated, and it is the responsibility of this Congress to help our nation prepare and adapt.

Some federal efforts are underway. In 2003, the U.S. Department of Transportation initiated a study of climate risks to Gulf Coast transportation, and it’s now cooperating in that study with the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission. The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service are developing a drought vulnerability model, a carbon storage map, and an alpine monitoring program to help land managers in southwestern Colorado cope with the effects of a changing climate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have a Climate-Ready States and Cities Initiative to help local health departments prepare for changes in health risks driven by climate change. EPA partnered with New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection to develop a software tool that helps drinking water and wastewater utility operators understand how climate change poses risks to their facilities.

Rhode Island, I’m proud to say, is one of many states that have formed a Climate Change Commission. The Commission is coordinating with federal officials to identify specific state and local challenges that are presented by our climate change. Twenty other states have similar climate action plans developed or underway.

Despite the actions by states, the actions in the private sector, and the warnings in the GAO High Risk List, special interest politics in Congress prevent the Federal Government from using our resources effectively and efficiently against this threat.

The polluting special interests have Washington gripped in a barricade of obstruction, and the effect truly is disgraceful. Consider, for example, NOAA’s proposal to create a National Climate Service, akin to its renowned National Weather Service. This was a no-cost restructuring that would have centralized NOAA’s work on understanding the climate, including its observations of climate change. The National Climate Service would have helped meet the growing local demand for climate change science information. But this proposal was blocked by Republicans over in the House, who simply don’t want to hear about climate change. That kind of thinking will not get climate change off the High Risk List.

According to GAO, and I’ll quote again, “The nation’s vulnerability can be reduced by limiting the magnitude of climate change through actions to limit greenhouse gas emissions. . . . While implementing adaptive measures may be costly, [GAO continues] 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.”

Mr. President, Congress has been asleep long enough. We have a tradition in this body of taking the accounting of GAO, our non-partisan watchdog, seriously, and of taking GAO’s High Risk List seriously. GAO now joins our defense and intelligence communities, our scientific research communities, and our state and local governments, and major sectors of private industry, who have all elevated climate change from their “to-do” list to their “must-do” list. Mr. President, it is time for Congress to wake up to its duties, and to get to work.

I yield the floor.

About Diane Sweet

Diane Sweet's picture
Senior Editor, Lives in a gerrymandered district in Michigan.

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