GAO report makes case for national strategic plan to deal with climate impacts


The US needs “a national strategic plan that will guide the nation’s efforts to adapt to a changing climate,” says the Government Accountability Office, finding “a general lack of strategic coordination across agencies” in their efforts to adapt to climate change impacts, characterized as “preliminary.”  We’ve been saying this all along, recognizing the serious shortcomings of a set of laudable but disparate and disconnected attempts by various government entities to deal with the myriad cross-cutting issues associated with climate disruption in the absence of an overarching, integrating framework.  Federal agencies, states, and local communities generally lack the guidance, information, tools, resources, and opportunities for sharing lessons learned, GAO discovered, all essential for planning and preparing adequately for unprecedented weather and climate conditions.  Both the Obama White House and Congress have so far failed to make sector-wide climate change adaptation preparedness a national priority.  The time to remedy that is now. 

post by Anne Polansky


GAO ReportCLIMATE CHANGE ADAPTATION:  Strategic Federal Planning Could Help Government Officials Make More Informed Decisions (.pdf)

GAO’s e-Supplement report

• Oct 22, 2009 Congressional hearing:  Building U.S. Resilience to Global Warming Impacts

CSW Post:  Federal climate change adaptation strategy needed, say Rep. Markey, hearing witnesses, GAO report

To do the study requested by Rep. Ed Markey, GAO administered an internet-based questionnaire to a sample of 274 federal, state, and local officials identified to be knowledgeable about climate change adaptation, representing a diverse array of disciplines, including planners, scientists, and public health professionals. Social science survey specialists designed the questionnaire in collaboration with GAO; it was then vetted by several federal, state, and local organizations.  GAO also sent teams to study four geographic locations:  New York City; King County, Washington; the state of Maryland; and the United Kingdom.  These are places where adaptation planning and preparedness have been taking place at levels much greater than in most other areas. 

The study offers useful insights into the ability of government entities ranging from the largest federal agencies to small local governments to take on the task of dealing with changing climate conditions.  Those surveyed identified competing priorities, inadequate or unavailable local climate projections, and unclear roles and responsibilities as barriers to more informed and effective climate impacts adaptation programs and policies. 

The GAO concluded that the ad hoc system in place needs leadership and management from above.  We couldn’t agree more.  The adaptation provisions in both the House and Senate climate and clean energy legislation include some significant steps but lack an overall strategic approach.  The adaptation provisions in a new bill introduced by Senator Bingaman last week are good, but have the same limitation as the House-passed bill and the Senate Environment Committee bill currently under consideration: there is no focus at the federal level on sectors other than natural resources and public health.  The built environment, infrastructure, industrial sectors, and so on, also need to be part of the equation.  A more comprehensive, integrated system is needed to promote the building of greater resiliency against likely climatic disruption: more frequent and intense droughts, storms, extreme weather, heat waves, and so on. 

The GAO report notes:

Potential federal actions for addressing challenges to adaptation efforts fall into the following three areas: (1) training and education efforts could increase awareness among government officials and the public about the impacts of climate change and available adaptation strategies; (2) actions to provide and interpret site-specific information could help officials understand the impacts of climate change at a scale that would enable them to respond; and (3) Congress and federal agencies could encourage adaptation by clarifying roles and responsibilities.

The GAO report says a national strategy should, among other things:

(1) define federal priorities related to adaptation;
(2) clarify roles, responsibilities, and working relationships among federal, state, and local governments;
(3) identify mechanisms to increase the capacity of federal, state, and local agencies to incorporate information about current and potential climate change impacts into government decision making;
(4) address how resources will be made available to implement the plan; and
(5) build on and integrate ongoing federal planning efforts related to adaptation.

Whether and how the Obama administration and Congress will take this advice seriously and take appropriate action has yet to be seen.   

We commend the study and Rep. Markey for requesting it. We do think, however, that the report tends to take federal agencies too much at their word in describing their current activities and their relevance to climate change adaptation, without independent investigation of the reality of program activity behind the words.  Surely the text on the US Global Change Research Program, for example, is aspirational, rather than an accurate description of real, ongoing programmatic activity. The GAO queried more than a dozen federal agencies (see list below) on what they are doing, programmatically, on climate change adaptation and printed their reports, verbatim, in a 101-page supplement report, without cross-checking or confirming the information supplied.  More work needs to be done to develop a deeper understanding of what federal agencies and departments are actually doing to plan and prepare for climate change impacts related to the programs and resources under their purview, and to verify their self-reporting to see precisely what sort of leadership, management, policies, and activities would be most beneficial to society. 

Federal agencies queried include: 

• U.S. Department of Agriculture
• National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Dept of Commerce
• U.S. Department of Defense (including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
• U.S. Department of Energy
• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
• National Institutes of Health
• Federal Emergency Management Agency
• U.S. Department of the Interior
• U.S. Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development
• U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Transportation Policy
• U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
• National Aeronautics and Space Administration
• National Science Foundation



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