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Whittier Fire

This look at Whittier Fire was captured the evening of July 13, 2017, taken from Cathedral Oaks Rd. in Goleta, California. (Photo: Glenn Beltz/Flickr/cc)

Chiding Trump for Inaction, GAO Report Shows Climate to Cost US Taxpayers Trillions

Federal watchdog's report serves as indictment of Trump administration's climate change denialism and pro-industry agenda

Jessica Corbett

Climate change impacts are already costing the federal government billions, and these costs are expected to increase, according to a new report released Tuesday by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

While this may not be news to scientists and environmentalists, the federal watchdog's report serves as an indictment of the Trump administration's slow and limited response to the looming threats from climate change, with the expressed goal of helping government guide efforts to improve its response and save money by limiting future damage.

"Over the last decade, extreme weather and fire events have cost the federal government over $350 billion"—excluding recent hurricanes and wildfires—and "these costs will likely rise as the climate changes," the GAO report (pdf) notes, citing data from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

"Our past work and the work of others have reported that climate change impacts and their economic effects have already cost the federal government money and pose future risks that could lead to increased federal fiscal exposure," the report continues, outlining conclusions from past publications prompted partly by the government spending billions of dollars on disaster relief.

In an apparent challenge to President Donald Trump's well documented climate change denialism and his administration's willingness to cater to demands from industries that are largely responsible for U.S. emissions, the summary of past reports is followed by a clear reprimand for current lack of planning coupled with a call to action:

Even with the magnitude of these disaster recovery costs, the federal government does not have government-wide strategic planning efforts in place to help set clear priorities for managing significant climate risks before they become federal fiscal exposures. The federal government has not undertaken strategic, government-wide planning to manage climate risks, using the best available information, including information on the potential economic effects of climate change, to identify and assess significant risks....

The appropriate entities within the Executive Office of the President, including the Council on Environmental Quality, Office and Management and Budget, and Office of Science and Technology Policy, should use information on the potential economic effects of climate change to help identify significant climate risks facing the federal government and craft appropriate federal responses.

Among the report's most notable findings is that "the economic effects of climate change across U.S. sectors suggested that potential economic effects could be significant and unevenly distributed across sectors and regions."

Agency researchers mapped examples of potential costs by the beginning of the next century, highlighting threats posed by increased coastal infrastructure damage and wildfires, topics that have gained national attention recently as communities in California and along Texas' Gulf Coast—home to multiple refineries and chemical plants—attempt to recover from fatal fires and unprecedented flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey.

Examples of Potential Economic Effects of Climate Change by 2100

The report also points to a November 2016 assessment by OMB and the Council of Economic Advisers that estimated recurring costs from climate change "could increase by $12 billion to $35 billion per year by mid-century, and by $34 billion to $112 billion per year by late-century, the equivalent of $9 billion to $28 billion per year in today's economy."

For the report, researchers interviewed more than two dozen experts and reviewed 30 government and academic studies that analyzed and predicted impacts of climate change on various scales. The research was conducted at the request of Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has legislative jurisdiction over national energy policy and public lands.

"My colleagues no longer have to take it from me," Cantwell said in a statement, "the Government Accountability Office tells us climate change will cost taxpayers more than a half a trillion dollars this decade, and trillions more in the future unless we mitigate the impacts."

"The chief bean counter," Cantwell told the New York Times, "is basically telling us that this is costing us a lot of money.... We need to understand that as stewards of the taxpayer that climate is a fiscal issue, and the fact that it's having this big a fiscal impact on our federal budget needs to be dealt with."

Trevor Houser, a partner at the Rhodium Group, which led the American Climate Prospectus study, told the Times the GAO's estimated costs were perhaps too conservative, and echoed the report's call to action.

"Climate change is clear and present danger to the U.S. economy and the fiscal health of the U.S. government, and that risk is really unevenly spread," Houser said. "It needs to be actively managed by the federal government."

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