Democratic News

Nov 18 2015

Cantwell and Collins Request Study of the Costs and Risks of Inaction on Climate Change

Bipartisan Letter Calls for Analysis by GAO

Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), requested from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) a comprehensive study of the costs and risks that climate change poses to the federal government. The senators also asked GAO to evaluate which federal policy action could have the largest influence in mitigating the effects of climate change and resulting federal liabilities.  

Communities in the United States are already feeling the effects of rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns. Drought, wildfires, low snowpack, fish die-offs and prolonged periods of high temperatures have ravaged the West this year, costing the federal government $3 billion in wildfire suppression costs and projected to result in billions of dollars of crop losses.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program reported in its National Climate Assessment that postponing action to prepare for and mitigate the effects of climate change will result in greater costs to taxpayers in the long run. In fact, a delay that results in warming of 3o Celsius above pre-industrial levels could increase economic damages by approximately $150 billion a year. Net mitigation costs are similarly projected to increase by approximately 40 percent for each decade of delay in achieving climate targets.

In their letter, Sens. Cantwell and Collins request that the GAO report back on the following questions:

• What is known about how estimates of economic benefits and costs of climate change in the United States are developed?

• What is known about the estimated range of economic benefits and costs of climate change in the United States (a) at present and (b) in the near future assuming no change in federal policy?

• Based on these estimates, what federal policy actions could have the largest influence in offsetting federal costs associated with climate change?

Read the full letter below:

November 23, 2015

Mr. Gene L. Dodaro
United States Comptroller
Government Accountability Office
441 G Street, NW
Washington, DC 20548


Dear Comptroller General:

We are writing to request that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conduct a comprehensive study on the costs and risks to the U.S. government from climate change and evaluate policy actions that may be taken by the federal government to address such costs and risks.  

According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s National Climate Assessment, postponing action to prepare for and mitigate negative impacts associated with climate change will result in greater costs to the federal government and tax payers in the long-run. A delay in addressing climate change is anticipated to result in further climate warming, either resulting in more stringent and costly mitigation actions to achieve climate targets or greater adaptation costs if targets are not achieved. A delay that results in warming of 3? C above preindustrial levels, instead of the already-projected 2? C, could increase economic damages by approximately $150 billion a year.  Net mitigation costs are similarly projected to increase by approximately 40 percent for each decade of delay in achieving climate targets.[1] As noted by the National Research Council’s Panel on Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change, mobilizing now to increase the Nation’s adaptive capacity is an insurance policy against climate change risks. Understanding the risks and costs associated with climate change over time and the implications of policy actions to reduce those risks and costs is essential to planning for and evaluating near-term federal investments and policy decisions.  

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, July 2015 was the hottest July on record, dating back to 1880.[2] Rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns are already impacting the economy of the United States across key sectors, including energy, agriculture, water supply, transportation and infrastructure, human health and community resilience, national security, and the environment. Fishing dependent communities in the United States are already seeing the disastrous impacts that ocean acidification can have on their businesses. The most recent Quadrennial Defense Review points to climate change as an important security “threat multiplier,” stating that “natural hazards, pandemics, and the trends associated with climate change continue to present a major area of homeland security risk.”[3]   

In the summer of 2015, communities across the Western United States experienced record-breaking impacts from climate-related change, including drought, wildfires, low snowpack, fish die-offs, and prolonged periods of high temperatures. As of November 1, more than 8 million acres of land burned in wildfires in 2015 – an area larger than the size of Maryland. This year has been one of only four years since 1960 to see more than nine million acres burn. The other years topping the nine million acre mark are also recent:  2006, 2007, and 2012. The federal government will have spent around $3 billion in fiscal year 2015 to suppress wildfires, with costs that are projected to grow. Billions of dollars in crop losses and other agricultural impacts from drought are also projected across the West, with significant fiscal implications for the federal government as it assists states, communities, and various sectors in responding to such events.  

Numerous studies indicate that the costs of climate change are already significant and will become even more so in the coming decades. In testimony submitted to the Senate Budget Committee last year, the GAO concluded that: (1) the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events – prolonged heat, heavy downpours, flooding, and droughts – is increasing; (2) extreme weather events have cost the nation tens of billions of dollars in damages over the past decade; and (3) the federal budget does not generally account for disaster assistance or the long-term impacts of climate change on federal infrastructure and programs.[4] For these reasons, in 2013 the GAO added the need to limit the federal government’s fiscal exposure from climate change impacts to its list of 30 most significant risks facing the federal government.  

We note that the GAO has authored several reports about climate change and climate-related natural disasters pertaining to infrastructure, federal funding, and fiscal risk exposure. To further assist in understanding the risks and costs to the federal government associated with climate change, we request that the GAO examine:

(1) What is known about how estimates of economic benefits and costs of climate change in the United States are developed?

(2) What is known about the estimated range of economic benefits and costs of climate change in the United States (a) at present and (b) in the near future assuming no change in federal policy?  

(3) Based on these estimates, what federal policy actions could have the largest influence in offsetting federal costs associated with climate change?   
    
Thank you for your consideration of this request.  

Sincerely,

Sen. Maria Cantwell
U.S. Senator, Washington

Sen. Susan Collins
U.S. Senator, Maine

[1] The Cost of Delaying Action to Stem Climate Change, July 2014, Council of Economic Advisors of the Executive Office of the President of the United States. http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/the_cost_of_delaying_action_to_stem_climate_change.pdf
[2] http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/201507  
[3] http://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/qhsr/2014-QHSR.pdf  
[4] Testimony provided by Mr. Alfredo Gomez, GAO Director of Natural Resources and Environment, before the Senate Budget Committee on July 29, 2014.
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