News misreporting a big GAO report about climate change

Summary: This looks at an important new GAO climate change report, and how the news media misreport it. While a small episode, it reveals much about the problem of climate change, about journalism, and why three decades of advocacy for climate change action has produced so little action.

“We don’t even plan for the past.”
— About our unpreparedness for the inevitable repeat of past weather, by Steven Mosher (of Berkeley Earth) at Climate Etc.

Prepare Adapt Survive

Yesterday’s advocacy news

Climate change already costing U.S. billions in losses, congressional auditor says in report.

This is the Japan Times’ headline to an AP story; it was listed in Naked Capitalism’s daily links. Other news media ran similar headlines. Let’s discuss the real news first, with analysis of the AP story at the end of this post.

By now it should be obvious to all that America is poorly prepared for extreme weather. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) pitches in to warn us with their new 45-page report, “Climate Change: Information on Potential Economic Effects Could Help Guide Federal Efforts to Reduce Fiscal Exposure.” Like most of their work, this well-researched report discusses our inadequate preparations for future impacts of climate change. Three factors almost guarantees serious problems during the next few decades, unless we act.

  • The likely continuation of climate trends since the early 19th century (whatever the causes; the report does not discuss causes).
  • Continued development of US real estate in areas vulnerable to natural disasters, such as wildfires, floods, and hurricanes (for an example of an early warning about this see, “Preparing for the Past: Global Warming and Response to Hurricanes in the U.S.” by Roger Pielke Jr. in Insurance Specialist, January 1995).
  • Continued dysfunctional US public policy (e.g., a mad flood insurance program, inadequate funding of public infrastructure maintenance and construction).

Government Accountability Office Logo

The GAO’s recommendation

Their advice is just good sense. Good public policy is made using sound and adequate information. Let’s hope Congress and Team Trump authorize and adequately fund these projects — and that they implement the resulting recommendations.

“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. Such responses could include establishing a strategy to identify, prioritize, and guide federal investments to enhance resilience against future disasters.”

The GAO’s Conclusion

This opening sentence is quite modest. The GAO staff shows commendable intellectual discipline, not going beyond the evidence (something rarely seen in such reports).

“Climate change impacts are already costing the federal government money, and these costs will likely increase over time as the climate continues to change. Even though existing information on the potential economic effects of climate change, such as that from the two national-scale studies, is imprecise, it could help identify significant potential damages for federal decision makers — an initial step in the process for managing climate risks.

“Under the National Academies’ 2010 leading practices, climate change risk management efforts need to be focused on where immediate attention is needed, and by prioritizing federal climate risk management activities well, the federal government can help to minimize negative impacts and maximize opportunities associated with climate change. The 2010 National Academies report, literature we reviewed, and several experts we interviewed noted that to make informed adaptation choices, decision makers need more comprehensive information on economic effects to better understand the potential costs of climate change to society and begin to develop an understanding of the benefits and costs of different adaptation options.

“By using information on the potential economic effects of climate change to help identify significant climate risks and craft appropriate federal responses — such as establishing a strategy to guide federal investment to enhance resilience against future disasters — the federal government could take an initial step in establishing government-wide priorities to manage significant climate risks. To help prioritize and guide federal investments, such a strategy could include developing more comprehensive information on the potential benefits and costs of different adaptation options.”

Other interesting things in the report

(1)  The GAO wisely ignored the causes of climate change. They focused on the subject of the report, adapting to climate change. The only mention of “causes” I see in the text is this on page 13.

“According to literature we reviewed, another key source of uncertainty is how much global temperatures will rise in response to a change in carbon dioxide concentrations, a factor known as climate sensitivity.”

There are 7 mentions of “carbon” in the footnotes. Most are inconsequential, excerpt for footnote 11 on page 3. It shows commendable restraint, something too rarely seen in the often grandiose reports about climate change.

“The social cost of carbon (SCC), an economic metric quantifying the marginal global benefit of reducing one ton of carbon dioxide, is beyond the scope of this report.”

(2)  This report uses two major sources, “the only two such national-scale research studies.” The first is “American Climate Prospectus“, published in October 2014 by the Rhodium Group (a policy advocacy shop). The second is the EPA’s “Climate Change in the United States: Benefits of Global Action” (2015).

Relying on the first source is daft. Liberals cheer reports by their billionaires’ pet advocacy house. They will learn that conservative billionaires can play that game as well or better. America is rich enough to fund our own climate research. The EPA, the second source, is better. But the EPA is a poor fit to do research on this large a scale. The National Science Foundation would have been a better sponsor.

Hands holding the world

The bottom line

The bottom line: this looks like a well-written report about an important subject. It has flaws but is a good first cut at the problem. It is not perfect, but we should not expect too much in the public policy world (remember the ancient adage, “the perfect is the enemy of the good“).

The narrow focus makes sense when looking at public policy about adaptation. The time horizon is shorter than when analyzing how to slow anthropogenic forcing of climate change. The causes of the climate change do not matter.

About the AP story.

Climate change already costing U.S. billions in losses, congressional auditor says in report.

“A nonpartisan federal watchdog says climate change is already costing U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars each year, with those costs expected to rise as devastating storms, floods, wildfires and droughts become more frequent in the coming decades.

“A Government Accountability Office report released Monday said the federal government has spent more than $350 billion over the last decade on disaster assistance programs and losses from flood and crop insurance. That tally does not include the massive toll from this year’s three major hurricanes and wildfires, expected to be among the most costly in the nation’s history.”

There are two things wrong this this. First, we get a skillfully done use of the “all extreme weather is climate change” trope. Casual readers will assume the $350B refers to the headline’s “billions in losses from climate change.” It does not. The New York Times ran the AP story with a similar headline and same trick in the opening paragraphs. CNN reported this more accurately. The source of the $350b and $95B numbers is one paragraph on page one and two on page 29 (the only mentions of this in a 45 page report).

“Over the last decade, extreme weather and fire events have cost the federal government over $350 billion, according to the Office of Management and Budget. …

“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. As we concluded in our October 2009 report, given the potential magnitude of climate change and the lead time needed to adapt, preparing for these impacts now may reduce the need for far more costly steps in the decades to come.

“For example, we reported in our February 2013 High-Risk update that federal disaster aid functions as the insurance of last resort in certain circumstances, increasing the federal government’s fiscal exposure to a changing climate. We also reported in December 2014 that from fiscal years 2004 through 2013, the Federal Emergency Management Agency obligated about $95 billion in federal disaster assistance for 650 major disasters declared during this time frame.55″

These paragraphs do not say how much (if any) of the $350B and $95B were from natural disasters, from weather-related natural disasters, or from climate-change affected natural disasters — despite the AP story implying that they are all the last of the three. Footnote 55 clearly states this.

While not all of these disasters can be attributed to climate change, as discussed, USGCRP reported that the impacts and costliness of weather disasters will increase in significance as what are considered rare events become more common and intense because of climate change. See GAO-15-65 and Melillo, Richmond, and Yohe, Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment.

The opening sentence is misleading: “While not all of these disasters can be attributed to climate change…” The report does not give evidence that any of it can be attributed to climate change. Also note that the GAO cites GAO-15-65. But that report only examines the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): “Opportunities Exist to Strengthen Oversight of Administrative Costs for Major Disasters.” It does not contain the words “weather” or “climate.”

Second, the AP story misrepresents the report. The above paragraphs, like the report as a whole, point to future risks, not present events. Continued climate change, no matter what the cause, will create risks during the next few decades for which we have to prepare.

This kind of advocacy reporting is one reason so many people have lost confidence in the news media (see the numbers from Gallup). That is bad business since all they have to sell is our trust in their reporting. Also, 30 years of the climate change crusade – producing little public policy action — has shown that it no longer works as propaganda. Perhaps they should try “just the facts.”

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information about this vital issue see the keys to understanding climate change. Also, see all posts about hurricanes, about extreme weather, and especially these …

For a better understanding of climate change…

 The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change
Available at Amazon.

To learn more about the state of climate change see The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change by Roger Pielke Jr. (Prof of Environmental Studies at U of CO-Boulder, and Director of their Center for Science and Technology Policy Research). From the publisher…

“In recent years the media, politicians, and activists have popularized the notion that climate change has made disasters worse. But what does the science actually say? Roger Pielke, Jr. takes a close look at the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the underlying scientific research, and the data to give you the latest science on disasters and climate change. What he finds may surprise you and raise questions about the role of science in political debates.”


2 thoughts on “News misreporting a big GAO report about climate change”

  1. The future impact of global warming we can quantify a bit better is sea level rise. We can’t predict how much it will rise. Nor can we have assurance that cutting emissions will reduce sea level rise over the next 80 years (some models which focus on Antarctica predict more sea level rise for lower emissions because the high humidity caused by warming increases snowfall over Antarctica, and this helps offset ice shelf melt). But it’s fairly easy to model X rise per year for 80 years and estimate the impact.

    The problem I see with current studies is the way they ignore that the sea rise is gradual, and that impacts tend to be from flooding caused by discrete events (rain storms and/or storm surge). In other words, we would not see Miami under 60 cm of water in one step. But we would see a slightly increased water level during a hurricane storm surge and more flooding because water won’t flow towards the ocean nearly as well.

    This problem (more flooding due to discrete events) can be remedied by investing on flood control and changing zoning/building codes. It’s fairly painless to do it now, and to be honest it’s a bit tiresome to have a house in an area where electricity gets cut for a week and houses flood when a hurricane comes by. We need to beef up infrastucture, control where houses are built, put in building codes to make them stand up better. And because change is gradual, we can take our time. But we should not ignore the problem nor blow it out of proportion.

    1. Fernando,

      (1) “The future impact of global warming we can quantify a bit better is sea level rise.”

      Yes. Rising seas are among the most — or the most — destructive of climate change trends, and among the most predictable over the next few decades. That combination is good news (the most destructive being the least predictable would be very bad news).

      (2) “We can’t predict how much it will rise.”

      Climate science is not about such binary statements. By now we can make predictions about most weather factors, with varying degrees of resolution and accuracy. Sea level has been rising in an almost linear trend for centuries. So a sound baseline prediction is easy to make. We can factor in some modest acceleration from global warming (scientists are unsure if that is happening yet)

      See this graph of global sea level from the Colorado Sea Level research group.

      (3) “Nor can we have assurance that cutting emissions will reduce sea level rise over the next 80 years”

      This report is about adaption. The effect of cutting emissions is outside its scope.

      (4) “The problem I see with current studies is the way they ignore that the sea rise is gradual”

      That seems unlikely. Can you point to a specific study that has this flaw (one by a major government agency or the IPCC — not exciting trash by advocacy groups)?

      (5) “This problem (more flooding due to discrete events) can be remedied by investing on flood control and changing zoning/building codes.”

      That’s very inadequate. To mention a few more actions needed — We need investment in public infrastructure to make it more resilient when “flood controls” fails or are overwhelmed. We need plans and facilities for evacuation, where appropriate. We need command, communication, and control systems to manage these events (that of New Orleans failed almost immediately when Katrina arrived, a major contribution to the chaos). We need to change the quite-mad Federal Flood Insurance Program that encourages building in vulnerable areas. We need better plans and prepositioned resources to respond afterwards.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: