GAO calls climate change 'high risk' for U.S. gov't

Earlier today, the Government Accountability Office added the financial liability of climate change to its list of "high risk" areas for the federal government.

And at mid-day two Senators announced climate change legislation. They were  joined by environmental leaders, including some of the activists arrested Wednesday in an act of civil disobedience outside the White House, and who also are organizers for a large climate change rally Sunday on the D.C. Mall.

So is momentum for mitigating and adapting to climate change growing?

According to the GAO, the "high risk" list is updated every two years and released at the start of each new Congress to help in setting oversight agendas. "Recent Congresses and administrations have been particularly alert to GAO’s High Risk List, using its findings to help tailor agency-specific solutions as well as develop broader, government-wide initiatives," the agency said in a press release about the action.

Here is the GAO's comment on its decision: "Climate change poses significant financial risks to the federal government, which owns extensive infrastructure, such as defense installations; insures property through the National Flood Insurance Program; and provides emergency aid in response to natural disasters. GAO added this area because the federal government is not well positioned to address the fiscal exposure presented by climate change and needs a government-wide strategic approach with strong leadership to manage related risks."

The co-chairs of the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change, Rep. Henry A. Waxman and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, released a statement applauding the  GAO's action.

"Congress can’t ignore an issue that its own auditors say is a top risk to taxpayers," said Waxman, the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Whitehouse said the action "sharpens our focus on the threat that climate change poses to infrastructure, our financial well-being, and way of life. It also further underscores the need to break through the barricade of special-interest influence that has prevented action on climate change in Washington.”

The climate change legislation was announced by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).  It would impose a fee on carbon emissions that would fund improvements in energy efficiency and sustainable energy technologies, including wind and solar. It also would institute reates for consumers "to ensure that if fossil fuel companies jack up prices," families can offset the increases.

The legislation also would remove what's commonly called the Halliburton loophole, which exempts natural gas drilling companies from the provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

You can see a summary here.

Boxer chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Sanders is on both that committee and the Senate energy committee.

Bloggers at "The Hill" noted that the bill "faces grim prospects of becoming law. But it’s part of a wider effort to create political space for action on climate change at a time when Obama is planning to use executive powers in the face of congressional gridlock."

The day after Obama called for more action in his State of the Union address, the Senate EPW committee held a hearing to learn about the latest science on climate change.

Harvard University oceanographer James J. McCarthy told the attendees that "some of the observed changes in the ocean, which only a few decades ago were thought unimaginable in our lifetimes, are now occurring as result of human-­‐caused climate change."

The University of Georgia's J. Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society, reminded them that "this topic is about impacts to people -- your constituents, my fellow citizens, my two kids -- not just polar bears."

He said humans are "loading the dice" towards more events like Superstorm Sandy.

University of Illinois atmospheric scientist Donald Wuebbles emphasized that the climate of the U.S. and the globe is changing now, "and this change is apparent across a wide range of observations." And it is due to human activity.

You can read their full testimony here.