Climate Resilience: A Strategic Investment Approach for High-Priority Projects Could Help Target Federal Resources

Created: 3/19/2021 -


The federal government has invested in projects that may enhance climate resilience, but it does not have a strategic approach to guide its investments in high-priority climate resilience projects. Enhancing climate resilience means taking actions to reduce potential future losses by planning and preparing for potential climate hazards such as extreme rainfall, sea level rise, and drought. Some federal agencies have made efforts to manage climate change risk within existing programs and operations, and these efforts may convey climate resilience benefits. For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' civil works program constructs flood control projects, such as sea walls, that may enhance climate resilience. However, additional strategic federal investments may be needed to manage some of the nation's most significant climate risks because climate change cuts across agency missions and presents fiscal exposures larger than any one agency can manage. GAO's analysis shows the federal government does not strategically identify and prioritize projects to ensure they address the nation's most significant climate risks. Likewise, GAO's past work shows an absence of government-wide climate change strategic planning.

As of August 2019, no action had been taken to implement 14 of GAO's 17 recommendations to improve federal strategic planning for climate resilience. GAO's enterprise risk management framework calls for reviewing risks and selecting the most appropriate strategy to manage them. However, no federal agency, interagency collaborative effort, or other organizational arrangement has been established to implement a strategic approach to climate resilience investment that includes periodically identifying and prioritizing projects. Such an approach could supplement individual agency climate resilience efforts and help target federal resources toward high-priority projects.

Why GAO Did This Study

Federal funding for disaster assistance since 2005 has totaled at least $450 billion, including a 2019 supplemental appropriation of $19.1 billion for recent disasters. In 2018 alone, 14 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disaster events occurred across the United States, with total costs of at least $91 billion including the loss of public and private property, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The cost of recent weather disasters has illustrated the need to plan for climate change risks and invest in climate resilience. Investing in climate resilience can reduce the need for far more costly steps in the decades to come.

GAO was asked to review the federal approach to prioritizing and funding climate resilience projects that address the nation's most significant climate risks. This report examines (1) the extent to which the federal government has a strategic approach for investing in climate resilience projects; (2) key steps that provide an opportunity to strategically prioritize projects for investment; and (3) the strengths and limitations of options for focusing federal funding on these projects.

GAO reviewed relevant reports and interviewed 35 stakeholders with relevant expertise, including federal officials, researchers, and consultants. In addition, during the course of this work, GAO identified domestic and international examples of governments that invest in climate resilience and related projects. GAO selected two of these examples for in-depth review and presentation in the report: the state of Louisiana's coastal master planning effort and Canada's Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund.

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The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress. Often called the "congressional watchdog," GAO investigates how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars.

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