Climate Change:

Future Federal Adaptation Efforts Could Better Support Local Infrastructure Decision Makers

GAO-13-242: Published: Apr 12, 2013. Publicly Released: May 14, 2013.

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trimbled@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

According to the National Research Council (NRC) and others, infrastructure such as roads and bridges, wastewater systems, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) centers are vulnerable to changes in the climate. Changes in precipitation and sea levels, as well as increased intensity and frequency of extreme events, are projected by NRC and others to impact infrastructure in a variety of ways. When the climate changes, infrastructure-- typically designed to operate within past climate conditions--may not operate as well or for as long as planned, leading to economic, environmental, and social impacts. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that, within 15 years, segments of Louisiana State Highway 1-- providing the only road access to a port servicing 18 percent of the nation's oil supply--will be inundated by tides an average of 30 times annually due to relative sea level rise. Flooding of this road effectively closes the port.

Decision makers have not systematically considered climate change in infrastructure planning for various reasons, according to representatives of professional associations and agency officials who work with these decision makers. For example, more immediate priorities--such as managing aging infrastructure--consume time and resources, limiting decision makers' ability to consider and implement climate adaptation measures. Difficulties in obtaining and using information needed to understand vulnerabilities and inform adaptation decisions pose additional challenges.

Key factors enabled some local decision makers to integrate climate change into infrastructure planning. As illustrated by GAO's site visits and relevant studies, these factors included (1) having local circumstances such as weather-related crises that spurred action, (2) learning how to use available information, (3) having access to local expertise, and (4) considering climate impacts within existing planning processes. As one example, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District managed risks associated with more frequent extreme rainfall events by enhancing its natural systems' ability to absorb runoff by, for instance, preserving wetlands. This effort simultaneously expanded the sewer system's capacity while providing other community and environmental benefits. District leaders enabled these changes by prioritizing adaptation, using available locallevel climate projections, and utilizing local experts for assistance.

GAO's report identifies several emerging federal efforts under way to facilitate more informed adaptation decisions, but these efforts could better support the needs of local infrastructure decision makers in the future, according to studies, local decision makers at the sites GAO visited, and other stakeholders. For example, among its key efforts, the federal government plays a critical role in producing the information needed to facilitate more informed local infrastructure adaptation decisions. However, as noted by NRC studies, this information exists in an uncoordinated confederation of networks and institutions, and the end result of it not being easily accessible is that people may make decisions--or choose not to act--without it. Accordingly, a range of studies and local decision makers GAO interviewed cited the need for the federal government to improve local decision makers' access to the best available information to use in infrastructure planning.

Why GAO Did This Study

The federal government invests billions of dollars annually in infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, facing increasing risks from climate change. Adaptation--defined as adjustments to natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climate change-- can help manage these risks by making infrastructure more resilient.

GAO was asked to examine issues related to infrastructure decision making and climate change. This report examines (1) the impacts of climate change on roads and bridges, wastewater systems, and NASA centers; (2) the extent to which climate change is incorporated into infrastructure planning; (3) factors that enabled some decision makers to implement adaptive measures; and (4) federal efforts to address local adaptation needs, as well as potential opportunities for improvement.

GAO reviewed climate change assessments; analyzed relevant reports; interviewed stakeholders from professional associations and federal agencies; and visited infrastructure projects and interviewed local decision makers at seven sites where adaptive measures have been implemented.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends, among other things, that a federal entity designated by the Executive Office of the President (EOP) work with agencies to identify for local infrastructure decision makers the best available climaterelated information for planning, and also to update this information over time. Relevant EOP entities did not provide official comments, but instead provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated, as appropriate.

For more information, contact David C. Trimble at (202) 512-3841 or trimbled@gao.gov.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve the resilience of the nation's infrastructure to climate change, the Executive Director of the United States Global Change Research Program or other federal entity designated by the Executive Office of the President should work with relevant agencies to identify for decision makers the "best available" climate-related information for infrastructure planning and update this information over time.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Science and Technology Policy: U.S. Global Change Research Program

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To improve the resilience of the nation's infrastructure to climate change, the Executive Director of the United States Global Change Research Program or other federal entity designated by the Executive Office of the President should work with relevant agencies to clarify sources of local assistance for incorporating climate-related information and analysis into infrastructure planning, and communicate how such assistance will be provided over time.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Science and Technology Policy: U.S. Global Change Research Program

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To improve the resilience of the nation's infrastructure to climate change, the Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality should finalize guidance on how federal agencies can consider the effects of climate change in their evaluations of proposed federal actions under the National Environmental Policy Act.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Council on Environmental Quality

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To improve the resilience of the nation's infrastructure to climate change, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency should work with relevant professional associations to incorporate climate change information into design standards.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To improve the resilience of the nation's infrastructure to climate change, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency should work with relevant professional associations to incorporate climate change information into design standards.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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