GAO Recommends a National Climate Information System

To help improve federal efforts in providing climate information to state, local, and private sector decision makers, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report last month entitled Climate Information: A National System Could Help Federal, State, Local, and Private Sector Decision Makers Use Climate Information.  The report addresses four topics: 1) the extent of current federal efforts to meet the climate information needs of various decision makers, 2) examples of how other countries have organized their climate information systems, 3) whether and how U.S. federal efforts can be improved, and 4) different options for how to best provide climate information.

According to the GAO, the federal government spent over $300 billion over the past decade on costs relating to extreme weather and fire events, and as these events are expected to become more common and intense because of climate change, these costs are expected to continue to rise. While the federal government has taken certain initiatives to account for climate change risks (for instance Executive Order No. 13653, issued in November 2013, directs certain federal agencies to cooperate in providing information and support tools on climate preparedness and resilience), up to this point federal efforts have been uncoordinated and fragmented.

The GAO explains that current information systems are not meeting the climate information needs of state, local, and private sector decision makers. Although the relevant information often does exist, it is scattered across various agencies with little or weak interagency coordination.  This lack of coordination frustrates decision makers’ efforts to access or understand the relevance of climate observations and data that have been collected by the federal government.

The GAO also analyzed the organized climate information systems in place in Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.  Each country’s system varies, but all include a government-led organization and funding.  They also all rely on entities both inside and outside government in order to meet the climate information needs of a diverse range of decision makers.

The GAO concludes that U.S. federal climate information efforts leave much room for improvement. In particular, it suggests that a federal climate information system should include: 1) a focused and accountable organizational scheme, 2) a source for authoritative data, and 3) technical assistance to decision makers.  The GAO also examines various options for how to best provide climate information to U.S. decision makers.  These options range from a new federal agency to a federally coordinated network of regional organizations.  Each option has both strengths and limitations, and GAO posits that the ideal national climate information system would incorporate the best features from each and include federal leadership, authoritative federal data and quality assurance, and nonfederal technical assistance.

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