By Gregory Korte
WASHINGTON - The weather: It's something everybody complains about, but the federal government isn't doing enough to address, congressional auditors say.
Climate change and soon-to-be-obsolete weather satellites are the two new subjects listed in the non-partisan Government Accountability Office's "high risk" list. The report, released at the beginning of each new Congress, highlights problems that can have a significant impact on health, safety, services and the federal budget.
Climate change presents specific perils to the federal government, the report says: About 30 military bases are located in areas impacted by rising sea levels. Federal flood and crop insurance programs are vulnerable to storm surges and drought. A record number of disaster declarations have resulted in federal disaster aid payouts of $80 billion from 2004 to 2011.
And the risks associated with those changing weather patterns are compounded by another sleeper issue: aging weather satellites.
The last generation of weather satellites is failing faster than new satellites can replace them. Previous estimates have said the resulting satellite "gap" could begin next year and last 18 to 24 months. But the GAO, taking into account the worst case scenarios, says the gap could actually last more than twice as long: 53 months.
"We are quite aware of the potential gap ... and are working on coming up with mitigating strategies to deal with it," said National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini said in a phone interview last week. He said these strategies would include developing alternative observation systems, and also improved data assimilation using other types of data.
Those efforts haven't completely satisfied the GAO. "It is not clear when decisions will be made to implement the steps needed to ensure that the options are viable," the report says.
Without polar-orbiting satellites, the report noted, the forecasts of the 2010 "Snowmageddon" could have underestimated the amount of snow by 10 inches, and the predicted landfall of the 2012 Superstorm Sandy would have been hundreds of miles off.
Inclusion on the high-risk list can often serve as a catalyst for greater federal attention to an issue. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., called the inclusion of climate change in the report "a landmark decision" and called for hearings in the House Oversight Committee, where he's the ranking Democrat.
"What GAO is telling us today is that Congress cannot afford to block or delay action any longer," he said.
The report comes two days after President Obama put climate change on the agenda in his State of the Union Address. "We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science -- and act before it's too late," he said.
Congressional Republicans were mostly silent on the climate issues in the report, and instead focused on more longstanding high-risk programs -- especially concerns about the solvency of the Federal Housing Administration. "The FHA is broke and is quickly approaching bailout-broke," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Tex., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.
Contributing: Doyle Rice.