GAO Report Treats Climate Change’s Symptoms

Mike Groll / AP file

A recent NBC News article concerns an NGO, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), warning the federal government of items presenting high risk. Among the top risks? Climate change, a major issue concerning us all on which the government has been noticeably quiet and evasive in recent months, despite numerous outreach and advocacy groups calling for more government action. I myself wrote a post in October about how discussion of the issue was being avoided at the 2012 presidential debates.

The GAO’s report apparently concerns the federal government’s responsibilities to react quickly and effectively to natural and environmental disasters like the recent hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and it is in relation to this that the report concerns climate change. According to the GAO, the federal government needs to be held more accountable for protecting its citizens from disasters, and it is because these disasters are caused by climate change that climate change is on their list. While it is true that climate change should certainly be on the GAO’s list, the primary incentive being disaster relief is, in my opinion, not nearly enough. It’s tantamount to treating a disease’s symptoms instead of the disease itself.

When the GAO scolds the federal government and its agencies for failing to provide adequate, timely, and effective disaster relief, it is going to get press and plenty of public support from those families hurt by the disaster and people aware of the conditions of the disaster’s victims. There is a built-in audience for that kind of rhetoric. But highlighting this aspect of the problem doesn’t go far enough, because then we run the risk of only addressing the shortcomings of FEMA or other similar organizations and failing to address the root causes of the problem, like overwhelming consumption and high, dangerous emissions. Even if we completely overhaul FEMA and improve its ability to react quickly to environmental disasters, they will eventually be overtaken when those disasters start coming with more and more frequency. Disasters like Katrina and Sandy are not caused by climate change. They ARE climate change.

If we don’t reduce our emissions, not just nationally, but globally, then our atmosphere’s temperature will continue to rise at ever more alarming rates, and the ice caps will continue to melt and the sea levels will continue to rise. Increased numbers of bigger storm fronts caused by warmer air will result in bigger and more violent storms, which will increase the damage caused by flooding resulting from higher sea levels. Storms the size of Sandy will become the norm, and the damage to our planet will be incalculable. We will fail to preserve our planet and our ability to live for future generations, all because we will have focused not on addressing the biggest issue, but on addressing the earliest problems caused by that issue.

Climate change is without a doubt the worst disaster that we as a people have ever faced. The potential for imminent disaster is undeniable. The GAO’s report is correct to list it as a major risk to the federal government, but its reasoning as to why it is a major risk is flawed. We need to address the causes of climate change, not the symptoms. Disaster relief will be the least of our problems if we fail to curtail our damaging behavior now.

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