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How Much Is The Government Spending On Climate Change? We Don’t Know, And Neither Do They

America’s problems with solving our climate crisis predate President Trump and go deeper than petty snark. Yes, it’s a problem when the president of the United States sees a vicious cold snap and uses it as an opportunity to mock climate change. (Especially when the cold snap is itself linked to climate change.) But it’s also a problem when the government doesn’t keep good track of how much it’s spending to fight climate change. That could be said about the Trump administration — and several others before it.

“We collect a lot of useful information, but we don’t make it available in useful ways,” said Alfredo Gomez, director of the natural resources and environment team at the Government Accountability Office, a federal agency that investigates and evaluates the government for Congress. Back in 2015, his team found that even basic climate data like satellite observations and climate model predictions are fragmented across federal agencies in ways that make it difficult to share information with everyone who might need it. But last spring, the GAO published a report focused on financial accounting that detailed just how muddled the government’s data on climate change spending can be — and how that means Americans (citizens and politicians alike) are woefully ignorant of what the government is and isn’t doing to reduce the risks.

The 2018 GAO report found that, while the Office of Management and Budget has reported that the federal government spent more than $154 billion on climate-change-related activities since 1993, much of that number is likely not being used to directly address climate change or its risks. Many of the projects reported as “climate-change-related activities” are only secondarily about climate change.

For instance, the U.S. nuclear energy program predates serious concerns about climate change and would likely exist in its current form even if it did not produce fewer greenhouse-gases than some other forms of energy production, like burning coal. But the nuclear program’s budget is counted as climate spending. All told, when the GAO evaluated six agencies that report their climate spending to the OMB, it found that 94 percent of the money was going to programs that weren’t primarily focused on climate change — things like nuclear energy. The money marked as climate spending wasn’t going to new initiatives. Instead, “it’s a bunch of related things we were already doing,” Gomez told me. Numbers like that $154 billion total can be used as political props, but that kind of accounting isn’t much good for understanding what the government is actually doing about climate change.

State governments aren’t doing any better. Travis St. Clair was part of a team of researchers who attempted to analyze state-level spending on climate change, with the goal of figuring out how much we’re spending trying to prevent climate change from happening vs. how much we spend cleaning up after its effects. The conclusion they reached in their 2017 paper: “The short answer is that the data doesn’t exist,” St. Clair told me. Nobody tracks budgets in a way that allows you to know how much, exactly, is spent on climate change — let alone in a way that breaks that total down into prevention vs. consequences. Although, from the analysis, St. Clair says it’s safe to say that most states are spending less than 1 percent of their budgets on issues related to climate change.

This lack of information is a big problem — both for people who care about fiscal responsibility and for people who care about climate change. “We know from other areas that if you don’t track spending and don’t have a good understanding of liabilities, then you won’t adequately prepare,” St. Clair said. For example, state and local governments weren’t adequately tracking the costs of public pensions for many years and so may not have been aware they were headed for a pension shortfall. Then accounting practices changed and, suddenly, it became obvious that many pensions were drastically underfunded and wouldn’t be able to meet their obligations. Today, we know public pension shortfalls account for one-fifth of the national debt. Gaps in what we know about climate budgeting are similar because, without a clear picture of what is being spent and how, we aren’t able to properly manage future risks. “Right now [with climate change], it’s hard to know what we should be spending on because we don’t know what we’re spending,” he told me.

In fact, that’s a big part of why the need to better manage climate risks keeps turning up on the GAO’s “High Risk List” — a report issued at the start of every new Congress that compiles the programs and agencies at high risk for fraud and waste and recaps what progress has been made on those problems. While the GAO has been researching problems with federal climate accounting since 2005, the issue first turned up on the high-risk list in 2013 — and Gomez told me that climate change will be on that list again when the next update is published March 6th. Congress isn’t getting an accurate accounting of what is being spent. Nor is it getting information about the financial risks of doing nothing. There aren’t even clear goals for what we want to do, so it’s hard to know how to measure success or failure, Gomez said.

And those gaps in our knowledge leave even bigger holes in our response to climate change. For instance, while it’s difficult to pin down the details of climate spending at the federal level, Gomez said there is at least one thing we can know from the data available: There’s effectively $0 going to proactive, pre-disaster changes that could make communities at risk of floods, or fires, or frigid bursts of Arctic air more resilient as those things become more common.

That could change. Part of last year’s Disaster Recovery and Reform Act, which was signed into law in October, sets aside 6 percent of future disaster funds and puts them into a special fund for pre-disaster risk reduction. That could be a good thing, and a real way to make Americans safer in a world where the climate is changing. But right now, Gomez said, it’s kind of just a big pot of money that no one has decided how to spend.

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Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.