Climate and Country

Evan Mills - March 18, 2008

Mills is a staff scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, at the University of California.

Governments face a changing climate. While their natural tendency is to view the issue through a political lens, they must also count themselves among those directly in harm's way. Be it payments for disaster recovery or resource-based conflict among nations—as recognized by the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize—climate change is already vexing governments large and small. It is prime time for climate change impact and adaptation assessments to more explicitly treat the implications for governments.

Physical Vulnerabilities

Remarkably, there has been no comprehensive assessment of how preparing for or recovering from extreme weather events shapes the costs and conduct of government. One antiquated and incomplete estimate determined that $120 billion ($1993) was obligated by the U.S. government for disaster assistance between 1977 and 1993 [i].

In 2007, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a novel report in conjunction with a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing [ii] looking at one piece of the puzzle: the potential for elevated government outlays for crop and flood insurance. Stemming from the great Dust Bowl of the 1930s and great floods of the last century, private insurers deem crop and flood losses largely uninsurable, creating a vacuum that governments have been compelled to fill. As a barometer of what's at stake, the U.S. National Flood Insurance Program today provides nearly $1 trillion in coverage [iii] and the crop program covers 246 million acres with insured value of $45 billion [iv]. Flood-related claims from 2005 alone topped $18 billion, rendering the program insolvent. Increased drought, flooding, and pestilence linked to climate change will trigger analogous claims on the federal crop insurance program, which paid out $43.6 billion in losses from 1980 to 2005. As private insurers recoil from climate change, even more pressure will fall on governments to assume the risks [v].

Adding insult to injury, lost sales tax revenues from businesses interrupted by natural disasters hit just when local and federal governments need strong balance sheets.

As private property insurers vacate the coasts, governments are stepping in and absorbing new risks as well. Governments are thus increasingly serving as insurers of last resort when it comes to natural disasters and climate change [vi], but according to GAO are doing little compared to private insurers to adapt to changing realities, at least in the United States. Governments in developing nations are also often under-prepared for the aftermath of weather-related catastrophes.

This is just the tip of a melting iceberg. Government owns scores of buildings (411,406 at last count across the U.S.) [vii]. Many of these facilities are vulnerable to one or more weather risks. Climate change will also disrupt operations of government-owned energy utilities, as drought constricts the output of the hydroelectric plants from Bonneville Power Administration in the Northwest to Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). In August 2007—for the first time in U.S. history—a TVA nuclear power plant was temporarily shut down because excessive river temperatures made it impossible to provide safe cooling [viii]. An entire reactor-year was lost from French power plants during the heat wave of 2003. Similarly, government is also responsible for operating and maintaining significant transportation infrastructure (road, rail, air), much of which is at or near sea level or otherwise exposed. After three years of work, a report issued by the Transportation Research Board in March of 2008 found that climate change will affect every mode of transportation in the U.S., especially via flooding of roads, railways, transit systems, and airport runways in coastal areas because of rising sea levels and surges brought on by more intense storms [ix],[x]. They found that a third major roads would be permanently submerged, and a majority of roads, 9 percent of rail lines, 72 percent of area ports, and 29 airports would be vulnerable to flooding due to future sea level rise anticipated in this century.

As a significant provider of health insurance, government is in line to shoulder much of the burden of climate change's influence on infectious diseases, respiratory health, and heat mortality [xi].

Federal lands and water resources—30% of U.S. land area and 150,000 square miles of waters—are already being degraded by climate change, which imposes additional management costs on government [xii]. Federal and local governments stand to lose tax revenues if climate change has adverse impacts on tourism and other forms of economic activity.

Meanwhile, government has lead responsibility for disaster preparedness, response, and recovery, picking up a hefty tab in the process. Government pays each time it issues a disaster declaration; 99% of those in the U.S. have historically been weather-related. These events are on the rise [xiii]. One of many examples is wildfire suppression, which will become more costly as temperatures rise, forests dry, beetle infestations kill trees, and the winds that stir wildfires grow more intense [xiv]. The Army Corp of Engineers clearly has more work to do on constructing and maintaining flood defenses in the U.S. homeland, and cross-boundary infrastructure funded or financed by governments and quasi-governmental entities like the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation is increasingly at risk of hazards compounded by climate change.

Climate and Security

Beyond the physical triggers of government expenditure, climate change reaches into the very business of governance and geopolitics. Wars over oil will likely be accompanied by wars over already troubled water [xv] as rivers shrivel in a warming world. Hundreds of water-related disputes, violence, and conflicts have been documented [xvi]. Posturing has already begun over who will control the enormous natural resources—ironically, oil, gas, and coal—that will become accessible as the arctic melts [xvii].

In granting the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, the award committee warned that climate change "may induce large-scale migration and lead to greater competition for the earth's resources. Such changes will place particularly heavy burdens on the world's most vulnerable countries. There may be increased danger of violent conflicts and wars, within and between states" [xviii]. The UN Secretary General recently stated that, by increasing resource stress, climate change has contributed to the conflict in Darfur [xix]. Others have recognized that climate changes could fuel religious strife, e.g. involving water-starved Muslim minorities in Uganda and Kenya and Coptic Christians in Egypt [xx]. Summarizing a recent report from a pair of bi-partisan think tanks [xxi], former CIA Director James Woolsey said that mass migration across Latin American borders triggered by disappearance of glaciers and water supplies could compromise national sovereignty more hastily than any Chavez-backed rebellion ever could [xxii].

Where water becomes scarce, food security issues and associated tensions are soon to follow. In the developing world—where 30% of farmers are already food-insecure—farmers endure a double-hit from weather induced crop shortages: they lose income as sellers and have less to eat as consumers. Food imports can have limited benefit, as the impoverished farmers can't afford to buy food that they previously produced for themselves [xxiii]. Shortages cause market prices to spiral upwards, undercutting governments' ability to purchase emergency food supplies. The specter of rising disease under climate change compounds these problems.

The specter of intergovernmental tensions resulting from climate change has been recognized for some time. The Pentagon itself commissioned a report in 2003 on the potential for climate change to spark international conflicts [xxiv], and the U.S. military [xxv] and U.N. Security Council recently reaffirmed the concern. A new report traces an increased risk of climate-induced conflict in 46 countries to hindered mitigation and adaptation, impeded development, and compounded social tensions [xxvi]. This view was echoed by a blue-ribbon panel of eleven retired admirals and generals from all branches of the armed services [xxvii]. Their take-home message is that "climate change is a threat multiplier in already fragile regions."

Certain responses to climate change have security implications as well. As nations increasingly rely on "clean" nuclear energy, weapons proliferation risks will rise considerably above current levels.

High Vulnerability for Local Governments and Developing Countries

Governments are increasingly finding themselves in court over climate change, for reasons ranging from intergovernmental challenges on energy policy to claims of human rights infringement by the Inuit People against the U.S. government as global warming disrupts the cultural and economic underpinnings of their society [xxviii]. In the landmark decision Massachusetts vs. EPA [xxix], the Supreme Court recently dubbed the key greenhouse gas—carbon dioxide—a "pollutant", rendering the federal government out of compliance with the Clean Air Act for not regulating emissions. As a surrogate strategy, state governments on both coasts are suing emitters of greenhouse gases, as evidenced by the multi-state cases pending against auto manufacturers and coal-burning utilities seeking compensation for the costs to health and property that climate change imposes on states [xxx].

State governments are particularly vulnerable given certain regional concentrations of potential damages, responsibility for repairs to roadways and other infrastructure, and more limited financial resources with which to cope. Municipally owned utilities must cope with eroded availability and quality of drinking water, sewage systems inundated by flooding, or extreme weather playing havoc on the electric grid. The steady shifting of costs and responsibility from the federal level towards the states only worsens the burden.

All of these issues apply in industrialized countries, but are even more significant in the developing world where governments are neither as wealthy nor as well prepared. Those governments also tend to own or otherwise be responsible for a particularly large share of at-risk infrastructure, and climate-sensitive sectors such as food production. China is sufficiently nervous that they have banned the publication of key environmental indicators, citing the potential damage to "social stability" if the information became common knowledge [xxxi]. Wealthy governments and multi-governmental entities such as the World Bank will feel these costs as well, as calls for adaptation assistance and international aid following to weather-related disasters to rise under climate change. The demand is already far outstripping funds being made available by donor nations [xxxii].

Mitigation Risks and Costs

Some gambits to reverse climate change will impose new costs and security concerns on governments. Public sector risk sharing will likely be expected for carbon capture and storage and other new technologies lacking a track record from which private insurers can assess risks and set rates. Biofuel producers will likely seek public crop insurance. A renaissance of nuclear power would entail a double-whammy of enormous demand for cooling water combined with mounting weapons-proliferation risks. This dynamic underlies much of the present high-stakes tension with Iran.

These are compelling reasons for governments to transcend the divisive politics of climate change. At the best, its own share of the impacts will mean a rising cost of government—and the specter of higher taxes to pay for it. At the worst, the early politics about the climate change "debate" will look like child's play compared to the politics of coping with its consequences. Batten down the hatches Uncle Sam.

The Imperative

The ramifications of climate change for government and governance are myriad. Proactive policymakers will assess the implications for their particular issues, be it military preparedness or flood insurance. Politicians have yet another reason to follow the facts on climate change over ideology.

The whole discussion about climate change "adaptation" must be elevated to count the government sector among those impacted. Most analyses to-date have focused on private sector entities to the exclusion of the public sector. Gaping information blind spots must be addressed in order for governments to gauge their exposures. This should be followed by precautionary risk management, and better integration of climate-change considerations into everyday governance, policy analysis, and foreign affairs.


[i] U.S. Senate. "Federal Disaster Assistance: Report of the Senate Task Force on Funding Disaster Relief," (104th Congress, 1st Session, Document No. 104-4, 206 pp, 1995)

[ii] U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Hearing. "Dangerous Exposure: The Impact of Global Warming on Private and Federal Insurance." April 19, 2007

[iii] FEMA statistics as of 2005

[iv] U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2006. "About the Risk Management Agency." January.

[v] Foreign Policy, 2004. Covered for Climate Change, November/December.

[vi] P.V. Vellinga, E. Mills, L. Bouwer, G. Berz, S. Huq, L. Kozak, J. Paultikof, B. Schanzenbacker, S. Shida, G. Soler, C. Benson, P. Bidan, J. Bruce, P. Huyck, G. Lemcke, A. Peara, R. Radevsky, C. van Schoubroeck, A. Dlugolecki. "Insurance and Other Financial Services," in Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Vulnerability, and Adaptation. (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, United Nations and World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, 2001).

[vii] Republican Study Committee "Federal Land and Buildings Ownership" (as of May 19, 2005). [PDF]

[viii]"Heat Wave Kills 37 in South, Midwest," August 17, 2007. Associated Press. [Online version]

[ix] "Potential Impacts of Climate Change on U.S. Transportation." Transportation Research Board Special Report #290.

[x] Kintsch, E. 2008. "Roads, Ports, Rails Aren't Ready for Changing Climate, Says Report." Science, vol 319, no 5871, pp. 1744-1745. [Online version]

[xi] P. Epstein, E. Mills (eds.) "Climate Change Futures: Health, Ecological and Economic Dimensions," ( Harvard Medical School, Swiss Re and the U.N. Development Programme, 2005). (Contributing Authors: Pamela Anderson, John Brownstein, Ulisses Confalonieri, Douglas Causey, Nathan Chan, Kristie L. Ebi, Jonathan H. Epstein, J. Scott Greene, Ray Hayes, Eileen Hofmann, Laurence S. Kalkstein, Tord Kjellstrom, Rebecca Lincoln, Anthony J. McMichael, Charles McNeill, David Mills, Avaleigh Milne, Alan D. Perrin, Geetha Ranmuthugala, Christine Rogers, Cynthia Rosenzweig, Colin L. Soskolne, Gary Tabor, Marta Vicarelli, X.B. Yang).

[xii] U.S. Government Accountability Office. 2007. "Climate Change: Agencies Should Develop Guidance for Addressing the Effects on Federal Land and Water Resources." August, 184 pp. [Summary]

[xiii] FEMA. "Declared Disasters by Year or State."

[xiv] J.S. Fried, M.S. Torn, E. Mills, "The Impact of Climate Change on Wildfire Severity: A Regional Forecast for Northern California," Climatic Change 64 (1-2): 169-191 (2004).

[xv] F. Pearce. 2005. "When the Rivers Run Dry — The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-first Century" Foreign Affairs [Online version]

[xvi] Compiled by the Pacific Institute, [PDF]

[xvii] M. Funk, "Cold Rush." Harpers Magazine, September 2007, pp. 45-55.

[xviii] Nobel Peace Prize for 2007, October 12, 2007 News Release. [Online version]

[xix] B.K. Moon. 2007. "A Climate Culprit in Darfur." Washington Post, p. A15, [Online version]

[xx] P. Jenkins, 2007. "Burning at the Stake: How Global Warming Will Increase Religious Strife." New Republic, December 10.

[xxi] K.M. Campbell et al. "The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change." (Center for Strategic and International Studies and The Center for a New American Security, 2007). [Summary]

[xxii] A. Duncan, 2007. "US Foreign Policy Must Consider Impacts of Global Warming, Groups Say in Report." Inside Energy, November 12.

[xxiii] M.E. Brown and C. C. Funk. "Food Security Under Climate Change." Science 319, pp. 50-51(2008)

[xxiv] P. Schwartz, D. Randall, "Abrupt Climate Change", Global Business Network, 2004 [Summary]

[xxv] CSPAN. "Global Climate Change and National Security" [Third Q&A at 48 minutes] [Video]

[xxvi] Smith, D. and J. Vivekananda. "A Climate of Conflict: The Links Between Climate Change, Peace and War." (International Alert, 2007).

[xxvii] The CNA Corporation. "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change," 68pp. (2007). [PDF]

[xxviii] R.S. Abate, "Climate Change, The United States, and the Impacts of Arctic Melting: A Case Study in the Need for Enforceable International Environmental Human Rights." Stanford Environmental Law Journal, v 26A and Stanford Journal of International Law, v43A, June. pp 3-76 (2007).

[xxix] U.S. Supreme Court, Mass. vs. EPA. [PDF]

[xxx] K. Alex, "A Period of Consequences: Global Warming as a Public Nuisance." Stanford Environmental Law Journal, v26A and Stanford Journal of International Law, v43A, June. pp 77-97 (2007).

[xxxi] J. Kahn, J. Yardley. "As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes." New York Times, August 25, 2007. [Online version]

[xxxii] E. Mills, "Synergisms between Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation: An Insurance Perspective," Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, Special Issue on Challenges in Integration Mitigation and Adaptation Responses to Climate Change, 12, No. 5, pp. 809-842 (2006).