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Climate Change Hero

Climate Change Blog

  • 17
  • January
  • 2017


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GAO Recommends Incorporating Forward-Looking Climate Information into Design Standards and Building Codes

On January 3, 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) released a report concluding that better coordination among — and the sharing of forward-looking climate information between — federal agencies could result in significant government cost savings. Forward-looking climate information includes weather models constructed using anticipated trends in climate change and other plausible projections of what might happen under a given set of assumptions, such as projected rainfall rates. The GAO observed that, over the last decade, “the federal government has incurred direct costs of over $320 billion due to extreme weather events,” including costs related to repairs of federal infrastructure. These costs may continue to rise as the climate changes, with extreme weather events becoming more frequent. The GAO concluded that — as the owner, operator, and insurer of property vulnerable to climate impacts — the federal government stands to benefit from the incorporation of forward-looking climate information into building codes, standards, and certifications. However, design standards and building codes generally use historical climate observations, and standards-setting organizations have identified various challenges to using forward-looking climate information. The GAO report finds that improving interagency coordination and providing the best available forward-looking climate information to standards-setting entities could help address many of these challenges.

GAO asserts that the use of forward-looking climate information in design standards, building codes, and voluntary certifications could help account for the changing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. GAO observed that many standards-developing organizations do not use forward-looking information or regularly update the climate information in the standards, codes, and certifications they publish. In the United States, setting these types of standards is a voluntary process that typically follows the basic steps outlined below, although organizations may differ in how to determine consensus around new standards.

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The GAO report is not the first publication to recommend increased climate coordination in the standards-setting process. In 2015, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued a paper recommending that engineers work with scientists to better understand future climate risks. Additionally, an April 2013 GAO report found that climate changes could reduce the useable lifespan of infrastructure, like bridges, that are expected to last for up to 100 years because historical weather patterns no longer provide reliable predictions for infrastructure-planning purposes.

GAO observed that, as a result of the increasing costs and frequency of extreme weather events, “federal agencies, state and local officials, and private-sector entities have begun to acknowledge the role of design standards, building codes, and voluntary certifications in managing the fiscal exposure to extreme weather events. . . .” However, standards-developing organizations have cited institutional and technical challenges to using forward-looking climate information. Institutional challenges include the need to balance various interests and the fact that the standards-setting process can be decentralized and slow to change. GAO explained that, representatives of one standards-developing organization reported that their members have not expressed interest in standards that use forward-looking climate information because it would require increased upfront construction costs. Two other organizations reported that, in some cases, their standards are for equipment with a 10- to 15-year life-cycle, so they would not realize any appreciable benefits from increased resilience. Additionally, representatives of two standards-developing organizations indicated that they reference climate information from other similar organizations in their standards, so “it would be difficult for them to unilaterally begin to use forward-looking climate information.”

In addition to institutional challenges, GAO identified technical challenges, including (1) identifying the best available forward-looking climate information and (2) incorporating it into design standards, building codes, and voluntary certifications. For example, participants in the July 2015 Comptroller General’s Forum on Preparing for Climate-Related Risks: Lessons from the Private Sector stated that “the absence of consistent, authoritative climate information made it hard for private-sector entities to consider climate information in planning.” Additionally, representatives of one standards-developing organization stated to GAO that “they need forward-looking climate information for a site-specific project area rather than at the country or state level, which is what is available from climate models.” It can also be difficult to incorporate forward-looking climate information into planning decisions. For example, representatives of one standards-developing organization reported to GAO that “climate models provide a wide range of possible temperatures that is difficult to use in their standards because the technical committee does not know how to reflect this variability.”

The report finds that federal agencies with a role in developing or adopting standards could address these challenges by improving interagency coordination and providing the best available forward-looking climate information to standards-developing entities. The GAO recommended that the Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with the Mitigation Framework Leadership Group and the U.S. Global Change Research Program, convene federal agencies for an ongoing government-wide effort to provide the best available forward-looking climate information to standards-developing organizations. These actions could both minimize the government’s exposure to climate risks and ensure safer, longer-lasting infrastructure in coming years. However, it is unclear whether the recommendation will be followed under President-elect Trump’s new administration, which may delay, and ultimately reverse course on, various climate change policies initiated under President Obama’s administration.

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Rachel D. Comeskey

Rachel D. Comeskey Associate