GAO Audit: Billions for Climate Policy With No Clear Purpose

Advocates of dramatic government policies to address climate change repeatedly call it “the most important issue humanity has ever faced.” Often, however, when it comes to developing effective policies, the words and deeds are at odds.

A recent report from the GAO found that despite spending tens of billions of taxpayer dollars on policies designed to address climate change, there is little coordination between those expenditures, limiting the effectiveness of that spending. The GAO noted that “Federal Funding for Climate Change Activities Increased Substantially from 2003 through 2010,” increasing to nearly 9 billion a year in 2010. In addition, the 2009 “stimulus” package included more than $26 billion in climate-related policies.

What is the result of all that funding? The GAO reported two key findings:

First, notwithstanding existing coordinating mechanisms, questionnaire results indicated that federal officials do not have a shared understanding of strategic priorities. This is in part due to inconsistent messages articulated in strategic plans and other policy documents. A 2008 Congressional Research Service analysis had similarly found no “overarching policy goal for climate change that guides the programs funded or the priorities among programs.” Second, respondents indicated that since mechanisms for aligning funding with priorities are nonbinding, they are limited when in conflict with agencies’ own priorities.

In other words, it is simply unclear what we’ve achieved for all of that spending. There is almost certainly a “bootleggers and baptists” problem here, while climate activists push for more spending, members of Congress and companies look for ways to get their hands on that funding, distorting the direction of the policy.

For politicians and activists, much of their benefit comes when government simply increases the amount it spends on climate change. Spending more demonstrates politicians, and the activists who advocate those expenditures, care about the planet and climate change, and the value is in the signal it sends to constituents, funders and the public, even if the result of those expenditures is dubious. Effectiveness is more murky and, apparently, a secondary consideration.

If climate change is, as environmental activists claim, the “most important” issue we face, they will certainly call for changes in the way we make policy and measure the effectiveness of government expenditures on the issue. If, instead, they simply advocate for more spending without adequate measures of effectiveness, then their behavior will speak more loudly than their words, indicating the political value of climate change as an issue is more important than solving it.

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