The US Government Accountability Office, a politically independent body, warned the Republican-controlled US Congress yesterday that there is a new threat faced by government wishing to carry out federal programs: climate change.

The call comes in a week of events which seem to indicate a sea change in American attitudes to climate change.

The GAO's role is to keep an eye on threats to the efficacy of the many government programs that are part of the government's $3.5 trillion budget. This list of risk is updated every two years.

Normally, the GAO will list amongst such risks topics like defence contracting and corruption in health care. For the first time, the High Risk Series added two items related to the climate: "Limiting the Federal Government's Fiscal Exposure by Better Managing Climate Change Risks" and "Mitigating Gaps in Weather Satellite Data".

The document, recalling many disasters last year including superstorm Sandy, says that climate change presents risks to infrastructure such as defence installations, insurance costs through the National Flood Insurance Program, and emergency aid response to natural disasters.

It asserts that: "the federal government is not well positioned to address the fiscal exposure presented by climate change", and that what is required is "a government-wide strategic approach with strong leadership to manage related risks".

It also identifies potential gaps in environmental satellite data that could begin next year, which would mean that predictions of extreme events such as hurricanes and storm surges would be less accurate.

"Limiting the federal government's fiscal exposure to climate change is one of the new areas we have on the list," Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, the head of the GAO, said. "The federal government is terribly exposed to this change. The government doesn't budget for disaster, and the record number of disasters hit above 90 in 2012."

Recognising that his message was not going to reach sympathetic ears amongst many in Congress who have previously opposed White House attempts to pass legislation in this area, he declared that "the National Academy of Sciences and from the federal government's own global change research program ... has been very clear on the science underpinning this area".

He was joined at a press conference by a Republican from California, Darrell Issa, who is chair of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee , who told listeners that it is irrelevant whether politicians agree on climate change, the effects are occurring in any case, and it would be irresponsible for Congress not to plan for it.

"I hope all members of Congress on both sides of the issue recognize that it's really not about where you are on climate change, how much CO2 is being emitted, which, by the way, has gone down, not up, it's really about recognizing that Congress has not adjusted for the amount of money we are paying out," Issa said.

Representative Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, issued this stark warning to his colleagues: "This landmark action by the nonpartisan experts at GAO is a wake-up call for Congress to finally start addressing this issue".

Carbon tax proposal

This development follows President Obama's second inaugural address on Tuesday, in which he urged Congress "to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change. But if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy," he said.

He called for a $2bn clean energy transportation fund, which would use fees paid by oil and gas producers on land owned by the government to support research into electric vehicles, home-grown biofuels and vehicles that run on natural gas. The amount is much less than the $9bn program of loans for a similar programme in Obama's first term.

The document, "President Obama's blueprint for a clean and secure energy future", also calls for a doubling of renewable electricity generation and energy productivity and for Congress to establish an "Energy Security Trust" that would be administered by the Energy Department.

Yesterday also saw a bill proposed by senators to tax carbon emissions that would raise up to $1.2 trillion in revenue over 10 years that would largely be returned to consumers.

The initiative comes from independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont and the Democrat Barbara Boxer from California. The bill would set a target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below 2005 levels by 2020 and set a $20 tax for each ton of carbon dioxide emitted by a polluter beyond a set limit, which would rise by 5.6% per year.

The tax would cover emissions from 2,869 of the country's largest emitters, such as coal mines, oil refineries and natural gas processing points, which represent 85% of the economy. Power plants would be excluded as they are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Bill will be debated in the summer.

These developments come as new research published in the Journal of Geophysical Research shows that sea level rise is occurring faster on the east coast of America than elsewhere due to a slowing of the Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic.

A sea change in American attitudes to climate change

The percentage of Americans who believe in climate change is also growing, and the majority now support new regulations introduced greenhouse gas emissions. A survey by Duke University found that half of Americans "are convinced the climate is changing" and a further 34% believed that it "is probably changing". This is the highest proportion since 2007.

54% feel that climate change is due primarily to human activity, and even more, 64%, strongly or somewhat favour regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, factories and cars. Only 29% support taxes on carbon emissions, however.

Although half of Democrats say the problem is "very serious" compared to just 17% of Republicans, support for regulatory or clean energy approaches is broadly equal on both sides of the political divide. Results from a further poll conducted by the League of Conservation Voters found even higher support: 65% of Americans support "the President taking significant steps to address climate change now," including 89% of Democrats, 62% of independents and 38% of Republicans.

Much climate change action in the States is focused on whether keystone XL pipeline project will go ahead to take gas from tar sands in Canada into America. Last week a civil protest outside the White House saw the arrests of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., actress Daryl Hannah, 350.org founder Bill McKibben, and Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune.

Story: David Thorpe, News Editor