updated 4/20/2007 10:59:03 AM ET 2007-04-20T14:59:03

The U.S. government, insurer of last resort, faces a potential payout of at least $919 billion under a worst-case scenario of flood and crop losses due to global warming, congressional investigators say.

That total has grown from about $209 billion in 1980, and could be even higher today because it is based on two-year-old data, according to a report. It recommends an analysis of the potential long-term implications of climate change for federal flood and crop insurance programs.

"We're looking at more floods, droughts, pestilence, fires and storms — all carrying dire economic consequences," Sen. Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Thursday.

Lieberman and Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the committee's top Republican, requested the report from the Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress.

Collins said the report shows that "global warming also threatens to burden consumers and taxpayers with billions of dollars in added costs as insured losses from floods and storms cause increases in federal spending and insurance premiums."

The National Flood Insurance Program's exposure rose to $875 billion in 2005, compared with $207 billion in 1980, the report said. The Federal Crop Insurance Corporation's exposure increased to $44 billion, from $1.7 billion.

Droughts, hurricanes, flooding and other factors of climate change are now considered in the risk calculations by many large private insurers.

But the government's flood and crop insurance programs "have done little to develop comparable information," the study said.

Because of that, the GAO recommended more research to help Congress keep a lid on "an emerging high-risk area with significant implications" for the budget.

Mark Keenum, agriculture undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, said his department generally agreed with the report. But he said the main cause of catastrophic losses for the crop insurance program is drought. He added that the program's growth, rather than more severe or frequent bad weather, explains the increase in federal claims.

Conrad Lautenbacher, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said its studies have shown a surge in population growth among coastal communities: almost 40 million more in 2000 than there were in 1970.

With more people making themselves vulnerable to winter storm surge, wind damage and hurricanes, he said, "these vulnerabilities, due to high risk coastal development, will only be amplified by climate change-related increases" in more frequent and severe bad weather.

During the quarter-century studied, private and federal insurers paid $321 billion to settle weather-related losses, mainly from hurricanes and droughts.

Of that, private insurers paid three-quarters of the share, or $243.5 billion. Federal crop insurance paid about 14 percent, or $43.6 billion, and federal flood insurance paid 11 percent, or $34 billion.

Weather-related losses made up 88 percent of all the property claims paid by insurers between 1980 and 2005. Other losses were caused by the Sept. 11 attacks, earthquakes and other factors, according to the GAO.

The GAO report is online at www.gao.gov/new.items/d07285.pdf

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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