On Friday, when many were preoccupied with post-Thanksgiving, Black Friday shopping, there was some very serious news in the form of a report confirming what many already know: climate change is a major threat to the nation. While Paul Krugman accused the Trump administration of being “denialist” about climate change in Tuesday’s New York Times, it is important to leave politics aside for the moment and bear down on what the report says about Texas – and what it might mean for its future.
John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas state climatologist and professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M University, worked on the report and says it focuses on specifically on the impact of climate change on food, energy and water.
“How all of those are interconnected, and demands – to produce more food, greater water supply, greater energy needs due to growing population – as well as climate change, is going to really force the state to make some tradeoffs into who gets what water and how that gets distributed,” Nielsen-Gammon says. “That’s the biggest economic impact, I think, on the short term.”
The tradeoffs could include increasing water prices. Nielsen-Gammon says water is generally inexpensive for household consumers compared to what it costs municipalities to provide it. But if the time comes when Texas needs to explore new and more expensive sources of water, especially for agriculture, he says it’s not clear whether farmers would be able to bear the brunt of the costs without costs also going up for average people.
The debate over water use and conservation in Texas isn’t new, and Nielsen-Gammon says Texas has prepared, in some ways, for water crises. For example, it has a water-use plan that covers a 50-year period. But he says the problem is that plan is based on what’s called the drought of record, but that drought might not match what could happen in the future.
“The drought of record is not the worst-case scenario,” Nielsen-Gammon says. “We’ve had worse droughts in the distant past … and with climate change, we’re seeing an increase in temperature, and that’s gonna to continue. So, we’ll have more water evaporating and less water available to use in the future.”
Hurricane Harvey was an example of an extreme weather event for which Texas wasn’t totally prepared. But Nielsen-Gammon says even with climate change, Harvey was most likely an anomaly.
“Harvey was such an unusual event that we probably won’t see its match anytime soon,” Nielsen-Gammon says. “The estimated odds of something as severe as Harvey, presently, are like one in 9,000 years, according to a recent paper.”
But he says the Texas Gulf Coast will still face challenges from climate change. For one thing, the land is sinking in some areas – called “coastal subsidence” – and the sea level is also rising.
“That means that places will gradually become more vulnerable to storm surges, even from nuisance flooding,” Nielsen-Gammon says. “It’ll be difficult if the sea-level rise rate is high enough, for ecosystems to be able to respond. Marshes try to stay at equilibrium with sea level but if the sea expands too quickly, they can’t keep up, and then you have erosion problems and you lose the protection from storm surge.”
Nielsen-Gammon says he didn’t include information in the report about how much climate change could cost the state because there’s too many variables. He says the cost will depend, in part, on how the state, and society at large, chooses to deal with the effects. Also, he’s says the effects are somewhat unpredictable.
“A lot of the economic impacts occur in ways you don’t really anticipate,” Nielsen-Gammon says. “For example, we’ve seen increase in frequency of heavy rainfall … and places that used to be outside the 100-year floodplain are now inside of it. The consequence of that is home values go down for those unlucky people that are now inside the floodplain.”
He says that’s a real-world example of how climate change affects people’s pocketbooks.
Written by Caroline Covington.