Ever since Hurricane Harvey struck Houston last year with a record-breaking deluge, the city has been awash with warnings that more catastrophic storms are on the figurative horizon.
Some of these admonitions have been coupled with reminders that scientists say a warming climate is bringing warmer Gulf of Mexico waters, which can fuel more dangerous hurricanes. Many other warnings, however, haven’t been tied explicitly to climate change.
Earlier this month, researchers published a new study about Harvey that combined first-ever findings that link ocean-water temperatures and hurricane rainfall in a particular, compelling way. Based on these conclusions about Harvey’s precipitation, the scientists added their own voices to the chorus calling for at-risk cities like Houston to do a better job of strengthening themselves against hurricanes boosted by climate change.
“We know this threat exists, and yet in many cases society is not adequately planning for these storms,” said Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Colorado and the study’s lead author.
“I believe there is a need to increase resilience with better building codes, flood protection, and water management, and we need to prepare for contingencies, including planning evacuation routes and how to deal with power cuts,” Trenberth said in a statement released by NCAR, one of the world’s foremost climate-research institutions.
Two earlier studies by other researchers, published in December, found that manmade atmospheric warming had made Harvey worse than it would have been otherwise. The new study by Trenberth and others, published in the scientific journal Earth’s Future, is the first to show that ocean water that evaporated as Harvey passed across the Gulf matched the volume of the storm’s devastating rainfall, which inundated much of Houston and other locations.
“While hurricanes occur naturally, human‐caused climate change is supercharging them and exacerbating the risk of major damage,” the researchers wrote in Earth’s Future.
“We show, for the first time, that the volume of rain over land corresponds to the amount of water evaporated from the unusually warm ocean,” Trenberth said. “As climate change continues to heat the oceans, we can expect more supercharged storms like Harvey.”
Using a network of autonomous floats called Argo, the scientists compared Gulf-water temperatures before and after Harvey’s landward trek. They employed rainfall data from NASA’s new, satellite-based Global Precipitation Measurement mission.
The researchers summarized their findings:
We show that prior to the beginning of northern summer of 2017, ocean heat content was the highest on record both globally and in the Gulf of Mexico, but the latter sharply decreased with hurricane Harvey via ocean evaporative cooling. The lost ocean heat was realized in the atmosphere as moisture, and then as latent heat in record‐breaking heavy rainfalls. Accordingly, record high ocean heat values not only increased the fuel available to sustain and intensify Harvey, but also increased its flooding rains on land. Harvey could not have produced so much rain without human‐induced climate change.
The general idea that hurricane threats are increasing with climate change has been “reasonably well established” since “intensive research” following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the authors of the new Harvey study added, but preparation…
…has been quite inadequate in hindsight. There is a great need for better planning and building adaptive capacity that: increases engineering mitigation measures (such as levees and seawalls, flood control), adheres to building codes, prevents building in flood plains, stops unbridled growth, hardens infrastructure, manages water and drainage systems, develops emergency response plans including evacuation routes and their implementation along with emergency shelters and power supplies, and provides property and flood insurance that matches the true and changing risk.
Government officials in the Houston area have taken some steps in Harvey’s aftermath to harden its defenses against catastrophic hurricanes – stricter new construction regulations adopted by the city of Houston, for instance, and a bond election planned by Harris County to pay for flood-control projects.
Nonetheless, some critics argue not nearly enough is being done. And officials have been frustrated by obstacles to initiatives they want to pursue more aggressively, such as an effort to buy out the owners of flood-prone residences. From a Houston Chronicle article last week:
Local, state and federal officials, frustrated by an influx of investors buying flooded homes and lengthy delays in disaster prevention funding, are working to overhaul the country’s buyout program, hoping to speed up sales that can now take years to complete.
So far, they lament, none of the $10 billion approved by Congress for long-term flood recovery in Texas has made it to local governments, leaving homeowners in a lurch and neighborhoods open to investor speculation.
Leaders, deeply concerned that they are losing buyout opportunities to such investors, have even started to talk about more punitive measures: [Federal Emergency Management Agency] chiefs have discussed canceling flood insurance policies for homes that have suffered multiple floods, and Harris County Flood Control officials have started talking about using eminent domain to forcibly remove homeowners from those houses.
“At what point is allowing this program to be voluntary still a benefit to everyone, to the community, and to the owners living there?” asked James Wade, head of the Harris County Flood Control buyout program. “These are homes at such high risk of flooding. People are in harm’s way.”
Bill Dawson is the founder and editor of Texas Climate News.
The black and gold bumblebee is one of nine bumblebee species known to inhabit Texas.
By Randy Lee Loftis
Texas Climate News
The fate of bees has been weighing on human minds in Texas and worldwide. Climate change is one reason.
Bees are important among pollinators, those creatures that transfer pollen from one plant’s male parts to another’s female parts, the means of reproduction in about 80 percent of flowering plants. However, in an age of pesticides, pavement, parasites, diseases and a disrupted climate from human actions, some see bees struggling to keep up the ancient dance.
The honey bee, which beekeepers raise by the billions, is North America’s “most important managed pollinator,” the National Academy of Sciences notes, but what often catches the human eye is its wild cousin, the bumblebee. People spot bumblebees easily because they’re relative giants – think of a flying grape. Even their genus name sounds big: Bombus.
While bumblebees might lack honey bees’ media presence, their 250 or so species help restock the planet with blueberries, tomatoes, peppers and many wild plants. But a host of problems might make bumblebees some of the most vulnerable bees in North America. The data, still a little patchy, suggest that some are dwindling in Texas and nationwide. In 2012, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department classified three types of bumblebees as “species of greatest conservation need.”
Even with such worries, there’s surprisingly little known about bumblebee distribution in Texas. New research seeks to plug knowledge gaps and mark priority places for conservation.
Past estimates of bumblebee ranges and numbers in Texas came largely from specimens in museums, but that wasn’t sufficient. Biologists recently tried a new tactic: scouring records from the past decade’s volunteer bee counts and other sources. Bumblebees’ visibility makes them good subjects for “citizen science.” The researchers, from the University of North Texas, published their findings last summer in the open-access online journal PeerJ.
Their look through past surveys and results of recent field research yielded reports of 11 bumblebee species, three new to Texas. The American bumblebee, Bombus pensylvanicus, was by far the most common, but also among those in decline. (About pensylvanicus: Charles de Geer, who named the species in 1773, wrote it with just two N’s; that spelling has stuck.)
The researchers also looked at areas with suitable bumblebee habitat as places where conservation might pay off. They pegged a stretch including parts of three ecoregions: Cross Timbers, Blackland Prairie and East Central Texas Plains. It includes sprawling Dallas-Fort Worth and much of the I-35 corridor from Oklahoma south to near Austin. In that area, farms and natural areas, bumblebee havens, are disappearing daily – a 315,000-acre loss in DFW alone from 1997-2012.
It’s easy to document habitat loss, but the climate connection to bees is trickier. Small shifts might make subtle but important differences, so figures on average annual temperature and rainfall trends are too coarse to tell the story. Researchers have already found bees changing their ranges and seasonal behavior – due to climate effects not only on them but also on the flowering plants they pollinate. Bit by bit, new studies are filling in some details, but there’s a long way to go, as a research group from the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory reported last year.
“The relative importance of direct and indirect climate effects on bumblebee populations is poorly understood,” they wrote, “which limits our ability to explain how climate change may affect these important pollinators.”
Randy Lee Loftis is an independent journalist in Dallas. He contributes regularly to Texas Climate News as a senior editor of this publication.
Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg speaking at Rice University in Houston
By Bill Dawson
Texas Climate News
Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a multi-billionaire businessman now devoting much of his time and fortune to fighting climate change, delivered a stinging critique of President Donald Trump’s climate policies in a commencement address at Houston’s Rice University.
The critique formed part of Bloomberg’s broader discussion of the importance of honesty and honor in public life.
The theory that humans are dangerously altering Earth’s climate “is not a Chinese hoax,” he told Rice’s 2018 graduating class. “It’s called science – and we should demand that politicians have the honesty to respect it.”
Bloomberg did not refer to Trump by name – his swipes at the president, his administration and supportive officials were what reporters often call “thinly veiled.” The rhetorical veil he used, however, was about as thin as it gets, leaving no doubt who the ex-mayor’s primary target was.
Take the “Chinese hoax” comment, for instance. It was Trump who famously alleged via Twitter that the almost universal scientific consensus on manmade global warming is a “hoax” concocted by China to harm the U.S. economy.
That disparagement of climate science has been reflected since Trump’s 2016 victory in a series of policy initiatives to undo Obama-era actions to battle climate change. At the same time, his administration has been busy reducing or eliminating federal attention to – and promotion of – the scientific findings that drove those actions.
Bloomberg’s remarks at Rice on climate were part of his larger argument that the qualities of honor and honesty, which he noted have a common linguistic origin, are in short supply at upper levels of the federal government.
That the former New York mayor would charge Trump and his administration with an honesty deficit – and single out the president’s refusal to accept climate scientists’ findings and conclusions as a key example – was hardly surprising.
First, there’s this context: Bloomberg delivered his remarks as leading news organizations – without precedent during prior administrations, at least in modern U.S. history – have been tracking and cataloging what the New York Times flatly called “President Trump’s lies” and the Washington Post called his “false or misleading claims.”
Then there’s slightly less recent history: Speaking to the Democratic National Convention that nominated Hillary Clinton in 2016, Bloomberg (a former Democrat who became a Republican in 2001 and then an Independent in 2007) had assailed Trump for a business record short on integrity: “I’m a New Yorker, and New Yorkers know a con when we see one.”
Moreover, the two men’s records on climate change could hardly contrast more sharply. Trump has scoffed at climate science and has moved toward ending the federal attack on greenhouse pollution. Bloomberg is one of the foremost private-sector leaders in the international effort against climate disruption – warning of its dangers, launching high-profile initiatives and providing a lot of money.
Immediately after Trump began U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017, for example, Bloomberg committed $15 million to assist the operations of the U.N. climate-change agency and traveled to France to assure French President Emmanuel Macron that Americans would continue to be part of the effort against climate disruption.
Some excerpts from the former mayor’s address in Houston:
The commitment to honesty is a responsibility that you accepted as an Owl [in signing Rice’s Honor Code]. It is also, I believe, a patriotic responsibility.
The cherry tree legend has endured because it’s not really about George Washington. It’s about us, as a nation. It’s about what we want for our children – and what we value in our leaders: honesty.
We’ve always lionized our two greatest presidents – Washington and Lincoln – not only for their accomplishments, but also for their honesty. We see their integrity and morals as a reflection of our honor as a nation.
However, today when we look at the city that bears Washington’s name, it’s hard not to wonder: What the hell happened?
[M]any of those at the highest levels of power see the plain truth as a threat. They fear it. They deny it. And they attack it – just as the communists once did. And so here we are, in the midst of an epidemic of dishonesty, and an endless barrage of lies.
When elected officials speak as though they are above the truth, they will act as though they are above the law. And when we tolerate dishonesty, we get criminality.
Sometimes, it’s in the form of corruption. Sometimes, it’s abuse of power. And sometimes, it’s both. If left unchecked, these abuses can erode the institutions that preserve and protect our rights and freedoms – and open the door to tyranny and fascism.
Now, you might say: There’s always been deceitful politicians and dishonest politicians – in both parties. And that’s true. But there is now more tolerance for dishonesty in politics than I have seen in my lifetime.
My generation can tell you: The only thing more dangerous than dishonest politicians who have no respect for the law, is a chorus of enablers who defend their every lie.
Remember: The Honor Code here at Rice just doesn’t require you to be honest. It requires you to say something if you saw others acting dishonestly. Now that might be the most difficult part of an honor code, but it may also be the most important, because violations affect the whole community.
And the same is true in our country. If we want elected officials to be honest, we have to hold them accountable when they are not – or else suffer the consequences.
Now, don’t get me wrong: Honest people can disagree. That’s what democracy is all about! But productive debate requires an acceptance of basic reality.
Take science for example: If 99 percent of scientists whose research has been peer-reviewed reach the same general conclusion about a theory, then we ought to accept it as the best available information – even if it’s not a 100 percent certainty.
Yes, climate change is only a theory – just like gravity is only a theory. And the fact that Newton’s theory of motion didn’t take into account Maxwell’s observations on the speed of electromagnetic waves as a constant and that Einstein’s special theory of relativity better described motion when things move very fast – doesn’t mean that if I let go of this pen it won’t fall to the ground.
That, graduates, is not a Chinese hoax. It’s called science – and we should demand that politicians have the honesty to respect it.
Hard though it is to believe, some federal agencies have actually banned their employees from using the phrase “climate change.” If censorship solved problems, today we’d all be part of the old U.S.S.R., and the Soviets would have us speaking Russian.
Of course, it’s always good to be skeptical and ask questions. But we must be willing to place a certain amount of trust in the integrity of scientists. If you aren’t willing to do that, don’t get on an airplane, don’t use a cell phone or microwave, don’t get treated in a hospital, and don’t even think about binge-watching Netflix.
Scientific discovery permeates practically every aspect of our lives – except, too often, our political debates.
Bloomberg stressed that he largely blames tribalism, “unrestrained, rabid partisanship” and “the public’s willingness – even eagerness – to believe anything that paints the other side in a bad light” for the predicament.
It’s a problem that isn’t confined to one party, he added: “In the 1990s, leading Democrats spent the decade defending the occupant of the Oval Office against charges of lying and personal immorality, and attempting to silence and discredit the women who spoke out.”
He offered the Rice graduates this advice as they move into the next part of their lives:
Recognize that no one, nor either party, has a monopoly on good ideas. Judge events based on what happened, not who did it. Hold yourself and our leaders to the highest standards of ethics and morality. Respect the knowledge of scientists. Follow the data, wherever it leads. Listen to people you disagree with – without trying to censor them or shout over them. And have the courage to say things that your own side does not want to hear.
Bill Dawson, is the founder and editor of Texas Climate News.
Workers whose jobs take them outdoors suffer the worst of Texas’ climate – summer heat and often blistering sun, torrential rain and flooding, the threat of grass fires, air pollution and allergens, diseases borne by water and insects, as well as the anxiety stemming from direct exposure to these factors that will only increase as the world’s climate changes.
In response to these new demands, Dr. William Brett Perkison, assistant professor in the Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, and his colleagues on the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine Task Force on Climate Change have issued a guidance paper on the responsibilities of experts to identify and mitigate the harmful impacts wrought by a human-disrupted climate.
“This is a position statement for my professional organization,” Perkison said in a recent interview with Texas Climate News. “When people are trying to implement programs to deal with occupational health and climate change, they can cite this paper” to support their plans.
For example, how does an occupational physician prepare for inevitable temperature increases? While the College so far has not suggested specific mitigation efforts, Perkison said, “we have this public health threat. We have to do something about it, especially in our capacity as occupational medicine doctors who have a responsibility for prevention.
“The first obvious measure is one to reduce the effects of heat stress, especially in this area (Houston). When you are at a company or any kind of workplace, you have heat stress protocols. When the temperature gets to a certain level, you implement a buddy system where workers watch each other for heat problems and install drinking coolers out at the workplace.”
“It’s a set kind of thing – just like ozone action days,” when levels of ground-level ozone, sometimes called smog, are projected to rise, Perkison said. “You have a yellow zone where you have to implement a certain set of strategies and a red zone for when it gets to a higher temperature. There’s also a set amount of time you should work in that kind of heat. The higher it gets, the less amount of time you should work.
“These programs cost money,” he said. “This is one of the most tangible areas in climate change. The heat stress protocols are going to occur over a wider period of time, and will ratchet up to higher levels.”
Graphs on the websites of NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show what has happened to date and is anticipated through the year 2050.
“The number of days with temperatures over 110 Fahrenheit in Texas will skyrocket,” Perkison said. “We in occupational medicine have got to plan for this, and we’ve got to know that this will be part of planning overall.”
Heat stress can cause a multitude of problems, but one that has come to light only recently is chronic kidney failure, first identified in sugar cane workers in Central and South America, where it’s a leading cause of mortality. The condition can become more widespread without efforts to protect workers there and in the United States.
“Houston is a poster child for not having prepared….”
The state of Texas relies on the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations and guidelines, which lag those of states like California, Perkison said. However, some measures could protect workers.
Heat surveillance could spark opening of cooling centers for workers and individuals who live in increasing temperatures. “We have an aging workforce that, as with all older people, does not adapt to heat well. They are often not acclimatized because they spend spring and summer in air conditioning. If they go out and work in a hot environment, they are going to be more susceptible to shock.”
Occupational health physicians should monitor these situations, along with exposure to ultraviolet radiation, and help workers and their employers avoid heat-related injury and illness, he said.
Recognizing that hot climates interact with upper-atmosphere ozone-layer depletion, ambient ground-level air pollution and the transport of air toxics, occupational physicians should realize that workers are laboring in increasingly degraded conditions that can have serious implications for their health, he added. Occupational respiratory and allergic disorders may also increase because of the changing climate.
Flooding as a result of hurricanes and other storms encourages increases in pollen and can expose workers to new sources of infection, Perkison said, noting that preparation for these kinds of diseases and disasters can reduce their effects on the population as a whole as well as on the workers who often bear the brunt of the impact.
“Houston is a poster child for not having prepared for these kinds of problems,” he said. However, with three major floods hitting the city in three years, it may be time for people in the city to acknowledge that the climate is changing, he added.
Preparing for natural disasters means having disaster-response teams that are equipped to handle the problems that are naturally going to occur, he said.
“It is not a matter of if it will happen again. With data from NOAA, we know that these 500-year events are now 15-year events,” which means preparation is critical.
Preparing means understanding where flooding happens and having the necessary resources to respond, he said, and acknowledging that there could be even worse disasters in the offing should spur local residents and leaders to improve response.
“Otherwise it will be bad for our local economy. Houston is not going to be a place where anyone wants to move to.”
Ruth SoRelle, a TCN contributing editor, is a veteran medical and science writer based in Houston. She holds a master’s degree in public health from the UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. In her first reporting for Texas Climate News, she filed a number of dispatches from the annual meeting of AAAS (the American Association for Advancement of Science) in February.
An artist’s conception of what the Environmental Defense Fund’s methane-sensing satellite may look like in orbit.
By Joseph A. Davis
Texas Climate News
WASHINGTON – Climate-disrupting methane, also known as natural gas, is still politically explosive as legal and regulatory struggles continue under the Trump administration. It is something Texas cares about, especially with the oil and gas production booming yet again in the western part of the state.
Because methane looms so large in its atmosphere-warming capability, environmentalists plan to launch a satellite to measure methane plumes, which are a kind of “smoking gun” showing emissions by oil, gas, landfill, feedlot, and other industrial operations. The Environmental Defense Fund announced its plan April 11, although it is still raising money for the project.
EDF says the satellite, initially targeting methane from oil and gas operations, would help identify hot spots for emissions, aiding companies and governments in efforts to reduce them.
“Cutting methane emissions from the global oil and gas industry is the single fastest thing we can do to help put the brakes on climate change right now, even as we continue to attack the carbon dioxide emissions most people are more familiar with,” said Fred Krupp, the organization’s president.
The Trump administration is unpersuaded, however, by such arguments about the urgency of methane emission cuts from oil and gas operations. Two big federal rules to limit methane emissions are currently under contention – both laid down during the Obama administration and both put on hold during the Trump era. One, issued by the Bureau of Land Management, would govern methane emissions from drilling operations on federal lands. The other, actually a set of rules, by the Environmental Protection Agency, covers oil and gas wells across the U.S.
Both of these rules were proposed fairly late in the Obama administration. Both were opposed by much of the oil and gas industry. Both were put on hold, or delayed, by the incoming Trump administration. Both have ended up in court, with the industry resisting them and environmental groups pushing them. None of those court cases (or the further rulemakings they may lead to) have reached a final resolution.
Why regulate methane – something petroleum-producing operations often flare off as a nuisance? First, it’s a powerful greenhouse gas that worsens climate change. Second, it’s worth money (in royalties) to the federal Treasury. Third, it’s worth money (in sales and profits) to oil and gas companies. And once in a rare while, it blows something or someone up.
Methane is scarcely profitable when it is far away from gas-collection pipeline networks, which could get it to market. Natural gas prices have fallen dramatically in the last decade as domestic production from shale formations using fracking technology has surged. In fact, because U.S. gas production is near a historic high, prices are likely to stay near where they are now – low. That lowers producers’ incentives to get economically marginal methane to market.
But gas prices in a complex market depend on lots of factors, key among them being where the gas is located. Today, the U.S. looks to become a significant exporter (by shipping it as liquefied natural gas) to regions of the world even hungrier for it than the United States is. So pipelines and terminals matter. Also, to be commercially useful, gas must often be processed to purify it.
When drillers bring up crude oil, it often includes some gas. This is why you often see gas being flared from remote – or not-so-remote – petroleum production facilities. What you will not see (unless you have the special instruments environmentalists want to launch aloft) is the large amount of gas that leaks unnoticed from leaky fittings (“fugitive” emissions) or is being deliberately vented.
EPA Methane Rule
EPA originally published its rule to control methane emissions from oil and gas facilities in June 2016. Once Scott Pruitt came in as administrator (and President Trump signed an executive order), EPA moved in April 2017 to stay and delay the rule’s effect. Then the whole argument went to court.
The case tests the legality of a key Trump administration tactic – delaying a rule’s effect rather than repealing or replacing it outright. To repeal or replace a rule takes another rulemaking, a time-consuming process with an uncertain outcome. Under Pruitt and other Trump agency heads, this administration seized on the delay gambit as an expedient. But it has not held up well in court.
In July 2017, nine of the 11 judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the delay tactic was unlawful and that EPA would have to enforce the Obama methane rule while it went through a new rulemaking. Many Republicans side with the oil industry in opposing the rule. The House even voted in September 2017 (mostly on party lines) to block funds to carry it out. Since then, EPA has tried another gambit by amending the rule. Since then, 14 states led by New York have this month gone to court pushing to enforce the Obama EPA methane rule.
While the American Petroleum Institute opposes the Obama rule, the industry is not monolithic. In fact, API says, the industry is reducing emissions on its own. And this is true – to some extent. There has grown up a significant sub-industry devoted to detecting and reducing methane emissions from oil and gas facilities. ExxonMobil, the nation’s biggest natural gas producer, announced its own program to reduce methane emissions in September 2017.
The Environmental Defense Fund reported this month, however, that an analysis it had conducted suggests “just six companies that represent only three percent of global oil and gas production currently report quantitative methane emission targets.”
EDF’s white paper argued that targeted commitments from more companies to cut methane emissions from both gas and oil operations will represent “a tangible step by industry to slow the rate of warming now and can help companies mitigate regulatory risk.”
Unlike many other environmentalists, EDF argues that climate-protecting benefits of natural gas, as a cleaner-during alternative to coal to produce electricity, can be realized if methane emissions are greatly reduced.
Meanwhile, the process of completely overhauling the EPA methane rule still inches ahead.
BLM Methane Rule
The Bureau of Land Management rule applies only to wells drilled on leased federal lands (most of which are managed by BLM). Since the federal government sets the terms of the lease, it has more leverage. The rule requires well operators to minimize flaring, venting, and leaks from these wells. BLM proposed it in January 2016.
Since the Obama rule was not finalized until November 15, 2016, it was subject to congressional reversal under the Congressional Review Act, which GOPers used to kill many other late-breaking Obama rules. It came as a surprise, then, when the Senate rejected reversal of the BLM rule by a narrow 51-49 vote in May 2017.
That did not end the fight. By December 2017, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (the boss of BLM) had announced that he would delay the rule’s effect for a year. That prompted litigation, and a federal judge in February 2018 ruled the Zinke BLM could not delay the Obama rule.
Those who reject climate science and deny the reality of manmade climate change (like key Trump administration officials) may be tempted to look to the nation’s oil capital as a bastion of support for their contrarian views.
Houston-area residents increasingly view climate change as “a very serious problem” and agree with the vast majority of climate scientists that “human activities” are its primary cause.
Those were among the findings in the 37th edition of Rice University’s respected survey of Houston-area attitudes on various social, economic and lifestyle issues, conducted earlier this year as the city continued to recover from Hurricane Harvey and debate how to address the stronger hurricanes and other storms that scientists project will occur as climate disruption proceeds.
“The data indicate clearly that area residents’ beliefs have changed significantly” about climate change, according to a report on the 2018 poll, issued Monday by the university’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.
More than half of the Houston-area residents who were surveyed (52 percent) agreed that “the threat of climate change is ‘a very serious problem.’”
That marked a big jump from 39 percent who said it was “a serious problem” in 2010, the first year the Rice pollsters asked the question. Also reflecting growing concern in Houston, just 22 percent this year said climate change is “not a very serious problem.”
About two-thirds of Houston-area residents in this year’s survey (64 percent) said climate change is “mainly caused by human activities,” up from 48 percent in 2011 and 58 percent in 2015.
Virtually all climate scientists agree that human activities are mainly to blame for climate change through atmosphere-warming pollution from the use of coal, oil and natural gas.
(One of the top Trump administration officials who refuse to endorse that basic scientific conclusion is Jim Bridenstine, a Rice graduate and former Congress member from Oklahoma. He was confirmed by the Senate last week to head NASA, whose scientists track climate change. At Rice, Bridenstine majored in economics, psychology and business.)
Houston-area residents’ concern about the threat of climate change has increased in recent years, as has their acceptance of the vast scientific consensus that human beings are mainly responsible for climate disruption. (Source: Rice University Kinder Houston Area Survey)
Other responses in the 2018 Rice survey suggest that Houston-area residents are ready for robust actions to increase the area’s resilience – a frequently deployed term in the post-Harvey dialogue about the city’s future – against other extreme weather events.
More than 75 percent of the respondents said they believe it is “almost certain that the Houston region will experience more severe storms during the next 10 years compared to the past 10 years.”
Strong majorities of residents said they support these potential policy initiatives:
Ninety-one percent said property owners should be required to notify potential buyers of site flooding in recent years.
Seventy-two percent supported using public funds to protect the huge complex of oil, gas and chemical facilities along the Houston Ship Channel.
Sixty-six percent agreed that stricter local regulations on development would have “significantly reduced” Harvey’s damage.
Fifty-six percent favored higher local taxes to finance government buyouts of homes that have flooded repeatedly.
The Kinder Houston Area Survey was conducted by landline and cell phone between Jan. 23 and March 1. The scientifically selected sample included 807 residents of Harris County and 350 each from suburban Fort Bend and Montgomery counties.
Bill Dawson is the founder and editor of Texas Climate News.
Image credits: Photo – Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; Chart – Rice University Kinder Institute for Urban Research
An example of the growing partisan divide measured by Gallup’s pollsters in March. See the chart below for complete results from the organization’s latest poll on global warming.
By Bill Dawson
Texas Climate News
Last year, Gallup’s annual nationwide poll on global warming, the manmade phenomenon that’s driving disruptive climate change, discovered public concerns at their highest levels since the organization started asking about the issue in 2001.
Generally, Republicans have lagged well behind Democrats and Independents over the years in their acceptance of climate science and in their stated concern about climate change.
Last year, Gallup found that gap widening — concern among Democrats and Independents jumped from 2016 to 2017, while Republican concern stayed about the same as it had been in recent years, at steady though much lower levels than among other Americans.
In the 2018 edition of the poll, conducted last month, Gallup found that perennial partisan divide had widened even more. This time, Democrats’ concern continued to grow, while concern among Republicans and Independents was lower.
Overall, Gallup’s analysts concluded that “Americans’ concerns about global warming are not much different from the record-high levels they were at a year ago,” though “the views of some partisans have shifted.”
Kirshenbaum, who holds graduate degrees in biology and policy, is executive director of Science Debate, a nonprofit, nonpartisan initiative that aims “to restore science to its rightful place in politics.”
She also hosts Serving Up Science, a YouTube series and NPR show of the same name. In general, she says, she works “to enhance public understanding of science and improve communication between scientists, policymakers and the public.”
What do you make of the growing partisan divide on Gallup’s questions, with both Republicans and Independents moving away from acceptance of the science and support for action?
It’s not very surprising at all. The changes in attitudes since 2017 aren’t that large and climate change is a very politicized and partisan issue.
Why does it seem to be widening again?
2018 is an election year, and Americans are more polarized than we’ve been in a long time. I expect we’d see similar trends on a variety of policy issues.
Is this reflected in other recent polls? Gallup’s people seemed to minimize the shift’s importance in their interpretive text accompanying the poll, instead stressing that climate concerns continue to register near last year’s record-high all-time number for the public as a whole.
More Americans accept that climate change is occurring than before – we saw a dramatic shift in attitudes during the years of the UT Energy Poll between 2011 and 2017. Regardless of party affiliation, all of us are seeing dramatic wildfires in the Northwest and more extreme hurricanes and storms. Generally I think the conversation has shifted because it’s no longer “Is climate change taking place?” for the vast majority of Americans, but “How much are humans responsible?” and “What can we do about it?”
As someone who cares very deeply about the importance of science in the political discourse, what do you think are the reasons for these changes, especially among Republicans?
On climate change (and on pretty much everything), we’re influenced more by how we feel than facts. So piling on additional scientists and data related to climate change isn’t necessarily going to make a huge difference on public sentiment. As I wrote earlier, climate change is deeply politicized, and Americans are going to turn to the people they trust most, which are often talking heads as well as family and friends on social media that reaffirm our beliefs. In 2018, this environment makes us more polarized than ever.
Was the decline in Republicans’ endorsement of science and level of climate concern a result of a desire to support their party’s leader, the president, at a time of fierce political dichotomy? A failure by the scientific community to communicate the vast consensus skillfully enough? A failure by the news media to reflect that consensus? President Trump’s skill at rallying his backers to his view on the issue? All or some of the above?
It’s all of it – and more. For example, it doesn’t help that the U.S. is having a cold spring either. But on the whole, we can be optimistic. The majority of Americans recognize climate change is real. What matters is what, if anything, we do about it. I’m hopeful.
Gallup’s findings on global warming, 2017 and 2018
In an overwhelming consensus, scientists say global warming is happening, mainly human-caused and already disrupting the climate system. Gallup’s latest annual poll on environment and energy, conducted in March, found wider partisan disagreement about those basic facts of the climate issue and other points.
Bill Dawson is the founder and editor of Texas Climate News.
This image was captured when an elusive ocelot triggered a remote-action trail camera at a wildlife refuge in South Texas.
By Melissa Gaskill
Texas Climate News
Expanding the “wall” along the U.S.–Mexico border is controversial for many reasons, not the least of which is fear that it would harm the region’s wildlife and wildlife habitat.
That concern is especially acute along the Texas stretch of the border, much of it the focus of decades of efforts to preserve rich biodiversity.
Now, a group of Texas scientists details what they conclude would be significant effects of more barrier on the border.
In a letter published in the April 2018 edition of the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, these scientists warn that “expanding the physical barriers along the southern border of the U.S. will have substantial negative effects on wild species and natural ecosystems,” including habitat destruction, habitat fragmentation, and ecosystem damage. Texas will be hardest hit, they add.
The authors conducted a review of 14 scientific publications, including studies on effects of existing border barriers. They were Norma Fowler, Tim Keitt and Olivia Schmidt of the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Texas at Austin; Martin Terry of the Department of Biology at Sul Ross State University and the Cactus Conservation Institute, both in Alpine; and Keeper Trout, also affiliated with the cactus institute.
As proposed by federal officials, new border barriers and accompanying roads will destroy at least 4.8 to 7.3 acres of habitat per kilometer, not including construction sites, new roads to reach the barriers, or edge effects on adjacent land, the Texas scientists noted, based on a 2008 Department of Homeland Security report.
An ecosystem of particular concern exists only in remnants along the river in South Texas – Tamaulipan thornscrub, home to the endangered Zapata bladderpod wildflower and endangered ocelot, they write.
Physical barrier cannot be built in the Rio Grande floodplain, so some sections would be inland from the river, some more than a mile.
This will keep wildlife from reaching the water and isolate from the rest of the U.S. another important ecosystem, South Texas riparian habitat, which supports high levels of bird diversity, the authors caution. In West Texas, a population of threatened whiskerbush cactus in Big Bend National Park lies in the likely path of barrier.
Habitat fragmentation caused by the barrier will affect animals that cannot or will not cross barriers and roads, the authors warn, and plant species whose pollinators or seed dispersers do not cross the barriers.
Species with populations on both sides of the border will end up as smaller, isolated populations, increasing the probability of local or complete extinction, the letter points out. Habitat fragmentation already isolates two remaining ocelot populations in South Texas from each other and from the population in Mexico, resulting in loss of genetic variability.
If a new barrier separates black bears in Big Bend National Park from those in Mexico, the park population is too small to persist on its own, the authors report.
The scientists also express concern about effects on the border’s recreation and ecotourism industries. In 2011, ecotourism generated an estimated $344 million or more in economic activity in the Lower Rio Grande Valley alone – the four-county region at the southernmost tip of Texas.
The letter urges environmental reviews for each proposed barrier section, even though the project is exempt from such reviews. It also encourages reducing negative effects by limiting the extent of physical barriers and associated roads, choosing designs that permit animal passage, and using less biologically harmful methods, such as electronic sensors instead of physical barriers.
Existing physical barrier covers about 100 miles of the Texas border with Mexico. While Congress exempted the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge from new barrier, more miles are set to be built on other federal lands, including parts of the nearby Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
Melissa Gaskill, an independent journalist based in Austin, is a contributing editor for Texas Climate News.
A sidewalk in an older Houston neighborhood is shaded by trees.
By Randy Lee Loftis
Texas Climate News
Read anything about the New Urbanism – which seeks, among other things, to design cities for people as well as cars – and the notion of walkability strolls up.
The movement advocates swapping post-World War II sprawl for “walkable blocks and streets, housing and shopping in close proximity, and accessible public spaces,” as the Congress for the New Urbanism puts it.
Walking to stores, parks, work or transit stops cuts vehicle pollution and gives inner cities a much smaller carbon footprint than suburbs, research shows. Green space also helps reduce childhood obesity and improves mental health and social welfare. Walkability is on the agenda in many Texas cities.
But what if climate change makes it too hot for people to walk safely?
Just a few added degrees can turn a healthy walk harmful, studies have found. Heat stress “may prove to be one of the most widely experienced and directly dangerous aspects of climate change,” Columbia University and NASA scientists reported last year. Global average temperatures last year were higher than the 1951-1980 mean by 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit, according to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
A wet-bulb globe temperature (WBGT) of 90 degrees F is often pegged as the highest safe reading for outdoor activity, and even that would allow no more than 15 minutes of exertion followed by 45 minutes of rest. WBGT is more complex, weighs more factors and is considered a better safety marker than the more familiar heat index. The theoretical limit of human tolerance is a WBGT of 95 F.
Not many studies have looked at how to factor increasing heat into walkable urban design; a few more have quantified how some nearby greenery can help. One paper, by scientists at Texas A&M and two other universities, appeared in the January issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
Researchers took thermal images of 10 sidewalk segments in College Station that had different landscaping. Some had no trees or grass, while others had variations of trees only, grass only, and trees and grass. The study aimed to quantify how much of the green stuff is needed to moderate the heat blasting off the pavement.
The findings aren’t surprising: Adjacent shade and vegetation cool the air where people walk. Unlike similar studies, this one also checked temperatures at lower elevations where children encounter more heat from pavement. Having some greenery nearby reduced children’s extra burden, the study found.
The paper’s authors emphasized that the study is limited and local. But with growing demand for human-scale city habitats, and with the planet still heating up, people will have to find out if walkable urban design and climate change can coexist.
Randy Lee Loftis is an independent journalist in Dallas. He contributes regularly to Texas Climate News as a senior editor of this publication.
GALVESTON — Seven months on, scientists from the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary and several universities continue to hunt for the most likely culprits in a mysterious die-off at the East Bank in July 2016.
They gathered recently at sanctuary headquarters in Galveston for a science symposium and agreed that low dissolved oxygen was “the most likely contributing causation factor” of the highly localized mortality event — the deaths of creatures of many species in a specific, limited area.
Participants agreed that low dissolved oxygen was “the most likely contributing causation factor” of the event.
The event was discovered on July 25, and sanctuary scientists examining the area July 27 noted a clear demarcation between healthy and stressed or dying corals, with mortality of brittle stars, sea urchins, and bivalves as well — “anything that couldn’t move,” says Michelle Johnston, a research ecologist at the federally managed sanctuary.
Coral mortality was estimated at about 20 percent in the affected area. The East Bank is one of three areas that make up the sanctuary, a combined protected area of 56 square miles about 100 miles from the Texas coast.
A follow-up research cruise in August indicated the localized nature of the event. The sanctuary’s science staff have been unable to do additional on-site work but expect to resume research cruises soon.
“We are saying it is probably not a single cause, but a combination of stressors,” Johnston says. Gaps in data about the event exist, but known conditions include depressed surface salinity, depressed levels of dissolved oxygen at depth and elevated seawater temperatures.
Some of the conditions are consistent with researchers’ conclusions about climate change. Extreme rainfall and flooding, which they say are increasing in a changing climate, occurred in basins of the Mississippi River and several Texas rivers in months prior to the die-off.
The Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary protects coral reefs that grow atop geological formations called salt domes rising from the Gulf of Mexico floor. Its three banks, the East, West and Stetson, contain more than 20 species of coral and hundreds of species of invertebrates and fish, including some 20 different sharks and rays. Thanks to their protected status and remote location, roughly 100 miles from shore, the reefs remain healthier than most in the Caribbean. Worldwide, coral reefs support at least a quarter of all marine life as well as commercial and recreational fishing and tourism industries, and protect coastlines from storms, waves and erosion — services altogether worth more than $2 trillion per year.
In Texas, a storm April 16 and 17, 2016 dropped more than 16 inches in the Houston area, creating major flooding on the Colorado and Navidad Rivers and Spring and Cypress Creeks. Almost eight inches of rain triggered flash flooding in Palestine on April 29. Ten to 20 inches fell May 26-27 along a swath from southeast Austin to northern Houston, including 20.50 inches east of Brenham. The Brazos River reached record levels at Richmond June 2.
All that river water eventually ended up in the Gulf, where it spread out and floated atop heavier seawater. River runoff dilutes salinity of Gulf waters, contains sediment that blocks sunlight corals need, and can carry nutrients that feed algal blooms and create areas of hypoxia, or extremely low oxygen.
While participants in the hunt for causes agree low dissolved oxygen was likely a main contributor to the event, they stress that clear links have yet to be determined between conditions on the sanctuary reef and the low oxygen levels. Existing data confirm low surface salinity and water temperature that was higher than average on and around the reef near the time of the event. Unusually high levels of freshwater outflow from Gulf Coast rivers were also measured.
Ship monitoring data revealed little or no vessel traffic in the vicinity just before the mortality event, and analyses also indicated no hydrocarbons in the area, effectively ruling out discharge of pollutants or petroleum-based contamination as the culprit.
On Oct. 5, 2016, scientists documented an unrelated coral bleaching event affecting nearly 50 percent of coral colonies in an East Bank study site. “Bleaching” refers to a response by corals to stress, in which the vibrantly hued organisms appear white.
Many of those affected in the October episode were types that normally resist early stage bleaching, but could have been weakened by whatever caused the mortality event a couple of months earlier. Sea surface temperatures above 30 degrees C (86 degrees F) for 85 days represented one of the worst bleaching events recorded at the sanctuary.
Coral scientists correlate elevated water temperatures driven by climate change with increased levels and frequency of coral bleaching worldwide.
Future mortality events remain a distinct possibility at the Flower Gardens. Hurricane Harvey brought catastrophic rainfall to Texas a year after the 2016 event, its 50-plus inches made worse by manmade climate change. A study published in January in the journal Science Advances projects climate-change-fueled increases in riverine flooding in North America during the next 25 years.
This “new normal” highlights the need for additional scientific monitoring in the Gulf of Mexico to close those data gaps that persist with regard to the 2016 mortality event. It also makes a case for protection of additional coral reef banks to help make these ecosystems more resilient.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposed a expansion of the Flower Gardens sanctuary in February 2015, and moved forward on the proposal until it was put on hold by an executive order last April requiring a full accounting of an area’s energy potential prior to an expansion.
Melissa Gaskill, a contributing editor of Texas Climate News, is an independent journalist in Austin.