Climate change in Houston

August 24, 2013

Environment & Science

How will Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast fare in the next quarter-century as the impacts of climate change interact with an economy built largely around the petrochemical industry? A panel of experts addressed many of the questions around that conundrum this week in the first of two public forums.

The August 21 event, “Environmental Challenges Facing the Houston Region for the Next 25 Years,” was presented by the Rice Design Alliance at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

“Houston remains an environmentally challenged city,” moderator Thomas Colbert, a professor of architecture at the University of Houston, told the capacity audience in the museum’s Brown Auditorium.

Providing a “large-scale perspective” was Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University and Texas’ official state climatologist, as well as author of the popular blog “Climate Abyss.”

“Climate change by itself is a very challenging problem, since it affects just about everything,” Nielsen-Gammon said. And while there have been periods of climate change in the past caused entirely by natural phenomena, he said, the current period is “unprecedented” because among the causes — many scientists believe the chief cause — is human impacts, primarily the rise of carbon dioxide levels through the burning of fossil fuels.

“This has never happened before,” he said.

Along the Texas Gulf Coast, Nielsen-Gammon said, the effects of climate change will be likely seen in the erosion of coastlines, changes in ocean chemistry, an increase in insect-borne diseases, as well as a host of “unknown unknowns.” Among those, he noted, was the economic impacts of both climate change itself, as well as efforts to mitigate or halt it.

And while the community of climate scientists is nearly unanimous in its belief that climate change is happening, for many members of the public (as well as their political representatives), the science is often filtered through their own perceptions and ideologies.

On that last point, Nielsen-Gammon said that people on either pole of the debate are so fixed in their ideas that they pay little attention to arguments of the other side, while those in the middle ground hear both sides.

“The less you know, the more you understand,” he joked.

Next up was Dr. John Anderson, professor of oceanography at Rice University.

While the residents of the sprawling metropolis might not think so, Anderson said, “the reality is that Houston is a coastal community” and thus susceptible to the vagaries of tropical storm impacts, last demonstrated fiercely by 2008′s Hurricane Ike.

Anderson said rising sea levels are “the strongest manifestation of climate change.” The geological record is “very clear” that the world’s oceans have been rising at an increasing rate over the last two centuries, six times faster than they had for thousands of years before. Meanwhile, he said, the two great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica have been in retreat.

Locally, the impacts of climate change can be seen in the erosion of beaches on Galveston and other barrier islands, and impacts of the sediment deposits from the Trinity and San Jacinto rivers into Galveston Bay, affecting the ecosystem’s health.

Pointing to the damage to the communities along the bay by Ike, Anderson said many Texas officials are living in a “State of Denial” in their idea for an “Ike Dike,” a proposed $20 billion project that would close off the bay to protect it from tropical storm surges.

Eric Berger, science writer for the Houston Chronicle and author of its “SciGuy” blog, said he was chosen to add some levity to the Ph.D-laden discussion.

And so he began with a joke: A climate scientist and climate change skeptic walk into a bar. The skeptic asks the bartender for the strongest whiskey he’s got. The barkeep pours him a shot and says its 95 percent alcohol. The skeptic turns on his heels and angrily walks out.

“‘You see,’ said the scientist. ‘You show a skeptic proof, and he doesn’t buy it.’”

More seriously, Berger noted he began his blog in 2005, shortly after Hurricane Katina devastated New Orleans and just about the time former Vice President Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth was released, bringing the issue of climate change further into the public realm.

(Berger noted wryly that the film’s provocative poster depicted Katrina spinning out of an industrial plant’s smokestacks — only the storm was spinning in the wrong direction.)

But it was also about this time, Berger said, when the issue of climate change was moving into a highly politicized sphere marked by deep partisanship.

Partly that is a result of a specific Republican strategy beginning in the late 1990s to discredit the scientific consensus, Berger said, but also because “the science is really hard and inconvenient,” noting how different data points can sometimes suggest that differing trends are happening at the same time.

Berger noted that in the superheated political debate over global warming, advocacy groups of different sides will often latch on to a specific event, including last year’s Hurricane Sandy, to buttress their claims.

But he pointed to recent surveys, one a Gallup poll showing that a slight majority of Americans believe that climate change is a serious issue, as well as the 2012 Houston Area Survey by Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg that showed, seemingly incongruently, that a much larger percentage (73.5%) believe that to be the case.

Berger, who also covers NASA and Houston’s Johnson Space Center, told the audience of how a group of NASA astronauts and engineers, calling themselves the “Right Climate Stuff,” recently issued a report discounting the evidence of climate change. Berger wrote a piece noting that, in the end, the group were engineers, not climatologists, and so their opinion was little different from any other non-expert.

“Oh, I got some mean comments about that,” he said.

The final panelist was Brent Dorsey, environmental program director for the electric utility Entergy, which provides electricity to parts of east Texas and much of the rest of the South, as well as parts of the Northeast.

Dorsey noted that following Hurricane Katrina, Entergy was forced to relocate its corporate headquarters for a time.

He said that many businesses like Entergy have long accepted that climate change is happening, and are busy drawing up plans to adapt to it. For executives in the utility and related industries, including the insurance companies, it is apparent that measures must be taken to mitigate the damages caused by climate change.

“There are only three choices,” Dorsey said. “Mitigate, adapt or suffer.”

The second panel discussion in the series, set for August 28, will focus on competing land uses, environmental justice, and public health issues.

RELATED: A walk in the Lower Ninth Ward

Copyright © 2013 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.

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About Ken Fountain

I'm a journalist and writer based in Houston. My areas of specialty include law and courts, local government and industry and environmental issues. You can follow me on Twitter at @twitter.com/kenfountain and email me at kenfountain1 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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