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HARC helps Houston plan for climate-change impacts on municipal operations

Climate change adaptation

Tropical Storm Allison floods I-59 in Houston in 2001
Thursday, November 21, 2013

Houstonians know all about some of the extreme weather events that scientists warn could become more numerous or severe as human-caused climate change unfolds:

In 2001, Tropical Storm Allison inundated freeways, neighborhoods and downtown streets and tunnels. In the Texas Medical Center alone, losses exceeded $2 billion.

In 2008, Hurricane Ike’s winds deprived 2.6 million residents of electric power – a third for more than 10 days, according to a survey.

In 2011, at the peak of Texas record-shattering heat wave and drought, Houston lost 18 billion gallons of water because of countless burst pipes, costing the city tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue. Meanwhile, millions of trees died across the area, including an estimated half in densely-canopied Memorial Park.

What should Houston’s city government do to get municipal infrastructure, policies and personnel ready – to plan and implement “adaption” measures in the parlance of climate-change discussions – because of projections of increased incidence and/or greater severity of such weather extremes?

That’s a complex question that HARC’s Jennifer Ronk, program director for environmental science and energy efficiency, is helping city officials to answer.

With funding from a U.S. Department of Energy grant to the city, Ronk has been preparing a preliminary analysis of the adaptation issue as it pertains to Houston’s municipal operations, framing it in terms of major problems that Houston could confront in a changing climate and noting some of the responses that have been identified in other cities that have prepared adaptation plans.

In the next step – if additional funding and continuing support from the city administration are forthcoming – Ronk hopes to “dive much deeper into city operations and develop something that’s specific to the city of Houston, as opposed to just identifying general ideas and concepts that are out there.”

If that happens, the product will be a formal Climate Resiliency Plan for Houston. In her preliminary analysis for city officials, Ronk noted that 57 percent of North American cities have already assembled such plans, the best of which outline clear actions to reduce physical, social and economic impacts of climate change, along with “co-benefits” that can accompany such measures.

Ronk’s analysis identified numerous ways that a changing climate can directly affect the city government’s operations. They include:

  • Flooding can damage infrastructure, overload stormwater systems and create challenges for city employees’ normal performance of their duties.
  • Disaster management plans should be adjusted for possible increases in frequency and/or intensity of extreme weather events.
  • Drought can threaten adequate, reliable water supplies.
  • Increased temperatures can create increased needs for infrastructure maintenance.
  • Higher temperatures can magnify health and safety concerns for city employees who work outdoors.
  • Higher temperatures may increase the associated risks of deteriorating air quality and increased disease, requiring assessments by health officials.

“Realistically, climate change is going to happen,” Ronk said. “There are questions about how bad it will be, but even if we stopped [greenhouse-gas] emissions today, there would be effects that we have to deal with.

“So what might some of those effects be?” she added. “How might they impact city operations and what kind of process should the city undertake to start prioritizing the impact that they would likely feel?”

If the more detailed follow-up study is conducted, it will involve detailed interviews with city employees ranging from department heads to workers in the field.

If already-hot Houston begins experiencing hotter-still temperatures, more frequent storms, more intense and prolonged drought conditions, they will be asked how those things affect your jobs.

“I can look at other cities to figure out what the answers might be, but to get a really good ideas, I have to talk to the people who do that job every day,” Ronk said.

In her research to date, she discovered no other cities in Texas with comprehensive climate-change adaptation plans in place. Austin, which has won national recognition for its plan to curb greenhouse emissions from municipal operations, is focused solely on such “mitigation” measures instead of adaptation, Ronk said.

That may be changing, however, as some citizens have been organizing to push Austin officials to move into the adaptation arena, too.

In the meantime, Ronk has found information that will be useful in an adaptation planning process for the city of Houston in studies conducted in Texas by the U.S. Department of Transportation on risks for transportation infrastructure along the Gulf Coast and by the Port of Houston with regard to its Bayport Terminal.

The vast majority of scientists endorse the conclusions, deriving from research in numerous scientific disciplines, that the earth’s climate is changing and that heat-trapping pollution from human activities, particularly the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, is the main cause.

In September, the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading climate-science organization, released its first major summary of research findings since 2007, declaring that it is now “unequivocal” that the climate is warming and “extremely likely” (meaning at least 95 percent certain) that humans have been the main cause since the mid-20th century.

Those views aren’t as widely held among Texas citizens in general as they are among scientists, however. A Yale University survey recently found that a plurality of Texans (44 percent) agrees that climate change is mainly human-caused, with 11 percent saying they think it results from a combination of human and natural causes. Thirty-one percent of the survey respondents, however, said they think it’s mainly a natural, not manmade, phenomenon.

Although nearly a third of Texans disagree with the consensus of the world’s scientific community on the question, Ronk sees reason for hope about municipal adaptation planning in the Yale poll results.

It seems possible, she said, that a large number of Texans may be willing to consider adaptation measures, because they think climate change is happening due to natural cycles, even though they may oppose significant actions to reduce pollution that they don’t think is to blame.