Texas Politics

Lawmakers passed Hurricane Harvey aid, but ignored its cause, environmental advocates say

As lawmakers talked this session about the damage and destruction their communities suffered when Hurricane Harvey struck in 2017, environmental advocates said two words were missing from the conversation: climate change.

Lawmakers sent aid to communities recovering from Hurricane Harvey this past session, including passing legislation that would put $1.7 billion toward repairs and flood control projects. But some environmental advocates and climate scientists think more needs to be done to study climate change’s impact and reduce emissions that contribute to extreme weather events.

“We’re not doing the ounce of prevention that’s worth a pound of cure,” said Robin Schneider, executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, a non-profit that aims to reduce pollution.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment, a congressionally mandated report completed in November that drew on more than 300 experts and 13 federal agencies, found that floods, heat waves, forest fires, and ocean acidification are projected to increase.

Over the last 100 years, sea levels have risen between 5 and 17 inches along the Texas coastline, according to the report.

“Climate change is real, it’s already here, and it’s only growing more intense,” said Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. “Especially in a state where our temperatures are already so high, adding a few more degrees really severely intensifies our heat waves. And so there’s a lot of risks that we face.”

An August Texas General Land Office report that outlined recommendations and lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey downplayed the effects climate change has on Texas’ hurricanes.

“Some scientists argue these storms are a function of climate change, when in fact vulnerability of the state to hurricanes predates the effects of climate change,” the report read. “The simple fact is the geographic location of Texas makes it vulnerable to hurricanes which form in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.”

A report in November from the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas, which Gov. Greg Abbott created shortly after Hurricane Harvey, produced a long list of recommendations to “future-proof” the state, based on the assumption that Texas will face future disasters. The phrase “climate change” appears once in the nearly 200-page report — in the name of a scientific paper cited in a footnote.

Preparing for future disasters is a necessary step, said Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University. But without accounting for climate change’s impact, it’s not a complete response, he said.

“It’s great to have a plan to recover after your house burns down, and have insurance and everything,” he said. “But it would be good to keep it from burning down in the first place.

“We’re going to have to adapt to climate change. There’s no world in which that’s not the case. And so it’s good to see them putting money toward that. Without climate studies, though... it’s hard to believe that money will be spent wisely.”

A handful of lawmakers were hoping to do that. They authored bills that would have studied the effects of climate change in Texas. But none reached one of the first steps of the legislative process: a committee hearing.

Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, saw his district pummeled by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. His district office was hit, and the devastation constituents faced left him chilled, he said. At least 68 people were killed in the storm and even more died as an indirect result.

“Some things can be replaced, but lives certainly can’t,” Reynolds said.

To deny that human activities have an effect on Texas’ natural disasters is negligent and irresponsible, Reynolds said, which is why he filed HB 1980. The bill would have established the “Climate Change Impact Assessment Council,” to study climate change’s impact “on the health, safety, and welfare of the residents of this state.”

While the bill was referred to a committee, it never received a hearing.

Reynolds said he plans to ask Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, the chairman of the House Environmental Regulation Committee, to hold hearings on climate change in the interim now that the session is over.

Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, plans to do the same in the House Committee on International Relations and Economic Development, which he chairs, his chief of staff wrote in an email. Anchia’s bills related to the study of climate were also never heard in committee this past session.

“It only made sense for the Environmental Regulation Committee — even if we didn’t get the bill passed — to at least have a public hearing, so that we can have open dialogue about it,” Reynolds said.

And Texas voters have signaled that they want to see lawmakers taking action on the issue.

A University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll published in March found that 48% of registered voters in Texas said the U.S. government should be doing “a great deal” or “a lot” about climate change, 26% said it should be doing “a moderate amount” or “a little,” and 21% said the government should be doing nothing.

Broken down by party, 83% of Democrats surveyed said “a great deal” or “a lot” should be done, compared to 18% of Republicans and 43% of independents.

But in a Republican-controlled legislature, Reynolds said lawmakers “take their marching orders from the top.”

In December, Abbott deflected when asked whether he believes man-made global warming is contributing to Texas’ natural disasters.

“I’m not a scientist. Impossible for me to answer that question,” Abbott said to reporters at the time, according to The Associated Press.

But other Texas lawmakers have begun to take a more concrete stance on the issue, with Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn telling reporters earlier this month that “there is a growing consensus the days of ignoring this issue are over,” according to the Houston Chronicle.

Abbott’s office could not be immediately reached for comment on whether his stance on global warming has changed.

Abbott’s answer in December prompted a group of climate scientists and experts from across the state to send a letter, offering to brief him on climate science.

“He sure didn’t reach out to me,” said Cohan, who signed the January letter. “The offer stands.”

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Tessa Weinberg is a state government for the Star-Telegram. Based in Austin, she covers all things policy and politics with a focus on Tarrant County. She previously covered the Missouri legislature where her reporting prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. A California native and graduate of the University of Missouri, she’s made her way across the U.S. and landed in Texas in May 2019.
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