Climate Resilience

Executive Summary

In the last ten years, Harris County has experienced four major floods: Hurricane Ike, The Memorial flood, Tax Day flood and Hurricane Harvey.  These weather events have exposed vulnerabilities in County infrastructure, disaster response and overall readiness to deal with major flooding. More notably, flooding in Harris County represents the threat of climate change and the growing impact it has on the community. This white paper discusses the reality of climate change in Harris County and the problems associated with climate change denial.

Scope

In August of 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Harris County dumping four feet of water and costing a projected $150 billion in damages.[1] Research has found that the severity of the storm was a direct product of climate change, increasing rainfall by as much as 38 percent and was three times more likely to occur than a hurricane in the early 1900s.[2] This comes as no surprise as global temperatures are on the rise, which has led to devastating consequences around the globe.

Climate change in Harris County has led to an overall rise in frequency of major weather events like snowfall, severe summers and major hurricanes. If left unchecked, the incidence of Harvey-like storms will only increase. It is projected that, on our current trajectory, hurricanes will have increased in rainfall by 50 percent by the year 2100. [3]

With the foreknowledge of the dangers posed by hurricanes, Harris County is left vulnerable to habitual flooding that will continue to stifle economic growth and adversely impact disenfranchised populations. New policies should be mindful that climate change is both an issue of environmental conscience and social justice.

Policy Recommendations

  1. Policy must be cognizant that climate change is not a myth, but reality. The Harris County Flood Control District has so far denied the climate is changing, which bars the County from implementing evidence-based policies that could lessen the impact of major weather events. Furthermore it hinders the progress of the current generation and those to come.[4] We must tap local experts to address infrastructure and community need from the vantage point of climate change in order to meet the needs of Harris County.
  2. Vulnerable populations must be intentionally protected as part of a flood control strategy. Harvey proved that people are more at risk to natural disasters if they are poor, elderly, disabled, without a car, or non-English speaking. These are communities typically are already disproportionately burdened by poor air quality and other pollution stemming from their proximity to oil refineries and petrochemical plants.[5] The impact of natural disaster only increase the burden placed on low-income communities and effective policy will include measures of equity to prepare these communities for the impact of climate change and severe weather events.
  3. Through industry diversification and innovation, Harris County must take advantage of the economic opportunity to reduce carbon emissions. Harris County is the number one emitting county in the US for CO2.[6] The County should provide incentives to curb the area’s carbon footprint and innovate greener policies. This includes comprehensive research on how Harris County directly and indirectly emits CO2, carbon usage by private and public entities, and science-based solutions to lessen emissions and usage. This also includes a push for renewable energy industries within the County, bringing green jobs to the area, and ensuring there are protections implemented to safeguard the local economy from volatile oil prices. Harris County will only maintain its dominance in the energy sector if it is willing to evolve with the demands of both the environment and the economy.

Conclusion

Hurricane Harvey was a sign that a shift in policy in Harris County is needed immediately. County leaders cannot afford to ignore the reality of climate change. Doing so not only leaves the community helpless, but also ensures the County remains unprepared and vulnerable to the unavoidable natural disasters to come. Acknowledging the impact of climate change will lead to greater awareness and safeguards for the County and promote research-based improvements to our infrastructure, response plans and environmental policies.

[1] https://www.moodysanalytics.com/webinars-on-demand/2017/the-economic-impact-of-hurricane-harvey

[2] https://news.agu.org/press-release/agu-fall-meeting-human-caused-warming-likely-intensified-hurricane-harveys-rains/

[3] http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa9ef2

[4] https://ncse.com/node/16981

[5] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/social-mobility-memos/2017/09/18/hurricanes-hit-the-poor-the-hardest/

[6] https://news.uns.purdue.edu/x/2008a/080416T-GurneyCounties.html