adaptation conferencePossible policies and actions to deal with global warming and associated climate change are often classified in a couple of broad areas known as “mitigation” and “adaptation” (sometimes also called “resilience”).

Mitigation strategies – adopting a tax on greenhouse-emissions, say, or introducing a low-carbon technology – are aimed at reducing the human impacts that scientists say (with at least 95 percent assurance, according to a major new report last week by scientists from various nations) are mainly driving climate warming.

Adaptation strategies, on the other hand, are aimed at assessing and making plans to deal with the manifestations of human-caused climate change – higher temperatures, for instance, and rising sea levels – that scientists say will happen because of past and current greenhouse-gas emissions.

Texas is well known for high-ranking Republican elected and appointed officials’ steadfast opposition to mitigation mandates – questioning the credibility and integrity of scientists whose findings and conclusions underlie those requirements and, in the case of the Obama administration’s regulations to reduce heat-trapping pollution, suing to stop them.

A proposal to advance adaptation efforts at the state government level went nowhere in this year’s legislative session – just as it did when state Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston introduced it in the two prior sessions in 2009 and 2011. In addition to Ellis’ Senate proposal this year, Rep. Lon Burnham of Fort Worth, also a Democrat, filed a companion bill in the House.

The Ellis and Burnham bills would have directed a number of state agencies to prepare “climate adaptation plans” to “prepare for the effects of climate change on the social, economic, and ecological systems of this state and to manage the risks associated with a changing climate. A plan … must be based on current peer-reviewed climate science that identifies the likely impacts of rising ambient temperatures, rising sea levels, and changes in precipitation patterns on this state.”

The Legislature’s action to fund new water-supply and water-conservation projects – taken in response to the state’s drought of recent years and now subject to voter approval in November – was seen by some as a tacit nod to climate change and the need to adapt to the hotter, drier conditions that scientists warn likely lie ahead for the state. In Houston, meanwhile, city officials are taking initial steps to assess how municipal government operations could be affected by climate change and what adaptation actions are warranted.

Austin’s municipal mitigation policies earned the city government a national Climate Leadership Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year for “an aggressive Climate Protection Plan.” The city’s Climate Program “works to make Austin the leading city in the nation in the fight against climate change,” according to the website of the municipal Office of Sustainability. “Reducing our carbon footprint helps keep our air breathable, our people healthy, our water resources stable, and our economy vibrant.”

Stefan Wray, who works at channelAustin, the city’s public access television facility, thinks Austin and its region should become more active in the adaptation arena, as well. In addition to his day job, Wray is a graduate student working toward a master’s degree at the University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. In that capacity, responding to a class assignment, he launched a project to organize a conference that’s being held at the LBJ School today (Oct. 4) – “Climate Resilience and Adaptation Strategies: A Capital Area Symposium.”

Wray spoke earlier this week about the conference and about climate-change adaptation in general with Bill Dawson, editor of Texas Climate News.


Q: The symposium grew out of a class assignment at the LBJ School to identify “a pressing policy challenge and propose a viable solution.” Why did you pick this subject?

A: I started at the LBJ School in the fall of 2011, which was just after the summer of 2011, the hottest on record in the Austin area. Those two things, those events, pretty much got me on track with focusing on climate change and that led to climate-change adaptation within, as much as possible, the course work that I was doing. I was really more exposed to the idea of climate adaptation in the fall of 2012 and I knew when I was taking Bill [Spelman’s] climate class – he’s [an Austin] City Council member and teaches a class on policymaking in the city – that I wanted to do something on climate adaptation in that class.

Also, one of the things we were supposed to focus on was where there may be a gap, where there should be a policy at the city level but there really isn’t. In Austin we have a very good mitigation policy. It’s won awards and the climate manager’s office is very much focused on mitigation. But Austin doesn’t have any official adaptation policy or plan. That was definitely clear – that was something that Austin was lacking – and so I wanted to look at that and started looking around at what some other cities were doing with respect to climate adaptation.

I was very fortunate to find out about a conference in Denver called the National Adaptation Forum. It was the first of its kind – a national conference that drew about 500 people. Only four came from Texas but that was a really good opportunity to connect with people. I really realized this was an emerging field. That was in April, actually after we had the idea for this [Austin] conference, but that helped move things along.

The conference idea was mine. A woman in the class named Nora Ankrum, who’s a former assistant editor for the Austin Chronicle, which is the weekly publication here, shared that interest, and so we started working together – basically just on a policy proposal for the class, which was to develop a climate adaptation plan and become more and more involved regionally. Out of that work on that policy paper grew the idea of the conference. I got interested in this other event in Denver and got more and more into the subject, even to the point where I just went to a weeklong course on climate adaptation in Oxford (England), called the Adaptation Academy, organized by the Global Adaptation Partnership. It was just for two weeks in August. I’ve just been diving into climate adaptation for the last 18 months. As far as climate change, I’ve been more aware about that for a longer period of time.

Q: I gather from your answer that you think resilience and adaptation are not receiving enough attention in the Austin area – and perhaps not being discussed enough in Texas in general. Why do you think that is? Why do you think it’s not being discussed as much as it should be?

A: That’s a good question. It’s definitely clear that it’s not. The extent to which it is being discussed in Austin – well, I think there’s a couple of reasons. I think one reason is that people may not be exposed to it. Even though you can go and find examples – all over the world, really – where climate adaptation has been discussed for awhile, for whatever reason there’s not been a lot of exposure to the idea here. I’ve talked to even people in the environmental community that are fairly well versed and knowledgable about all sorts of things and there’s still a learning curve there. So that’s one thing.

I can’t explain why there’s a lack of exposure. What I have learned in some of these areas where it’s gotten more attention is that there’s been a small group of key people that have really been driving it and pushing it forward. For example, in Tucson, Arizona, the director of the Office of Sustainability there really wanted the city to have an adaptation policy and really drove it and pushed for it and got it going and got people motivated to do that. In Austin, in the city government, we haven’t seen that. It’s not clear why. I think it could be that people in the climate office, their mission is to deal with mitigation and that’s their task, it’s Council policy, but they don’t have a mission to focus on adaptation. They don’t have money allocated for it, it’s not what they’re tasked to do.

The impression I get is the people on the city staff are in some ways wanting there to be this sort of outside push for City Council to take some action. I think the Council is poised to do something about this now. I think we’ve gotten their attention. There are aides from [the offices of] three City Council members that will be at the conference on Friday, [as well as] Bill, who taught the class and is a Council member.

The whole issue has gotten their attention. The climate-resilience terminology has been used in language by two Council member when they had a press conference in July after Obama’s declaration about climate change and adaptation – there was a small press conference with some of the Austin environmental groups and two of the Council members said we need to focus more on climate resilience. So it’s just beginning at an early stage but I can see in the not too distant future where Austin itself could move forward to some sort of adaptation plan at the policy level.

As far as the rest of Texas and areas of our region outside of Austin but in Central Texas, I don’t know. To me it seems like the discussion around climate adaptation should be less threatening than climate-change mitigation. You can talk about extreme weather and climate variability without actually even having to get into whether or not greenhouse-gas emissions are the cause or humans are the cause. I’m not saying you should ignore the causes but there should be a potential to reach people who are more suspicious or who are unwilling to talk about the root causes of climate change but still willing to address what the impacts are.

I’m still seeing that we’re not necessarily making a lot of inroads outside of Central Austin and Travis County in being able to connect to some of the more rural counties that are nearby. People in Bastrop County who experienced the Bastrop fire [in 2011] are very attuned to looking at things in terms of natural disaster, disaster planning, wildfire management, all that sort of stuff, but whether they see that as part of, or frame it as something to do with, climate adaptation, climate resilience, they may not at this time. But I think it’s going to change a little bit.

One of the things that’s a key facet or aspect of the climate adaptation work is doing vulnerability assessments and taking a closer look at what are the likely impacts and who’s vulnerable and what that could mean. The city of Austin and the Capital Area Metropolitan Organization, CAMPO [which provides transportation planning], received a grant from the Federal Highway Administration to do a vulnerability assessment of the transportation infrastructure in the region, in the six-county area around Austin. The people in the city’s climate office in the Office of Sustainability want to see this as sort of a foothold in a larger conversation about vulnerabilities for other impacts as well. This was just a transportation study but there’s all kinds of things that could be looked at, too. I think they want to see some movement and some regional dialogue too. I think that what’s lacking is a special directive from the Council.

As far as the state, it’s hard to talk about anything with climate in the name at the state agencies.There was a Texas Tribune conference here over the weekend and there was a panel about climate change and [Chairman Bryan] Shaw from the [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] was there. They’re still in the climate-denial mode – and that was after the IPCC report came out just half a week before – last week – where everybody’s saying now it’s undeniable, they’re still denying it. [The U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its first such summary of peer-reviewed scientific findings from around the world since 2007, declared it is now “extremely likely” – meaning a probability of 95 to 100 percent – that more than half of the increase in average surface temperatures from 1951-2010 was caused by heat-warming pollution and other human activities.]

I think that in part this sort of overall veil of deniability at the state level colors any kind of discussion about climate change, whether it’s climate-change mitigation, climate-change adaptation. Clearly that’s part of the reason, too, behind why we’re seeing less of it [discussion of adaptation] here than in other states – even other states like Texas. You have a state like Utah, for example. Salt Lake City, Provo, those cities have developed climate adaptation plans, but the state as a whole is not touching it yet. Same with Arizona. Then you have places like California, where you have municipal elements that have formed regional associations [with] regional climate adaptation plans. There’s even a mega-region in California, a regional structure, a network of regions that have pulled together and created these, they call them Climate Adaptation Cooperative Alliances, or something like that, in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Sacramento.

But an important example – and one we use here when we talk to people at the county level – is what they did in Florida. There’s four counties in Florida, all affected by sea-level rise, with different elements in the county government and municipal elements approaching the federal government to see what kind of help they could get at the federal level. They realized they were all dealing with the same issue and formed a compact. The county leaders in each of those four counties formed official relations in the compact among the four counties, called the Southeast Florida Climate Adaptation Compact, something like that. It’s interesting that it was in 2009. They’re four years into it.

One of the focuses of this conference is that regional aspect and understanding that climate issues cannot be localized, something like the Austin municipal government does. Really it’s helpful, useful, better if there’s a regional approach, because the big impacts like drought, wildfires, extreme heat are going to be similar within the same geographic scope. We’ve been looking at some of those different models in different places for how we could approach things here. But what we really want to do is start a dialogue, start a conversation. As far as we know, we’re not aware of there being a conference like this in Austin and not sure if there’s been one in other parts of the state.

But one of the people who’s working with us is Alyssa Burgin from the Texas Drought Project. She’s always traveling around Texas. She says there are some people in Corpus who want to do a similar kind of conference, to develop a regional kind of approach. I think some other areas.

We’ve considered the Council of Governments structure that exists in Texas, each in a major metropolitan area. So we have the Capital Area Council of Governments [CAPCOG], in this 10-county area – that sort of regional structure makes a lot of sense for the geographic level of regional adaptation planning and also not just the geography of it but also because of some of the work they’re doing. They’re doing things with disaster management, emergency planning. There’s even a Sustainable Places Project at the CAPCOG level. But even so, that CAPCOG structure is tied into some of the funding that comes from the state agencies, so probably we’re [too] locked into part of that organization to really touch something this explicit, with the term “climate change” in it.

Q: As part of your project you posed questions about climate resilience and adaptation to candidates for Travis County judge and county commissioner positions. Just in general terms, what was your reaction to the responses that you got – did they show that the candidates are attuned to the subject and thinking about it?

A: Yes, they did. We only received the responses two days ago and to be honest I haven’t sat down to analyze them carefully but I’ve scanned through them and my overall reaction to them was that I felt that they were definitely aware of what the climate impacts are and the ones we need to be concerned about and that there’s general consensus that drought, extreme heat, wildfires, those are the key things we need to be concerned about. That even more than that, having sort of a deeper analysis, understanding in their responses about some of the things that need to be done. I think [there’s] a recognition among them that there is a place for a regional approach to addressing climate adaptation.

But at the same time there was also a thread that ran through some of the responses which was in some ways [about] the specific actions that the county commissioners or county judges, the county commissioners courts, could take – there are certain restrictions on what they can legislate and have control over. Yet at the same time I got a sense there was a recognition that county leaders, irrespective of whether they can legislate something, they do have a leadership role and can help set the tone and the direction.

There’s a couple of candidates for those offices – one, specifically, that’s very much a longtime environmental activist and helped form the SOS [Save Our Springs] Alliance and has been active for 25 years and another candidate who’s a strong proponent for environmental issues in Austin. The other candidates are aware of that, so they did their homework. And I think that even though this election for these positions isn’t until the spring we wanted to interject climate adaptation and climate resilience into the campaign and get the candidates talking about it. If they get elected in the spring they’re going to be in office for the next couple of years when they may be making decisions about some of these things as the climate impacts get worse and there’s more recognition that we don’t just need to do something to mitigate, but to respond.

Q: Do you have any hopes or concrete plans for where this effort – and by that I mean the effort leading to the planning of this conference – where it might go from here?

A: One of the things we’ve talked about at a planning meeting on the weekend was that there are some key milestones that are coming up in the next year or two and we talked about wanting to do something leading up to something in the spring. In March is the IPCC’s release of their adaptation working group [report], just like there was the IPCC climate science release last week. Around the same time is the National Climate Assessment coming out. So those seem like two really good, almost concurrent events happening when we might want to do something about.

As far as doing what, I think we’d like to initiate a more organized stakeholders’ process. We’d really like to be able to get stakeholders from government, non-profit sector, business community, across all levels of society and at different levels within the region to really see if we can really pull together some kind of stakeholder working group to be able to develop together some ideas or policies that could get to the point where they become things that are initiated or acted upon – either by municipal, county or some quasi-regional structure like CAPCOG or CAMPO. That happened in other parts of the country, it happened in other parts of the world, where people form these regional stakeholder groups to look at adaptation and resilience. That’s how it evolved and emerged. So that’s one thing.

But I think – and farther afield – I think 2014, I think anybody in Texas interested in climate issues, whether from the mitigation side or the adaptation side or both, will probably end up getting behind [state Sen.] Wendy Davis [of Fort Worth] if she decides to declare [her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor], which I think she’s going to do on Oct. 3. [Davis did announce then that she is running.] I’m assuming that if she gets into office that would change the whole game in terms of Texas’ stance on climate change at all these state agencies. That would be a sea change [and] I think we could see a lot going on. It would affect the whole mood for mitigation and adaptation work.

Q: Finally, if you would, please just tell me a little about yourself and how you came to enroll in this program at the LBJ School. You said it’s a mid-career program.

A: I’m 52. I have a master’s in journalism from UT from some years ago and i’ve been working in media. Currently, I’m the general manager of the community television station that’s here in Austin. And I’ve been involved with environmental activities for a number of years. I’ve worked as an independent writer, making documentaries, and as an activist. I went to my first Sierra Club meeting with my dad when I was 12 or 13 years old in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1970s. I went on Sierra Club hikes with my family when I was in junior high so I’ve been around environmental concerns and all sorts of political activities for years – since I started to think when I was 11 years old.

Q: So this isn’t anything new for you then.

A: No, it’s not. But it’s interesting – I really hadn’t thought about adaptation until probably 18 months ago. It hadn’t really occurred to me that it was an area of work. I didn’t even think about it. So I really delved into it.


Disclosure: The non-profit, non-partisan Houston Advanced Research Center is conducting a study for the city of Houston on climate-change adaptation in municipal operations. HARC publishes Texas Climate News. TCN is produced by journalists who are not HARC employees and have sole authority for all editorial decisions with no direction or influence from HARC, its funders and partners.

Image credit: Photo courtesy Stefan Wray