Texas is widely known for its leaders’ mocking and challenging of mainstream scientific conclusions about pollution-caused climate change, their efforts to block federal policies to battle and prepare for that phenomenon, and their unwillingness to adopt state programs to do the same.
But that reputation mainly reflects the actions and pronouncements of statewide elected officials, plus some state legislators and members of Congress. A number of Texas cities – especially the state’s biggest cities – have taken a very different approach. They have accepted the findings and projections of climate science, forged ahead with local-level initiatives to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, and launched efforts to boost adaptive resilience to climate change.
The context of those actions includes Texas’ standing as the state emitting the most climate-disrupting pollution and the warnings of leading scientists (including many at the state’s own universities) that Texas’ geography makes it especially vulnerable to costly and damaging climate-change impacts including drought, heat waves and coastal flooding magnified by sea-level rise.
In months ahead, TCN’s new occasional series, Cities+Climate, will examine some of the ways that Texas cities (and other local government entities) are engaging with climate issues – both in terms of reducing emissions and preparing for impacts. We’ll also look at ways that Texas cities may not be doing those things. And we’ll be comparing city and other local-level efforts in Texas – or the absence of such efforts – with local actions elsewhere.
This initial article in Cities+Climate sketches some recent developments that illustrate the kinds of things that have been going on in Texas cities and the notice they’re achieving.
By Greg Harman and Bill Dawson
Texas Climate News
Cities are huge drivers of climate change. Home to more than half of all people on the planet, these cemented clusters of petroleum-fueled transportation, power plants and heavy industry pump out about three-quarters of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions.
But over decades of uneven national policies and failed international efforts to rein in global warming, a growing number of cities around the world have quietly taken the lead in that fight by tightening building codes, improving mass transit, increasing their investment in green energy sources and adopting other strategies.
Perhaps surprisingly, considering the resolute stances against climate action by state officials, a number of cities in Texas have joined that local-level movement with pollution-reducing policies to battle climate change and adaptive measures to boost resilience against what scientists project are its already locked-in impacts.
Can such city-level initiatives make a difference? Just ask Pope Francis.
Continuing his heavy press for climate action following the release of his landmark teaching document on the subject, the top leader of the Catholic Church last month gathered mayors and governors from around the world to discuss ways local governments can continue their advances.
“We’re going beyond the climate talk and actually doing climate action,” an advisor to the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, a Brazilian city boasting 12 million residents, told Mashable. “[Pope Francis] sees that; he understands that.”
Assessing the opportunities
Francis’s attention to cities was well-placed, according to a new report from The New Climate Economy, a partnership of think tanks and nonprofits such as the World Resources Institute and the Climate Policy Initiative.
By investing heavily in energy efficiency, clean energy, carbon trading and tech innovation, as well as working together to end deforestation and reform international transport, among other strategies, states, cities, businesses, and the investment community can boost their economic performance while also drastically cutting global carbon output, according to the report “Seizing the Global Opportunity.”
“Through credible, consistent policies to drive resource efficiency, infrastructure investment and innovation, both developed and developing countries can achieve stronger economic performance and climate goals at the same time,” the report’s executive summary states.
The New Climate Economy partnership said cities that follow its recommendations can achieve as much as 96 percent of the greenhouse-gas reductions required to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius – the limit that many prominent scientists suggest is required to keep the world from the most catastrophic results of climate change.
Additionally, the group calculated that the rapid economic transformation these actions would require could save the world’s cities up to $17 trillion by 2050.
“The low-carbon economy is already emerging, but governments, cities, businesses and investors need to work much more closely together to take advantage of recent developments, if opportunities are to be seized,” said former Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who chairs The New Climate Economy alliance.
Growing coastal threats
Not that municipal leaders have been waiting on the pope to convene a meeting or a think-tank partnership to issue a report to engage with climate issues – especially since most of the world’s major cities are situated on or near coasts and therefore vulnerable to sea-level rise, one of the most worrisome impacts that scientists say climate change is bringing.
One recent study by researchers at Texas A&M University sought to quantify that risk while shining a light on a number of vulnerable cities in several nations, including Houston.
The university reported that the authors’ forecasts projected these metro areas will see increased flood risks because of urban expansion into flood-prone areas – even without sea-level rise:
In 2000, about 30 percent of the global urban land (over 75,000 square miles) was located in the high-frequency flood zones; by 2030, this will reach nearly 40 percent (280,000 square miles) as the global urban land grows from 250,000 square miles to 720,000 square miles, the authors say.
In their study, published in March in the journal Global Environmental Change, the A&M researchers warned:
Our findings suggest that future urban expansion in flood and drought prone zones will at least be as important as population growth and economic development in increasing their exposure. With climatic changes, this exposure is only expected to increase in the future. Thus, proper planning and financing in fast-growing cities today will be critical in mitigating future losses due to floods and droughts.
While the A&M calculations are new, concerns about coastal cities’ vulnerability to climate-change impacts are not. In 2010, for instance, an international organization called the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group held a conference for municipal leaders in the Netherlands “to share and expand knowledge and experience” on ways that coastal cities could undertake “imperative” actions to adapt to climate change.
Both Houston and Austin are members of C40, which got started in 2005 when a group of mayors gathered in London to start discussing ways they could reduce global greenhouse emissions by, among other things, speeding up the development of cleaner technologies.
A cooperative agreement among the mayors evolved into an organization that came to be called C40, a reference to the 40 cities that were involved in its formative days. The group has since grown to include more than 75 cities that represent, according to the C40 website, a full quarter of the world’s economy.
Members have not only pledged strong greenhouse-gas reductions but participate in advisory groups to share city-specific financial and technical information that can help prepare each member city for the impact of increasingly extreme weather. “The result,” according to a C40 FAQ sheet, “is that cities’ climate actions to reduce GHGs [greenhouse gases] and climate risks are bolder, more impactful, implemented faster, at a lower cost and with less resources than if they were to go it alone.”
C40 has also developed a partnership with the World Bank to facilitate the financing of climate-action plans and standardize reporting of city greenhouse-gas emissions. Several C40 mayors were among those signing two declarations, one an “Alliance for Sustainable Cities,” and another that was specific to the link between modern-day slavery and climate change.
Unlike C40, the Vatican City gathering didn’t see any Texas representation (here’s a list of attendees). But some of the Lone Star State’s largest cities are among the vanguard of those implementing policies intended to reduce greenhouse gases or better prepare for more hostile conditions due to human-induced climate change – in spite of top leaders and key lawmakers at the state level who have typically displayed no interest in such actions in recent years when they weren’t openly hostile to them.
U.S. mayors have been organizing on climate change at least since 2007, when 600 mayors, including a number in Texas, joined the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, pledging to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Membership has since grown to 1,060 cities and includes more than 30 Texas cities, ranging from Arlington to El Paso to Texarkana.
While Texas lumbers behind the majority of U.S. states in adopting regulations and policies to encourage the development of low-carbon technologies – through renewable energy standards, transportation changes, energy efficiency, or utility performance incentives – things are not as stagnant in the oil and gas capital as some may expect, according to an annual review of state and city policies and practices by Clean Edge, a prominent research and advisory firm focused on the clean-tech sector.
Thanks to its wind power boom and rapid deployment of smart meters, Texas scores better than most states in Clean Edge’s 2015 rankings. Where the state shines best in the assessment is in the deployment of low-carbon energy systems, multi-modal transportation options and clean-tech patenting and investment opportunities.
Some Texas cities, however, score quite a bit higher. Austin floated to the number nine spot among U.S. cities for the second year in a row in Clean Edge’s U.S. Clean Tech Leadership Index. Dallas reached 19, Houston 22, and San Antonio crept into the top 50 cities at 40.
That is not to say such efforts go unchallenged. A bill submitted in the last legislative session, inspired by a right-wing conspiracy theory about a 23-year-old, non-binding United Nations resolution called Agenda 21, sought to prevent any governmental entity in Texas from accepting money linked to the goals of the voluntary U.N. action plan.
This plan, which called for activities to advance “sustainable development,” was signed in 1992 by former President George H. W. Bush, a Texan and Republican, along with 177 other heads of state. Actions inspired by the document have often unfolded at the local level, in Texas and elsewhere. Opposition to Agenda 21 has grown among Tea Party adherents and others on the right wing of the Republican Party, however, and the party’s national platform in 2012 included language denouncing it.
The Legislature was firmly under Republican control in the 2015 session, but the bill targeting Agenda-21-related activities in Texas was squashed in committee when its potential impact on the state became clear. One author has promised to bring it back in the 2017 session, however.
Such efforts from the right side of the rightward-leaning state’s political spectrum notwithstanding, Texas cities continue to gain notice for their sustainability work – even on the global stage.
While Austin has long received national attention for its sustainability work, it was Dallas and Houston that caught the eye of global design and consulting firm Arcadis while compiling its recently released Sustainable Cities Index.
Rather than a single-minded ranking based on traditional environmental metrics such as energy use, mass transportation and pollution reductions, Arcadis selected 50 of the world’s most prominent cities and then compared their impact on the planet, the livelihood they allow their residents and their overall economic performance.
“The purpose of our index is to indicate areas of opportunity as cities continue to make progress on their missions to become more sustainable economically, environmentally and for the good of their inhabitants,” John Batten, Arcadis’s global cities director, told Cities Today.
While Houston (ranked No. 21 by Arcadis) and Dallas (No. 29) scored high because of their strong overall economic performance, their ranking in purely environmental matters still earned Houston a 30 position in the middle of the pack, and Dallas slipped to 40.
The only other U.S. cities outperforming Houston, according to Arcadis, were Boston (15), Chicago (19), and New York City (20).
Reflecting the city of Houston’s years-long engagement with climate-change issues, Mayor Annise Parker last year joined the mayors of Los Angeles and Philadelphia to launch a Mayors National Climate Action Agenda.
“Mayors are uniquely compelled and equipped to lead on the fight to stem climate change, as well as to adapt to it and prepare for the impacts of global warming,” Parker said in an announcement. “Houston has shown strong leadership in reducing our emissions by 32 percent since 2007. Houston has proven that it can maintain its title as the energy capital of the world while at the same time pursuing green policies that lift our reputation as a leader in sustainability.”
Parker joined Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti again earlier this month to announce her support for President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, an effort aimed at cutting greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants.
“By mid-century, according to projections, over 4,500 more Texans are expected to die as a result of heat-related illnesses as the number of days per year over 95 degrees is expected to surge from 43 to 106 – over two months more of extremely hot days,” Parker wrote in a recent op-ed.
“The worst thing that business leaders and political decision makers can do is ignore these risks, because property values, economic productivity and human lives depend on our actions. Let’s fight these big risks with a Texas-sized response.”
Despite strong opposition to the Clean Power Plan from Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and other state government leaders, Austin’s City Council endorsed the plan last year when it was still a federal proposal. The Clean Power plan was issued in its final form earlier this month.
Greg Harman is TCN’s contributing editor and Bill Dawson is this magazine’s founding editor.