Jim Blackburn of Houston has been one of the most prominent and influential figures in the Texas environmental arena for more than three decades, often focusing on ecological and health issues in the Gulf Coast region
He plays a variety of interrelated roles – environmental attorney, environmental advocate, author, and professor at Rice University. At Rice, he is affiliated with the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center, which was launched in 2007. Hurricane Ike’s devastation in the Galveston-Houston area in 2008 inspired several center conferences and reports. Another conference, “Hurricane Ike 5 Years Later,” is scheduled Sept. 24-25.
Blackburn’s legal work has included activities such as a potentially historic lawsuit to secure adequate freshwater inflows for the marshy coastal habitat of the endangered whooping crane species on the central Texas coast. In March, a federal judge, agreeing with his arguments, temporarily halted new water permits in that river system.
His leadership in environmentalist circles included co-founding two major conservation organizations in the Houston area – the Galveston Bay Foundation and Houston Wilderness. His writing includes The Book of Texas Bays, published in 2004 by Texas A&M University Press.
Blackburn and colleagues devised four strategies for protecting the Houston region against destructive storm surges, which were jointly proposed last October by the SSPEED Center and Houston Wilderness.
One strategy – for which former Secretary of State James Baker is serving as the steering committee’s honorary chair – would create a buffer zone for storm surges by assembling undeveloped lands in Matagorda, Brazoria, Galveston and Chambers counties into a congressionally-designated nature park called the Lone Star Coastal National Recreation Area.
In a complementary initiative also aimed at conserving undeveloped coastal lands, the SSPEED Center is working with a partnership of universities and conservation groups called the Natural Capital Project to analyze those lands’ “ecosystem services” – the various benefits of natural habitats for people – and explore the possibility of a free-market system for buying and selling those services.
A one-day conference was held on that subject at Rice on June 19 – “Evaluating and Trading Ecological Services: Is There a Role for Natural Capital in the Marketplace?”
Blackburn talked with Texas Climate News editor Bill Dawson before the conference about the concepts behind it, their relationship to issues surrounding human-caused climate change and how they fit with his other work
Q: What are ecological services and how is this Natural Capital Project – which the SSPEED Center at Rice is now partnering with– addressing and researching that subject along the Texas Coast?
A: The Natural Capital Project that we’re working on at Rice is really related to severe storms. We’ve been looking for ways to create economic activity that can survive inundation. We started off by focusing on recreation, and the Lone Star Coastal National Recreation Area concept came out of that but that’s really more traditional. We’re trying to take the wildlife refuges [of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] and the wildlife management areas of [the Texas] Parks and Wildlife [Department] and sort of reorient them toward recreation and bringing tourism into the Texas Coast.
We were thinking about that as an alternative type of economy and as we got further into it, we realized that the farmers and ranchers need an alternative economic vision as well. They’re not so much interested in recreation as they are in trying to get income off the land. Many of our farmers and ranchers would like to stay on the land if they could, so our interest in these concepts came out of a desire to develop economies that could survive inundation – as non-structural flood control concepts for hurricanes.
Q: What are some examples of ecological services, which is a term I think a lot of people won’t be familiar with – both in the Houston area and along the Texas Coast?
A: Initially it came out of regulatory programs. The wetlands program under the Clean Water Act – if you wanted to fill wetlands, you could create and build wetlands elsewhere. That’s basically recognizing that wetlands have some service they provide to society, and if we lose wetlands at one location we want to reestablish them somewhere else. And so this concept of a quid pro quo, if you will, in terms of offsetting harm is where the vision began to emerge – on endangered species, the habitat provides service for the species.
But once you get into carbon and you start thinking in terms of a carbon regulatory program initially, but generally a goal of a corporation, for example, to have zero carbon footprint – how do you do that? Well, one way you can do that is to cultivate the natural system for its function of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. There’s a service that’s provided – by trees, by prairies, by marshes – of removing carbon from the atmosphere. Well, all of a sudden you’re talking about something that has monetary value and certainly will in the future.
Q: Well, you’re anticipating some of the questions that I’ll ask in just a moment. The announcement about the meeting says the results from the Natural Capital project’s research will include information “for stakeholders and decision makers about benefits provided by the green infrastructure around Galveston Bay as well as practical, easy-to-use, open-source tools for assessing how changes in management and climate are likely to lead to changes in ecosystem services.” What are some of those tools you’re alluding to?
A: This conference is being co-sponsored with the Nature Conservancy and the Natural Capital Project, of which the Nature Conservancy is a partner, along with Stanford and the University of Minnesota, as well as the World Wildlife Fund. Those presentations will be by that team that has been working with the SSPEED Center, but really have their own independent financing. They’re going to present their project results, which is a bit of their analysis of the Galveston Bay System, what the ecological services are, in and around the bay. They’ve looked at a number of things including how to evaluate the capital of the Galveston Bay area and they will be presenting those results. The tool that’s specifically being talked about there is what’s called the InVEST System, which was developed by the North Carolina project and that’s essentially a GIS [Geographical Information Science] system that allows the evaluation of ecological services within various categories of uses.
Q: Related to all of that, the announcement also talks about the SSPEED Center’s exploration of something called “ecosystem service credits,” which would fit into a free-market, non-regulatory apparatus called an “ecosystem services exchange.” The aim would be to use this as a mechanism for advancing conservation and what’s called resilience, and as the announcement says, for supporting traditional uses like farming and ranching and promotion of open space, which you referred to just a moment ago. Could you explain and describe how such a system would work. What are these credits? What would this exchange be?
A: The idea sprung from what I said earlier – the basic concept is we would like to put sellers of services and, if you will, growers, or producers of services – landowners – together with potential buyers. And so how do you put buyers and sellers together in today’s economy and today’s society? You do it through the Internet. We’re looking at trying to set up an Internet-based trading system that would put the sellers of services, if you will, … in touch with buyers through this web -based trading system. This trading system is being developed by a man named Adam Davis out of Ecosystem Investment Partners out of California. Adam is bringing in, as part of the [conference] panel that he’s on, two of the creators of web-based systems, one on the West Coast and one on the East Coast, that have been developed for the buying and selling of water-quality-related credits, one dealing with the Willamette River in Oregon and the other the Chesapeake Bay System.
Point being is there are now emerging examples of putting buyers and sellers together, and in order to put buyers and sellers together you have to have a set of transaction rules. You have to have a set of guarantees that the services are actually being provided. There have to be essentially rules and infrastructure in place to insure the buyer is getting what they think they are and that the seller can actually be certified to sell these things. We’re trying to set up the system within which that concept could come into reality.
Q: Homing in just for moment on the description of this as a free market tool: It doesn’t look at the moment like there’s anything on the horizon, much less near, regarding the creation of a national regulatory framework that might drive such a system – in other words, a carbon-reduction, cap-and-trade program. That went down to defeat in the Congress and nobody’s talking about reinvigorating it. How would this work without a regulatory driver?
A: Well, we think that there is actually an interest on the part of a number of major corporations to be able to put information on their websites, in their public relations and marketing campaigns, to talk about their zero-footprint initiatives. Zero footprint would mean zero carbon impacts or zero carbon footprint. Zero water footprint, perhaps. Perhaps pollutant footprints. The point being that consumer demand may generate a change in the corporations without regulation.
Q: And that’s happening already with a number of corporations.
A: It’s starting, and I think it will spread and one of the last bastions will probably be the oil and gas industry here in Houston and the Texas coast. But I think we can work with these industries to begin to offer these commodities, if you will, and give them something to work with and to buy.
Q: Give me just a simple hypothetical example of how this might work. Let’s say I’ve got farmer John Smith or rancher John Smith in Chambers County or Galveston County near the coast and he’s got a lot of prairie land that’s not good economically for much of anything except cattle grazing. And let’s say you’ve got the ABC Corporation out of Chicago, Illinois, that has an interest in presenting itself to its customers and investors as environmentally sensitive and as seeking, if not achieving, a zero footprint in some of its activities elsewhere in the country or around the world. It wants to show that it’s offsetting it carbon production or offsetting its water use or impacts on water. What would that ABC Corporation do with this farmer or rancher in Texas? Would it pay him not to develop some land? Would it pay him to enhance the land’s ecological services in some fashion?
A: Well, I would turn it around a bit and would say first of all that the farmer probably needs to do some work on his land. He has an area that used to be native prairie. It’s probably been farmed or heavily ranched. It’s probably no longer natural. So let’s just say the farmer goes in and replants it. Seeds it with Texas native prairie grass mix and manages to create, let’s say, 10 acres of new prairie. That prairie would be offered for sale for a number of different services perhaps. You could sell it for carbon credit. Ron Sass [fellow in global climate change at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy and Wiess professor of natural sciences emeritus at Rice] thinks we could probably justify several tons at, say, somewhere around probably a ton per acre of carbon, which would be about, say, three to four tons per acre of carbon dioxide that would be sequestered by prairie. We’re hopeful of more, but we think that would be a conservative estimate.
If you’re offering that at $40 a ton, you probably couldn’t sell it right now, but that would be potentially $60 per acre, per year, income. That would be offered on the Internet at that price. If the corporation in Chicago was willing to pay that price, they could secure 10 acres of carbon sequestration, probably on the long-term contract basis. When you put carbon into the soil, you’re going to want to make sure it stays there and [the site is] not going to turn into houses in the next week or something like that. So you have to have the legal system in place to be able to maintain that carbon credit over time. But the sale, the transaction, would be on a willing-buyer basis. The seller would offer it up. The buyer would say, I’m interested in buying, and the buyer and the seller would come together.
Q: How does this concept relate to some of the other interests at the SSPEED Center? I’m thinking specifically here of the strategies that the center – you and your colleagues there – have developed and proposed for addressing hurricane risks in the Houston area, including a lot of work on non-structural or land-conserving actions.
A: We think anything that conserves undeveloped land, native land, natural land, below the 20-foot contour would be very beneficial because we think that most of the upper- to middle-Texas Coast is vulnerable. We think the 100-year [storm] surge is in the 20-foot range along the coast and then gets higher up in the bays. But 20 feet along the coast, we think would be under water under a certain Category 4 event, a large hurricane. The less there is to be destroyed, the better.
Q: “Less” in terms of manmade, built infrastructure?
A: Absolutely. In the one hand, we didn’t want to talk about it in terms of “no development,” because that’s a negative and it’s negative in lots of ways. So we’ve been trying to find out how a native landscape can be a money-generating landscape. What we’ve done is try to turn it around and say there’s an economy that can be based on native landscapes. It can be a high-quality, very productive, economic system for a farmer or rancher and will keep a farmer or rancher on their land better than, frankly, rice or cotton or grain sorghum. There may be more potential income from these ecological services than from any of those traditional farming crops. So it is a different way of looking at agriculture as an income generator. At the same time it is totally resilient in the sense that, just like a marsh can be flooded and when the water recedes, you get a rain and it rinses the salt out if you’re lucky and the marsh restores very quickly. Without the rain, it still will return in six months or a year.
Q: The announcement of the meeting uses the term “green infrastructure.” It also talks in these terms – I’m quoting here: “From storm protection, to supporting multi-billion-dollar marine industries, to drawing corporations and skilled talent, to so much more, these ‘ecosystem services’ or ‘natural capital’ provide the foundation for a resilient economy.” I would also cite the project’s name itself, Natural Capital.
All of that language is what you might call pragmatic or economically oriented and excludes at least any explicit mention of wildlife protection that’s something that’s intrinsically valuable because it’s a good thing to do. Related to that, and to what you just said a moment ago, does this approach, does this framing of the project, if you will, reflect a conscious effort to promote ecological services in a way that broadly appeals to people who might not be that interested in protecting wildlife or nature per se and put it at the top of their to-do list?
A: Yeah, I’d say absolutely it’s intended. We thought long and hard. And I come from a regulatory background. I know regulation. But I also know Texas. In Texas, new regulation is not going to work. And so this is really about getting creative about finding ways to do what I think is the right thing in terms of policy – for landscape, for conservation, for any number of reasons that I’ve worked my whole career on – but trying to do it in a way that makes sense to somebody who’s interested in making money, to someone who’s interested in talking economics rather than talking spiritual connections with nature, those types of things. And if I can talk money and if I can generate income from natural services and from a natural system, I can talk to anybody on the Texas Coast about it.
Really, in a way I’m trying to get practical at achieving something before I die that I think will be a nice future for the Texas Coast. That’s why we’re talking about bringing infrastructure. That’s why we’re talking about landscape-scale solutions that address economy and rethink economy in terms that we think are practically, in the long term, resilient. This economy can be there in a hundred years.
Q: You’ve been talking about how this project could work in terms of carbon credits, which is, of course, part of the larger concern about global climate change, human-caused climate change. That’s a subject that in Texas – especially in Texas, [but] not just in Texas – that is highly politicized. And which involves a lot of strong skepticism on the part of a lot of people, especially our key elected officials at the state level, as to not just the science of global climate change, global warming, but also any measures proposed to deal with it.
If you don’t think it’s a problem, why try to fix the problem, some people would say – a lot of people in Texas, according to polls. Do you foresee a day when Texas decision makers, whether they’re in corporations or elected office, will pay more explicit and focused attention to climate change, per se, and not just to its projected impacts without really talking about them as part of the climate-change subject?
A: I think the answer is yes. I would distinguish, let’s just say three, maybe four, general groups Let’s say academics. There’s the corporate community. There are politicians and the political community. And then let’s just say average folks. And I would tell you that within the academic community there’s pretty much widespread agreement that climate change is occurring and that it’s human-caused. I would say that in the corporate community it is becoming accepted in both regards. And I think that’s coming a lot faster than is getting much media attention. I think that if you look, in terms of projections of, say, 30-, 40-, 50-year projects, there is probably built into the budget of every major oil company the point where they’ll have to start paying for carbon. I think they’ve accepted it as reality, the question is just time.
I think you’re starting to see, if I’m not mistaken, it seems like at least a couple of the major oil companies recently have not just acknowledged climate change but that there’s a human role in it. It’s happening in the oil industry and there’s a coalition of industries that believe that it’s occurring and is trying to come up with proactive measures. I think it’s the political community that is basically behind. They’re the ones that are keeping progress [from happening], if you will. And I’m not sure regulation is necessarily progress in this context. I think it may well be there’s a private-sector solution that might be an interesting development. I’m not going to go so far as predict it will be absolutely, 100-percent successful. But this zero-footprint movement, driven by consumerism, has the potential of having a big impact.
Q: The Natural Capital Project and the promotion of ecological services – as a concept and a way to protect nature, to address questions like storm protection and climate change and others – they relate closely to various other projects and activities that you’ve been involved with throughout your career as an environmental attorney and environmental advocate and professor at Rice University.
I’m thinking here in terms of – by no means an inclusive list but just a couple of examples – your key role in establishing the Galveston Bay Foundation and the Houston Wilderness group. Protecting nature – if I could put it that way, maybe too simply – has been a key theme of your work through your career. Could you reflect on that for a moment and how this project fits into that. Is it a continuation of that work?
A: I think absolutely it’s a continuation of that work. You never know what the culmination may be, but it’s also part of a journey. It’s kind of a movement of coming out of environmental law and being very solidly in the regulatory camp and trying to find ways to be creative. [In] my involvement with Houston Wilderness on this, I’ve gotten to know [former] Secretary [of State] James Baker a bit in working on this Lone Star Coastal National Recreation Area that came out of Houston Wilderness in partnership with the SSPEED Center and is actually being implemented by the National Parks Conservation Association and might go to Congress later this year. Secretary Baker was really interesting in the sense of how he would evaluate ideas in trying to come up with good workable solutions that generated the least possible turbulence, if you will. It’s an interesting way of looking at things – it seems like, in retrospect, I picked the most turbulent methods to get where I was trying to go. A lot of that’s just where I came from and being hired to litigate and things like that. But this is about trying to find a less turbulent way to go about trying to achieve some very, very important goals.
So that was very helpful to me – to get that kind of impact but also to realize that our science has now progressed far enough, our tools are enough. All of this comes out of the work that [ecological economist] Robert Costanza did around the late 1990s, early 2000s, coming up with values of nature, to put forward the concept that nature has value. Basically, from my standpoint, combining that with sustainability thinking and sustainable development concepts, you merge into full-cost pricing, to talk about how we should be paying the full cost of our activities and not just the cheapest price. Full-cost pricing includes these carbon-dioxide emissions, it includes habitat loss, it includes water use, it includes a number of aspects of what we call footprint. And then the idea that we would voluntarily undo our footprint, or try to, as a means of having a sustainable future is, I think, the highest level of ethic and calling that there’s going to be in the 21st Century. I know that corporations oftentimes don’t think along those ethical lines like I think individuals do, but this system that we’re talking about putting in place is a way of monetizing and practically translating it into corporate terms.
I think a lot of this is a communications issue at the core and this is about taking issues that have always been thought about one way and trying to basically rethink them in a different manner. I’ll always be concerned about bays. No fresh water getting to the bays means the bays won’t produce shrimp, won’t produce oysters, won’t produce a lot of the juveniles that support most of our sports and commercial fisheries. But nobody thinks about the fact that water is needed to make that happen, that freshwater inflow is the lifeblood of those bays, that there’s a huge cost to diverting that water and using it, however it’s being used. It’s never considered that there’s a negative economic impact to the bays while we’re getting positive economic impact out of the water. So to begin to rethink really all aspects of our existence, our economic activity, from the standpoint of how do these costs actually allocate, and then try to get the books balanced, if you will, is really what this is about.
Q: You’re talking in a way about what economists call external costs, externalities.
A: That’s where environmental law came from. Regulation was the cure to that. We regulate to force the internalization of externalities. Well this is based on taking a different approach to that same problem. It’s the same problem in a way. It’s just thinking about it and packaging it differently and in the process creating economies and voluntary action where regulations were always portrayed as hurting the economy. It’s sort of like looking at it from a different side of the prism. The colors change. And I think these colors might be more attractive in a red state than other colors might be.
Q: You’ve mentioned, or at least the announcement for the meeting mentions, the aim of increasing the resilience of the coast – and not just the natural capital along the coast but also human habitation along the coast. Resilience is a word that’s popping up increasingly in discussions of climate change, particularly with regard to the need that a lot of people see to adapt to or get ready for the climate change that scientists say is built into the climate system, based on what human beings have been doing up until this point. Do you think this initiative that uses the term resilience – is that connected to what you were just talking about, about trying to make things appealing in Texas? Does the resilience concept offer a way, perhaps, to bridge some divides that exists among people that may see things differently?
A: I think it does very much. One of the hot-button issues we’ve hit in our work at SSPEED Center about looking at making the coast more secure from hurricanes is the cost of making the coast secure. And who’s going to pay that cost. And where should those costs be allocated. We’ve gotten into some very interesting philosophical questions about what’s the role of government in these costs, the flood insurance program and all those things. What we’re talking about, particularly with regard to this ecological services trading concept and landscape-scale solutions, is developing an economy that can survive inundation. Much of our built economy cannot survive inundation. It is either designed such that it is fragile and easily destroyed or it just can’t take the battering year after year, storm after storm.
Resilience in this context is a really interesting and I think challenging concept to get your head around. For example, climate change – if we’re, for starters, not anticipating sea level rising in the future, [then] if you’re building a road on the coast you’re likely to build it to the point where 50 years from now it will be under water. We’re talking about building things that have a life of easily 50 years, yet if we don’t understand climate change and integrate it, then what you’re building is absolutely vulnerable and will be destroyed. That’s resilience ultimately, thinking about resilience.
We’ve got to use every tool we’ve got to figure out what’s going to happen and anticipate what’s going to happen and then be able to withstand a blow. I once had someone describe resilience to me as taking a rubber ball and you can squeeze that ball and then you let it go and the ball comes back into its shape. That’s resilience. Whenever the storm hits the coast it’s like squeezing the ball, and the question is, can our ball retain its shape or does it get deformed by what occurs. Unfortunately, it gets deformed [by] the way we’ve been doing things. The economy of the past is an economy that gets deformed by these blows. We’ve got to think in terms of an economy for the future that doesn’t get deformed every time a storm goes through.
[Editor’s note: This story was updated after its initial posting to correct an erroneous reference to the year when Hurricane Ike occurred. It was 2008.]
Image credit: Blackburn & Carter