Efforts to shift to climate-smart, resilient and sustainable practices need robust statewide support and a boost in planning and investment.

Texas faces all of the most direct climate shocks that are already hitting communities across the world: extreme heat, drought, water scarcity, fires, extreme weather, storms, floods, and ongoing sea level rise. Food insecurity is a rapidly intensifying risk, and shock disruptions of the energy system, which can be life-threatening, are becoming more likely.

Hurricane Harvey hovered over Texas for nearly a week, pulling warm water from the ocean and unleashing record amounts of rain that led to historic flooding. Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Jesse Allen, using MODIS data from the Land Atmosphere Near real-time Capability for EOS (LANCE) and the University of Wisconsin’s Space Science and Engineering Center Direct Broadcast system.

One of the hardest things to understand about climate change is that it invades everyday life in multiple ways, even before shock events happen, undermining preparedness and making devastation more likely. Institutions, including governments at different levels, have also tended to underestimate their own vulnerability to such systemic disruption, having withstood isolated shock events in the past.

The Hurricane Harvey storm system delivered 20 inches of rain to some places. Estimates went as high as 50 inches, in specifically vulnerable locations, and flooding affected an extremely wide area. Rivers and waterways throughout the Houston region were filled with floodwaters and sediment, and streets became unpassable. Millions of people were displaced or forced to shelter in place due to storm and flood dangers.

On August 31, 2017 (10 days after Harvey made landfall) NASA captured this image of the Texas coast and the Houston metropolitan area. Note the brown rivers and bays, full of flood water from Hurricane Harvey. Along the coast, muddy, sediment-laden waters from inland pour into a Gulf of Mexico that also was churned up by the relentless storm. Image: NASA Earth Observatory, Jesse Allen, using data from the Land Atmosphere Near real-time Capability for EOS (LANCE).

Texas has also proven to be vulnerable to a less common but serious kind of extreme weather driven by climate disruption: anomalous winter weather caused by a dislocation of the Polar Vortex. The Polar Vortex is a wind current that moves in a circular pattern around the Arctic. It is part of the process by which Earth’s climate system defines and differentiates between climatic zones: to the north, Arctic weather; to the south: more temperate northern forests and plains.

When the Arctic warms enough that the line between Arctic and sub-Arctic is blurred, the Polar Vortex dislocates. That allows the barrier keeping frigid polar weather in the far north to move further south, into the contiguous 48 United States, and as far south as Texas. This is how shock freezes caught Texas, and ERCOT, off guard, and led to a calamitous winter storm with baseload power failing and people dying.

Snowfall in Houston, Texas. Image: Adrian Newell.

A relatively small amount of rare weather can shock human systems enough to create havoc—destroying crops, shutting down travel, shuttering businesses, and collapsing the energy system. The lingering effects of such shock events can be degradation of services and quality of life and destabilization of everyday norms taken for granted before the event.

In 2022, the United States experienced 18 separate weather or climate disasters that each resulted in at least $1 billion in damages. NOAA map by NCEI.

Cities and states that have too little preparedness, including resources to devote to adaptation, will see more of that degradation and disruption. While there is a Texas Flood Infrastructure Fund and a Texas Infrastructure Resiliency Fund, Texas needs a more comprehensive climate preparedness and resilience fund, and an overall strategic plan to respond to and manage climate-related events and emergencies.

The trend over time is getting much worse, with at least 7 times as many billion-dollar disasters in 2020 as in 1980. The most vulnerable states, like Texas, have spent over $200 billion since 1980 just responding to disasters. As the trend of extreme weather acceleration continues, failure to mitigate emissions, transition to resilient, sustainable energy systems, build overall resilience, and invest in adaptation, will result in significant portions of state revenues being lost to crisis.

This map depicts the total estimated cost borne by each state from billion-dollar weather and climate events from 1980–2022. Screenshot from NOAA NCEI Billion-dollar Disasters web mapping tool.

The most climate-vulnerable states can also expect to see positive demographic and economic trends reversed in coming years and decades. If shock events are met with inadequate public planning and resilience measures, people, businesses, and investment will look elsewhere for more stable conditions where unforeseen costs are less likely to ruin long-term investments.

One sign that alarms investors is the effort by some in the state legislature to obstruct the utilization of climate and sustainability planning information (a category of ESG data) to make smarter long-term investment decisions. Blocking the use of such data will likely undermine overall resilience across the state, undermine fiscal reserves, and make investments in the state more costly, as climate impacts pile up.

What defenders of the status quo miss about climate-related planning and investment is that it is the most evidence-based way to make smart and timely decisions about how to build a successful future economy. As markets and regions face increasing climate pressures, those that are best prepared, and ahead of the innovation curve, will capture more new investment and lay foundations for sustainable prosperity.

For more information about environmental impacts, rights, and policies, affecting Texas and the region, go to TEX.earth