A drier Austin, a hotter Texas, a sinking coast
February 3, 2007

Scientists from around the world laid out the causes and future of global climate change in a report Friday. The results suggest that Texas, with its booming population and flourishing industries, may become the victim of some of its success.

Written by Asher Price, Austin American-Statesman

Scientists from around the world laid out the causes and future of global climate change in a report Friday. The results suggest that Texas, with its booming population and flourishing industries, may become the victim of some of its success.

The report, released by a panel of scientists that were assembled by the United Nations, does not address climate change state by state. But the phenomenon will have concrete consequences for the state, according to Texas scientists: Austin will get drier, and water in Central Texas will grow scarcer. Rising sea levels will eat away at the Gulf Coast. Crops may shrivel.

"Climate change will dramatically alter the character of our state," said Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University whose work was cited in the U.N. study. "The place our parents and grandparents grew up won't be same place where our children will grow up."

She said the Southwest, including Texas, could expect more droughts and hotter weather. Over the next century, averagetemperatures could rise at least 7 degrees in summer and 5 degrees in winter, she said.

The U.N. study found that "warming of the climate system is unequivocal" and said with "very high confidence" that the net impact of "human activities since 1750 has been one of warming."

Climate change is sure to continue because of greenhouse gas emissions already in the atmosphere, the report said. But reducing fossil fuel use — which leads to emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, a contributor to climate change — could soften the rate of global warming, it said.

Texas is the No. 1 emitter of carbon dioxide nationally, with about a third of the emissions coming from vehicle tailpipes, a third from industries and a third from utilities. If the Lone Star state were its own nation, it would be the seventh-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world.

The state has no official climate change policy. The governor has said there is scientific doubt about whether people are responsible for climate change. And the office of the Texas attorney general has battled against regulating carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Any approach to environmental regulations needs to be balanced with concerns for impact on our economy, on Texas families' budgets," said Ted Royer, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry. "Whether or not global climate change is caused by human influence is beside the point. We know for a fact that dirty air is bad for Texans."

At least 29 states have policies to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. In his State of the Union speech last month, President Bush acknowledged the "serious challenge of global climate change."

But neither the federal government nor Texas regulates carbon dioxide.

"We need to balance our needs with the long-term needs of our planet," said state Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, who leads the Senate Natural Resources Committee. Averitt said he supports a U.S. Senate bill that would cap carbon dioxide emissions.

"The appropriate venue for deciding this is Congress," Averitt said. "It's important to have a national policy so we're all in the same boat together. If a utility is looking to build a plant and Texas has stringent requirements on carbon dioxide and Oklahoma doesn't, there's a strong possibility they're going to build in Oklahoma. That's fruitless and counterproductive. At this time, it would not be appropriate for the state to take action."

Predicting the effect of climate change on Texas, let alone Austin, is tricky.

"It's like trying to catch a fish in a lake," said Zong-Liang Yang, a University of Texas professor who is building models that translate climate phenomena from the global to local scale. "If you use big nets with big spacing, you catch big fish, not small fish. We need to use a smaller net. The global warming models have big spacing and are very coarse."

Some other Texas scientists suggested specific ways that hotter temperatures could alter the landscape of Austin.

Right now, the rain rate, about 2.6 inches a month, roughly matches the water evaporation rate in Central Texas, said Gerald North, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University. If temperatures rise 5 degrees, the evaporation rate will rise an inch; if the rain rate doesn't keep up, in other words, Austin may start looking like San Angelo.

The Gulf Coast — whose sea levels will rise 8 to 22 inches or more, depending on ice melting in Antarctica and Greenland — is vulnerable to climate change, said Don Blankenship, a scientist at UT's Institute forGeophysics who studies rising sea levels.

"If Texas were a river delta like Bangladesh, then the big impact is a displacement of population," he said. "As an area barely dry becomes wet, if you're Texas, that's not a big deal because people can move inland, but all that infrastructure has to be moved."

But the Port of Houston Authority Division of Planning and Environment said its Bayport Container Terminal, which has a dock elevation of 18 feet above average sea level, is safe from rising seas.

"It is unlikely that global water increases will cause a significant problem for this maritime facility over its 50-year design life," the authority said in a statement.

The climate change discussion has hit a fever pitch just as utilities have proposed a host of new coal-fired plants in Texas. The plants would add at least 120 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere annually. About 666 million tons of carbon dioxide were emitted in Texas in 2001, according to the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

"For every report that says we have global warming, there's a report that says we don't," said state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, chairman of the House Regulated Industries Committee, which oversees the electric industry.He said he has a three-inch binder of climate change reports in his office.

"I'm not a scientist, but I can read, and when there's that much debate in the scientific community, it's hard to base public policy on that empirical data," he said.

Last year, the state signed onto a U.S. Supreme Court brief that argues that the Clean Air Act should not address carbon dioxide emissions because much of the gas is emitted by foreign nations.

"It's only reasonable that Texas be part of discussions about how to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases," said Larry Soward, who is on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. "I hear people say that global climate change is a global issue, and not something we can do anything about in Texas. But any reduction we make will help reduce that effect."

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