Guest Column | May 17, 2018

With Hurricane Season Approaching, Texas Should Heed Harvey's Warning On Climate Change

Kate Zerrenner

By Kate Zerrenner

The 2018 hurricane season is just around the corner — June 1st, in fact.

Initial predictions for this year’s season say we should expect it to be more active than average, which is unwelcome news to a state that is still reeling from Hurricane Harvey. And, while some areas are bracing for more hurricanes before they’ve even recovered from the last one, the majority of the state is already back in drought.

The weather rollercoaster that Texas has always ridden is getting more intense, thanks in large part to climate change. Not only is climate change real and happening, but Texas will be among the areas hardest hit economically by its effects. Put simply, our state can no longer afford not to act on climate change.

Over the past few months, we have been looking at issues related to Hurricane Harvey, like how the storm wreaked havoc on people’s health and how the state can better invest in coastal resilience.

With all of this in mind, the Texas Legislative Session is about six months away — and the Lone Star State should heed Harvey’s lessons.


Clear evidence exists to show that environmental protection and economic development can grow hand in hand. It’s time for Texas leadership to take the climate bull by the horns.

As we head into the 2019 legislative session, with Harvey in our rearview mirror (and hopefully no other big storms in 2018), there are some simple first steps the legislature can take:

  1. Require state agencies to have climate adaptation plans

For several legislative sessions, a bill has been filed that would require certain state agencies to include weather, water availability, and climate variability in their strategic plans. This is a commonsense first step that should apply to more agencies than listed in the original legislation, including the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), which operates thousands of facilities across the state.

Furthermore, if agencies’ climate adaptation plans show the need for facility upgrades — in order to ensure that operations continue and buildings are resilient during a natural disaster — those agencies should receive appropriations and regulatory guidance. Texas recently ranked 47th in the country on its investment in infrastructure and pollution measures, and has a poor record of robust environmental enforcement and funding, presenting an opportunity for significant improvement.

  1. Authorize or require the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) to officially use the latest climate data and modeling

ERCOT and the TWDB are responsible for planning two of our most essential services: the state’s electric and water needs. Yet, these agencies are not allowed to officially use the latest climate data.

TWDB’s website has a lot of resources on precipitation and drought, but there is minimal reference to climate change. Because each region in Texas does its own water plan to roll up into the state plan, climate data may be used at the local level. However, in the state water plan itself, there is no acceptance that the climate is changing. Likewise, searching the ERCOT website, the latest climate change data is not included in forecasting for future reliability and needs.

  1. Encourage state agencies to work together to address reliability, resource, and resilience issues

Relevant state agencies should be working together to ensure resilience to extreme weather, as well as mitigation of further climate change and adaptation to what’s already happening. These agencies include but are not limited to the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the Public Utilities Commission, the Railroad Commission (RRC), TxDOT, TWDB, and ERCOT.

In addition to protecting facilities and employees in at-risk areas, agencies should be coordinating on planning for future resource needs and ensuring reliability of service. This requires collaborative forethought, planning, and likely funding — not in silos.

Moreover, TCEQ should be the state’s foremost voice on climate change, working with a wide variety of state agencies to protect all citizens, especially the most vulnerable, from the effects of climate change.

Psychological trauma

Distressingly, since we started our blog series, there has been news of the level of trauma that people affected by the 2017 hurricanes are suffering. Harris County residents are feeling “unprecedented amounts of serious psychological distress,” which even includes Houston-area people who were not among those most directly impacted by Harvey. And reports from Puerto Rico indicate that suicide attempts have spiked there in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

There is an unseen toll that natural disasters take on the human psyche. Although it may be invisible, psychological trauma is yet another cost of not acting on climate, and it must not be ignored as we consider steps to take to protect communities from the next storm.[i]

Saddle up

Local Texas leaders are already taking action by using the latest climate data, supporting climate goals, and creating climate action plans. Six cities and counties in Texas have signed the ‘We’re Still In’ climate declaration, pledging to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Austin has a climate action plan and Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio currently have processes underway to move the climate ball forward in their cities.

But state leadership remains woefully behind. Texas prides itself on being a state that people and businesses want to move to, but if we don’t tackle this problem with the spirit we have tackled oil and wind power, it will no longer be an attractive state. We shouldn’t sit on our spurs with climate change, we should saddle up.

This is the final post in a series evaluating the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and offering tactics to avoid the worst effects going forward. The first post looked at three things we know for certain, the second on Harvey’s health impact, the third on floodplains and natural infrastructure, and the fourth on energy resilience. 

[i] If you are in Texas and suffering from psychological distress, please seek help. There are lifelines:

From Environmental Defense Fund's Texas Clean Air Matters blog