The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released its sixth Assessment Report since the group’s founding in the 1980s.
The 3500-page report, done by the foremost scientific authority on climate change, lays it out that climate change is directly linked to human cause and we are going to see some pretty severe weather as we’ve never seen before if nothing is done to stop the earth from warming.
But we wanted to know what this report means to us living in Texas, and what impacts will we see here? And what can we do to help or reverse climate change?
Dr. Catania is a professor and senior scientist at the University of Texas Department of Geological Sciences. Dr. Catania’s research involves understanding ice sheet and glacier changes both from natural variability and climate forced variability.
Dr. Dessler is a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University. He specializes in climate change, remote sensing and climate change policy.
What do the findings in the recent IPCC report mean for Texas?
Dessler: So Texas is indeed one of the most vulnerable states to climate change and because Texas is such a big place, you can really think of it as two different states. You have West Texas, or anything west of I-35 is really the desert part of the US southwest. The people that live there and most of San Antonio, they’re going to see warmer temperatures, more heatwaves and much more water stress. So that means less water available when it does rain, it may rain harder, but you’ll get fewer of those events. East Texas, the threat is going to be much more flooding, intense rain events, sea-level rise, tropical cyclones and, of course, warmer temperatures everywhere. We are going to see warmer temperatures, more heatwaves. That’s the one thing that everyone will have in common. But in East Texas, I think flooding and intense rain events is going to be the bigger issue, whereas in West Texas, it’s more going to be water scarcity. Scarcity, combined with warmer temperatures is really going to stress the water infrastructure.
Catania: I would say that the biggest impacts are going to be to weather extremes and to coastlines. Texas has a giant coastline that’s very susceptible to sea-level rise because it’s very shallow. And it also is a very important coastline because it’s a location of massive energy exports and tons of shipping that comes in through the Houston area. The whole state is really susceptible to these weather extremes. But on the coastline, in particular, we’re thinking of sea level increases on the order of a half meter. And that may not sound like a lot, but it means a lot in terms of the impact of tropical storms and hurricanes on the Gulf Coast. Because once you raise that base level a little bit, then those storms can come even further in and they can have a much bigger impact. You’ll get even just like a random flood event that occurs on sunny days simply because the base level has risen up. And so if you think about all the infrastructure that we have at our coastline, the idea of moving that becomes really costly.
What would you say to the people who still don’t believe that climate change is real or who want to acknowledge it?
Catania: Well, it kind of doesn’t matter what people think, it’s going to happen, regardless of whether or not people believe in the science of climate change. We can already see all these effects that are already happening that are basically things that we predicted several decades ago. And so it’s really no surprise what we’re seeing that’s going to happen in the future. And so it’s either, you know, we can plan for it or we can just bear the consequences of it. I’ve actually done an analysis that I published on, you know, how much the cost would be if we pay upfront for mitigation versus if we wait and defer that cost for later. It’s vastly orders of magnitude cheaper to deal with the costs of climate change now ahead of the catastrophes. So we can look at it from an economic point of view and it’s way more motivating to do it that way. The other thing I would say is that there’s a tremendous opportunity really in any problem. But this is an enormous one. And the Biden administration sees this really clearly, and that’s why they’ve passed the Senate infrastructure bill and they’re looking to pass yet another one that’s even more money for social services that include dealing with climate change. And that is a huge step forward in changing the way that we run the country, both the energy infrastructure and the transportation infrastructure. That means jobs and construction projects and a shift in how the economy works that’s endorsed by the government. So people can either get on board with that and find opportunity in that or they can stick and hold on to the old ways of doing things which will no longer be accepted by modern administration in the U.S.
Dessler: Scientists have been writing these reports for the last 30 years, I mean, literally 30 years of writing reports in each report has shown that our confidence in the science is increasing. And so in that sense, this report is actually nothing new. It just follows along exactly the previous reports. I think the difference is that in the past, climate change was really much more theoretical. As scientists, we can measure it and we can see it. We can see the temperature going up a fraction of a degree every year. But what’s happened is now you, everybody, you and nonscientists can look out the window and you can see it and you suddenly understand how bad it is. I mean, we’ve been telling you this and it kind of hasn’t registered. But once people can see the smoke from the fires, once people see Houston under, you know, Houston experiencing 60 inches of rain from Hurricane Harvey, you say, wow, this does not look good. And we’ve only had a small fraction of the warming that we’re expecting. We’ve had about two degrees Fahrenheit, global average warming. We can expect several times that this century if we don’t take action. This is a small preview of how bad it could be. And so I think that’s really what’s driving the increased concern. It’s not that the science is we’ve suddenly figured this out. We figured this out 50 years ago or 30 years ago. This was well understood.
So how can we fix this, or help?
Dessler: So the solution is we have to stop burning stuff we dig out of the ground, stop burning coal, oil and natural gas. We know how to do that. Solar and wind are as cheap or cheaper than fossil fuels right now. Electric cars can transport us around if they’re plugged into a clean grid. They’re not emitters. They’re not emitting. So we have the technology to do this. There are a few edge cases that are difficult. We don’t really know how to electrify flying. Long-distance trucking is a challenge. So there are a couple of cases where it’s hard. But overall we could get very close to not emitting if we just use the technology we have now. And once we commit to doing that, the technology will rapidly improve. I mean, we have lots of examples of cases where once entrepreneurs in our economy decide that some change is going to take place, they start figuring out much cheaper ways to do it. I am convinced and people have done analysis of this, that we could switch to renewable energy and have a better economy, save money, get to have cheaper energy. Now, the question is how do you get there? How do we go from this world we live in now where we’re mainly burning fossil fuels to a world where we don’t burn fossil fuels? It’s hard because we have all this investment, all this infrastructure, we have all these oil and gas workers. We need to get to a world where we have lots of windmills and solar energy generators and thermal, geothermal and nuclear, all these other energy technologies. And it’ll take a few decades, which is why it’s important that we start now to slowly transition away. That’s not very painful. It would have been great if we’d started 20 years ago. Then we could have had a very slow transition. It wouldn’t have been painful at all. People wouldn’t even notice. But because the forces of doing nothing have been so strong, they’ve kept us from this transition and now it’s going to be much harder. And if we wait, it’s going to be even harder. So really the time to do it is now and they’re policies that the people in Austin can adopt. For example, if you ask the question, why does Texas have so much wind, it’s because of Rick Perry. Rick Perry built a transmission line to carry wind energy from West Texas to the major cities. And that’s really what made wind profitable in Texas. And that’s something that’s paid for itself many times over. And it was combined with the original energy deregulation bill from the late 1990s, which actually encouraged renewable energy. So the people in Austin have lots of tools at their disposal to encourage renewable energy, but they don’t want to do that. They want to do the exact opposite because they get so much campaign contributions from fossil fuels. They’re essentially solely owned --our elected representatives in Austin--- by lobbyists for fossil fuel manufacturers at this point. I mean, they get so many of their campaign contributions to them and are so enormous that they do whatever they can to keep us from switching, which is really not good for the citizens of the state.
Catania: The thing is, like this report basically says that we still have time if we want to adhere to the Paris agreement, there’s still some time left. So that’s like this nugget of hope, right, that we can hold on to, that we can try to save ourselves.
Specifically here in Texas, I would suggest that they shift away from cattle. Cattle is a very big consumer of water and we’re drawing down our aquifers. It’s becoming unsustainable how much we’re drawing down our aquifers, particularly in west Texas. So I would suggest they (Texans) find a different type of agriculture to focus on. A lot of people are aware of the fact that beef is very energy-intensive and resource-intensive.
I will say that there are some changes coming that have already begun, like sea-level rise that I don’t think we can reverse because the ice sheets have so much like thermal inertia built up in them that once the temperature has risen to a certain amount, there’s no getting that back. And so I think we are past the point of no return for sea level, but we can probably mitigate some of the temperature extremes, the extreme droughts and flooding and all that kind of stuff that we might get by reducing greenhouse gases.
I’m a person who likes to cling to optimism usually for this issue because it can be so overwhelming. I’m just teaching a class on it now, and feel like the students feel like ‘why even bother? You know, we’re just doomed.’ I think that’s not true. I think there’s still a lot of things that we could potentially do. So I would encourage people to act and talk about it with people because talking about it is one way of dealing with this and communicating with everybody. You don’t have to do all these individual actions to reduce your climate footprint. That’s great if you can do that. But even just being aware of it, voting on the issue can be a much bigger impact than you’d think.