Climate change is sometimes misunderstood as being about changes in the weather. In reality, it is about changes in our very way of life. — Paul Polman
"It’s not about saving the planet. The planet will survive. The planet will be orbiting the sun long after we’re gone. It’s about saving us."
— Katharine Hayhoe
By Brantley Hargrove
August 13, 2021
August 13, 2021
The planet is running a temperature and it’s getting harder not to notice. The western states seem like they’re always on fire. Last month, the mostly un-air-conditioned Pacific Northwest shattered temperature records, giving folks in Portland, Oregon, a taste of Texas summer. Here, six years separated the hottest, driest year in Lone Star history (2011) from the most significant rainfall event in U.S. history (Hurricane Harvey, 2017), one of several one-hundred-year and five-hundred-year flood events to strike the Houston area in a span of three years. The three hottest Augusts on record in Austin are 2011, 2019, and 2020. So no, it isn’t your imagination. Things are getting weird.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—that august global body that delivers semi-regular syntheses of the latest science on our warming world—concludes that conditions are virtually guaranteed to get worse. Scientists have long warned that an increase in average global temperatures of 1.5 degrees Celsius (or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) could produce catastrophic changes for humans and other animal and plant species. Unfortunately, according to the IPCC assessment released this week, the planet is expected to pass that threshold as soon as the early 2030s—just a decade or so from now. That means more drought, more fire, more heat, more unusually intense hurricanes. That’s the bad news.
The good news is there’s still time to head off the worst of it—and maybe even reverse some of the damage we’ve done. To better understand the latest IPCC report and what it portends for Texas and the world, Texas Monthly spoke with Katharine Hayhoe, a professor and researcher at Texas Tech who runs the university’s Climate Center. Besides coauthoring the past three National Climate Assessments, serving as an expert reviewer on the Nobel Prize–winning IPCC, and being widely regarded as one of the best in the world at talking about climate science in terms people can understand, she’s also an evangelical Christian. In fact, she’s something of an ambassador to a group that has largely turned a deaf ear to what the planet is telling us. But if there’s anyone who can get people to listen, it’s Hayhoe.
Texas Monthly: What’s the top-line conclusion in this report for you?
Katharine Hayhoe: What’s new is, first of all, there is no equivocation. There is no mincing of words for any country, or company, or state, or city, or organization to hide behind and to say, “Oh, scientists aren’t sure. They don’t know enough yet. We need to study it more.” No, we have everything we need to act. There’s always something new to learn. The planet is as complex as a human body. But we are certain that climate is changing, humans are responsible, and that the impacts are serious. Our future is in our hands. Our choices will determine the outcome.
TM: Why were scientists hoping we’d head off that 1.5 Celsius increase in average global temperature, and what does it mean now that we likely won’t?
KH: As humans, we need targets. If you’re going to lose weight, you set a target. So scientists put together all the science in the world on how climate change would affect crops in Africa, water in the [American] Southwest, hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, thawing permafrost in the Arctic. People, places, food, water, the economy, species. They pulled all of that together and asked, “What type of changes do we see as the world gets warmer by one degree [Celsius]?” which we’ve already reached. Or by one and a half degrees? By two degrees? By two and a half degrees? By three degrees? When do we start to see widespread dangerous impacts?
Science can put a number on how much worse human-caused climate change made Hurricane Harvey. We get hurricanes here in Texas; that’s a normal part of life. But we know that climate change is a threat multiplier. It’s taking naturally occurring events and amplifying them.
In the case of hurricanes, it’s making hurricanes bigger, stronger, and slower, and it’s increasing the rainfall associated with them. A best-guess estimate for how much more rain fell during Harvey because of a warmer ocean and a warmer atmosphere is about 37 percent more rain. There was a study that came out in April that shows that climate change increased the economic damages of Harvey. It was responsible for about three quarters of the economic damages [or about $67 billion of the hurricane’s $90 billion toll]. That’s a stunning number.
So, scientists put together all of that for all over the world and they said, “Where do we see the impacts getting really dangerous, really costly at a widespread level?” And they said, “Well, definitely by two degrees.”
Every bit of warming matters. Everything we do counts. And the more we do, the better off we will all be. Because you know what? Texas is the most vulnerable state in the whole U.S. to extreme weather and climate disasters already. And that’s because of our geographic location. We get everything. We get hurricanes, tornadoes, supercell thunderstorms, hail, drought, blizzards, ice storms, floods. We get everything.
TM: What can Texas water planners expect under different scenarios?
KH: Water planners across the state are already beginning to incorporate climate projections into their work. And I know because I speak with many of them. Water planners are very different than producers, and farmers and ranchers. Water planners go out fifty years, eighty years, in some cases even a hundred years. They’re also very familiar with long-term data, with temperature data, precipitation data, evaporation data, water supply, water demand, and how that fluctuates. Water planners had a huge wake-up call during the 2011–2012 drought. And that led many of them to realize that basing their plans on the drought of record in the past might not be a reliable source for water planning in the future if the droughts are getting more intense.
We need to start planning for a drought that’s just as bad, if not worse, than what we’ve already had, not a drought that’s only as bad as what we’ve had in the past. Here’s what our research found that we did at Texas Tech: As the world warms, the ocean is getting warmer. And as the high-pressure system [that annually brings dry weather to Texas during midsummer] passes on its annual migration over the Southeast, over the Gulf of Mexico, by Florida and by Alabama, and then on to Texas, that warmer water is going to be making that high-pressure system stronger.
So that natural seasonal pattern that we get, we’re going to have a greater risk of those stronger, longer-lasting drought years. Climate change is loading the dice against us. That’s why we know, again, that Texas is vulnerable because we’ve actually done the work. It’s not an issue [just] for people who live far away. It’s not an issue just for our children, our grandchildren. It’s affecting us right here and right now.
TM: Speaking of children and grandchildren, I have a toddler and another baby on the way. You can’t help but start thinking beyond your own lifespan to that of your children and your grandchildren. If we don’t take drastic action now, what can my son expect when he’s my age? And then my potential grandchildren, who will presumably see a new century?
KH: That’s exactly why I care. I mean, I’m a mom. And as a parent, you would do anything for your child. You want them to be able to grow up in a world that’s better than the world that we grew up in, not worse.
The climate is changing faster than at any time in the history of human civilization. What it’s doing is it’s taking our naturally occurring risks and it’s exacerbating them. We would be seeing weeks [full] of days over a hundred degrees by the time our children are our age. We would be seeing supersized hurricanes. We would be seeing longer, stronger droughts. We would be seeing increasing risk of heavy rainfall and flood. And of course these risks are already increasing. I mean, in some parts of Houston, they had three five-hundred-year flood events in three years. So we would see a world that was less stable, less safe. Where people couldn’t take clean water for granted, or a stable supply chain, or a healthy economy, or even a safe environment.
KH: It does. It absolutely does, because COVID has so many parallels to climate change. COVID is an issue that we thought of as distant and far off until it was already here. COVID is an issue that requires action at all levels. Governments, universities, and corporations had to get together and collaborate to develop the vaccines, and they did that very successfully. But then each of us has a simple role to play by just putting a mask on our face to protect the most vulnerable people in our society who are not able, for whatever reason, to get the vaccine. And somehow we just can’t pull ourselves together to do it. That definitely gives me pause.
Each of us knows someone who’s been affected by COVID. We may even know people —I do—who were very sick. We may even know people who COVID took their lives. And we may know people who are unable to be vaccinated, especially if we have children or know people who cannot be vaccinated for certain health reasons. And so just to protect them, just to love our neighbor—simply to love our neighbor—can we not wear a mask? And to see so many people who call themselves Christians display such lack of love for their neighbors is just heart-breaking. Sorry, I’m getting a little personal here, just as a Christian speaking.
TM: I was about to ask. You’re an evangelical Christian, right?
KH: Yeah, it’s discouraging. There’s a verse in the book of James that says, “For anyone who hears that word but does not carry it out is like a man who looks at himself in the mirror and then goes away and forgets who he is.” I just feel like so many have lost their way and forgotten who they are. They’ve forgotten that they are loving, caring people. They’ve forgotten that they are parents and grandparents. They’ve forgotten that we’re all called to love our neighbor as ourselves. And that’s what climate change is about, too.
When I give talks on climate change to Christian audiences, as I often do, my title is “Loving Your Global Neighbor.” That’s what my title is because that’s what climate action is. Climate change disproportionately affects the most marginalized and poorest and vulnerable people right here in Texas, as well as on the other side of the world. And if we truly believe that we are called to love others, as God loved us, then that includes caring for their physical needs. And I truly believe it’s an expression of God’s love, and it’s an expression of who God has made us to be.
TM: That seems like a way around the tree-hugger epithet.
KH: It’s not about saving the planet. The planet will survive. The planet will be orbiting the sun long after we’re gone. It’s about saving us.
Our civilization is built on the assumption of a relatively stable climate. Of course, we have hot and dry. We have cold and we have wet. And here in Texas, we have more of all of that than anyone else. But over climate timescales, which is the average of weather over at least twenty to thirty years, our climate has been relatively stable, stable enough for us to build two thirds of the world’s largest cities within just a few feet of sea level. Stable enough for us to parcel out our agricultural land so that multiple generations could grow the same crops on that land. Whereas now we’re seeing, of course, many crops, and trees, and plants, and animal and bird and insect species shifting poleward. It was stable enough to allocate our water resources and draw our geopolitical boundaries. But now we have a society that is entirely built on the assumption of a relatively stable climate, and climate is changing faster now than at any time in the history of human civilization. That’s why it matters to us.
TM: You live in Lubbock, which is probably one of the most conservative cities in Texas. When you look around your community, do you see an awareness of the truly frightening realities in this report?
KH: Here’s the interesting thing: I’ve been here for fifteen years and when I first came, I met a lot of people who were very curious, because they hear a lot about climate change, and they know that there’re conflicting opinions in the media—not in the scientific field, but in the media. And so there were a lot more people here who, as soon as they realized that I wouldn’t whip out one of those thousand-page IPCC reports and start hitting them on the head with it, they were very curious. And in fact, the whole reason why I do so much communication today is when I first moved to Lubbock, so many people and groups and organizations sought me out and said, “Hey, we’re not so sure about this whole thing, but we have a lot of questions. Could we talk?”
Back then, though, we would have been hard-pressed no matter who we are, where we lived—unless we lived up in the Arctic—to put our finger on a way that climate change was specifically affecting us. But today, fifteen years on, everybody I talk to—even the most hard-core, dyed-in-the-wool, most politically conservative people—everybody has a story about how things are changing. How things are not the same as when they were young. A cotton producer emailed me. He says, “I haven’t had a decent year since 2005.” Another man who would say climate change isn’t real, said, “I grew up going fishing here with my dad. And now when I go there, there’s algae all over the place and there’s no fish and things are just completely different.”
I was standing in line to pick up my son at Sunday school a couple of years ago. And the guy in front of me, who was picking up his child, he just turned to me as we were waiting. He said, “Is the weather getting weirder?” He just sort of opened with that. So I said, “Yes. I have looked at it, and the weather is indeed getting weirder. Heavy rain is getting more intense, droughts are getting stronger, extreme heat is getting more frequent.” And he said, “I knew it.” He said, “I’ve lived here for thirty years and I can see it happening.”
During the Syrian refugee crisis, I think there was something like ultimately about two million refugees outside the country and more than ten million inside the country. Well, that would be just a drop in the bucket compared to the number of refugees that we’d be seeing. We’d be seeing hundreds of millions of refugees as sea level permanently inundates the largest cities in the world; as stronger droughts and more damaging storms and devastating heat waves wipe out crops and dry up water supplies. It’s not a world that I would ever want my child to have to cope with. We take for granted the access to basic resources that many people in other parts of the world don’t have access to. Well, I don’t think we could guarantee that for our children if we don’t fix climate change. I mean literally: if we don’t fix climate change, it will fix us.
TM: When you look at Texas and you see the renewable energy sources now powering an increasing percentage of our grid, do you see cause for hope?
KH: Yes and no. And here’s why. So often people see the [energy] issue as a giant boulder sitting at the bottom of a steep hill with only a few hands trying to roll that boulder up the hill. But the reality is, the boulder’s already at the top of the hill and it’s rolling down in the right direction. And it has millions of hands on it. Texas leads the U.S. in wind energy production. During COVID last year around the world, according to the International Energy Agency, ninety percent of new electricity installed was clean energy. So changes are happening, and I think that does give me hope because we’re heading in the right direction. The “but” is we’re not doing it fast enough. We have to scale it up. We have to be doing it ten times faster if we want to avoid the most serious and dangerous impacts of climate change, which, like I said, have Texas right in their crosshairs.
TM: But as humans, I think it’s been established that we have a hard time processing and responding to abstract threats. I can’t help but think about the parallels with COVID-19. You could argue we’ve collectively failed to prevent hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths. And that makes me worry about our ability, at least in this country, to act collectively to prevent some of the worst scenarios in this report. Does that give you pause?
Oak Trees still recovering from winter storm
Experts warn homeowners, landowners not to be hasty in removing trees
May 6, 2021
May 6, 2021
Driving across Texas has been an interesting occupation for foresters and arborists these past few weeks. Many trees appear as healthy and vibrant as they have ever been, but littered in among the growing green are an equal – and seemingly arbitrary – population of barren oak trees.
This bizarre phenomenon has intrigued professionals across the state – especially since oak trees, and particularly live oak trees, are known to be an incredibly resilient species. Now, months after Winter Storm Uri swept across Texas in mid-February, many of the oaks still aren’t leafing out. Standing in contrast to their vibrant and vivacious brethren, they look dead.
Courtney Blevins has spent almost 40 years with Texas A&M Forest Service, and he can’t recall any past freeze leaving so many oaks looking bare this late into the spring.
“I’ve been telling people my whole career that the single toughest species we have up here is live oak,” said Blevins, a forester out of Fort Worth. “And yet, it’s the live oaks that seem to be most stressed from this freeze. I’m shocked by that.”
Blevins isn’t the only one. Neil Sperry, a Texas gardening and horticulture expert known across the state, has been stunned by the variability, and the scope, of damage left in the wake of that freeze. Followers of his Facebook page have submitted over 2,000 photos of struggling oak trees, including all varieties of species and from every single region of the state.
“I have been in this business professionally since 1970, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Sperry said. “We think of oaks as permanent as concrete and steel, and for them to selectively be affected by this freeze is particularly odd.”
WHAT EXPERTS ARE SAYING
Blevins and Sperry have spent the past few months responding to residents and landowners who are concerned about the health and condition of their trees. But as the weeks ticked past—and oak trees across the state still didn’t leaf out—Sperry decided to pull together a blue-ribbon panel of certified arborists, foresters, horticulturists, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service specialists, nursery leaders and garden communicators to send out a unified message. Their advice to landowners who are wondering what they should do, and whether they should cut down their valuable trees, is a simple one: just wait.
“If your tree is dead, there’s no rush to take it down,” said Blevins. “That’s one big mistake people are making. They’re in a big hurry to take that thing down, thinking it’s dangerous to leave a dead tree standing, and it’s not.”
Trees can stand firm for years after they have died. And while nobody wants a dead tree in their yard for long, landowners who are eager to replace their dead or dormant trees should note that spring isn’t the best time of year to plant trees in Texas, anyway. Instead, Texans should plant trees in the fall or early winter, when the roots are able to grow and further establish the tree.
But Blevins and Sperry are more concerned about landowners cutting down trees that could have recovered if just given the time.
“I think most of the oaks are going to come through okay,” Blevins said. “If your tree is leafing out really late, it’s obviously stressed. But most trees die from a combination of stressors, not just one thing.”
With a prolonged, deep freeze like the one brought on by Uri, experts expected some kind of response from trees – primarily fine-twig and branch dieback. The outermost branches and stems of even the most established trees lack insulation and are at risk of freezing in very low temperatures. This is a partial explanation as to why some trees have growth closer to their trunk and innermost branches, while the edges of their canopies remain bare. But it doesn’t explain why so many trees are leafing out late, or not at all.
One popular theory suggests that the trees that are struggling right now were likely stressed or struggling before the winter storm, especially given past conditions.
“It’s been a tough decade for trees,” said Gretchen Riley, the Urban and Community Forestry Program leader at Texas A&M Forest Service. “In 2011 we had unprecedented drought across the state, and we lost 500 million trees. Those that we didn’t lose experienced pretty heavy stress. And in the past decade, we’ve seen a lot of tree mortality that really had its roots in that drought.”
Riley attributes the potential mortality of mature oak trees to that drought and other preexisting conditions, but she attributes the overall delay in leafing out to a natural, physiological process that was interrupted by the freeze.
Every February in Texas, trees begin the process of pulling nutrients from their roots up into their branches and the finer twigs. This combination of sugar, starches and water is then used to produce buds, which – over the course of a few weeks – become leaves and supply the tree with food that can again be stored in the roots for the following winter. However, because there is a liquid component to this energy, it is susceptible to freeze damage – and once frozen, it cannot be repurposed.
It’s also worth noting that the week before the freeze, temperatures reached as high as 80 degrees across the state. Warm temperatures like that often cue trees to begin the process of budding out, and in Texas late-February is as common a time as any for trees to start leafing out.
Oak trees remain stressed after Winter Storm Uri. Homeowners are advised to be patient through their recovery.
(Texas A&M Forest Service photo)
“That super freeze froze back a lot of those buds that were about to open up,” said Blevins. “Now, the trees that were preparing to bud out have to generate a whole new set of buds to leaf out, and that takes time.”
This theory would best explain the variability of the impact that Texans are seeing on their trees, since there doesn’t appear to be much of a correlation between which species of oak have been hit the hardest, or why urban trees are experiencing equal delays in leafing out.
It would also help explain why some of the trees that were late to begin leafing out are still struggling. With the last of their energy reserves being put toward reproducing buds and leafing out, they have little energy left to put toward defense. In Central Texas, in particular, Texas A&M Forest Service biologists are seeing a significant population of caterpillars. With the trees being more susceptible to disease pathogens and insects, many are losing their leaves to insects as they’re actively trying to leaf out.
What you should doWhile this helps explain what is happening, most residents are more interested in how they can help their trees. Unfortunately, experts are saying there isn’t much you can do, and there is very little that you should do.
“They’ve been stressed, and they don’t need any more stress,” Blevins said. “So, I’m telling people, when we get into the heat of the summer—especially if we have abnormal heat, like we’re supposed to this year—one thing you might want to do is maybe give them supplemental watering once or twice.”
Other than the occasional watering--and you don’t want to overwater your trees lest the roots be flooded with water and lack the oxygen they need to breathe—Blevins recommends patience. Even fertilization should be avoided unless the tree is experiencing a specific nutrient deficiency. Fertilization leads to growth spurts, and when a tree is putting its energy into growth, any energy that could be applied to its defense goes down.
Insecticide and fungicide are tempting treatments as well since stressed trees are more susceptible to disease and insect infestation. But again, Blevins and Riley counsel patience. There’s no need for “preventive” treatments, and insect infestations and diseases should be treated on a case-by-case basis.
This information can be difficult for landowners and tree-lovers to absorb, since it is their tendency as stewards to want to do something. However, when it comes to our trees, especially our mature trees, often times the more we do, the more harm we cause.
“The best thing to do with mature trees is nothing,” Riley said. “Trees are very sensitive to change. And many of these mature trees may be a hundred years old. They’ve done really well without us. They’ve done their best to adapt to living around us, and most things that we would go in and do to them now are more stressful to them than helpful.”
Moving forwardWith the list of stressors piling up this year, it’s likely that many of the trees that were late to leaf out will continue to appear splotchy, sickly or partially bare. In Riley’s experience, that is not unusual in itself, and many trees should be okay if they’re given the opportunity to leaf out normally next spring.
That being said, the trees that continue to appear bare may not come back.
“If by mid-July they have zero leaves on them, that tree’s dead,” Riley said. “If they have a small, poor showing of leaves, you might wait until next year to make that call. It could improve.”
In any case, the consensus among professionals at Texas A&M Forest Service and across the state is simple and direct. Be patient.
“Just wait,” said Sperry. “These trees are coming back at their own pace. Some of them will be lost. But the important word continues to be ‘wait.’ Don’t start cutting those trees.”
If you’re concerned that the trees on your property are suffering from more than just stress, contact a certified arborist. You can find professionals in your area through:
Texas A&M Forest Service’s My Land Management Connector
Texas A&M Forest Service will continue to monitor and study the impact of winter storm Uri on our state’s trees.
A Bipartisan Approach to Reduce Emissions on Working Lands
The Growing Climate Solutions Act recognizes the role played by farmers, ranchers, and foresters in the fight against climate change.
By Michael Obeiter, Senior Director
Federal Climate Strategy
April 21, 2021
Federal Climate Strategy
April 21, 2021
Policies to promote natural climate solutions—actions that restore or enhance the capacity for trees and plants to absorb and sequester carbon pollution—are attracting a lot of attention from both sides of the aisle. There’s a good reason for that, as these policies are often win-win: they’re good for the climate, and they’re good for the local economy. When you add in the potential for habitat conservation and restoration, they’re good for birds too.
Enter the Growing Climate Solutions Act of 2021, reintroduced in the senate this week by lead sponsors Mike Braun (R-IN) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), along with several of their colleagues from both parties. As with last year’s version, the bill directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help expand, harmonize, and add structure to the existing patchwork of voluntary greenhouse gas offset markets around the country. It’s a bipartisan approach that recognizes the vital role our nation’s farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners play in the fight against climate change. The bill would also lay the groundwork for new sources of revenue to flow to local economies in rural areas.
Greenhouse gas offset markets allow companies that emit greenhouse gases to purchase credits to offset their own emissions. The money from the sale of those credits directly supports measures like cover cropping, prescribed grazing, and reforestation that either reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and methane, or remove carbon dioxide from the air and store it in soil and biomass. Critical to the success of the bill are provisions that ensure any emissions reductions are permanent, and the measures implemented under the auspices of the bill are additional to what producers were already doing.
Importantly for Audubon, the bill also includes avoided conversion of grasslands, forests, and wetlands as eligible activities for the generation of offsets, which will help slow habitat loss for countless species of birds and other wildlife.
Texas native, Golden-cheeked Warbler
Of course, this bill is merely a start; a necessary but incomplete blueprint for reducing some greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture and forestry sectors. But the bill’s sponsors deserve credit for coming up with ways to ensure that the stewards of our working lands are part of the solution to the climate crisis, and for growing the support for this bill substantially in less than a year.
Alongside clean energy and economy-wide solutions like carbon pricing, natural climate solutions are an important part of solving the climate puzzle and helping safeguard the survival of the two-thirds of North American bird species vulnerable to extinction from climate change. We urge the Congress to vote on the Growing Climate Solutions Act, which would facilitate and enable more of these types of projects.
Field Notes: Something's Happening to the Weather
Paul Adams, Ph. D.
June 4, 2019
June 4, 2019
"Like it or not communication is a part of conservation." Paul Adams, a professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at The University of Texas at Austin, has been talking to farmers in the Panhandle and West Texas the past eight months.
I’m spending the night in the small town of Muleshoe, Texas, in the Llano Estacado, a region west of Lubbock and Amarillo. I’m interviewing farmers to hear how they talk about the environment where they live and work, the terms and phrases they use, the stories they tell.
The Llano Estacado is an extraordinarily flat place and is so dry that most of the farms depend on irrigation to supplement the sporadic and unpredictable rain and snowfall. I’m interested in how people in this part of the state think and talk about water, in particular, because our stored water will run out within a few decades at the current rate of consumption. Just when this will happen in any particular place depends on ups and downs of a layer of sand and gravel buried far below the flat surface of West Texas and the Panhandle.
Above the Llano Estacado region of West Texas.
Fredlyfish4, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons