While Texas Heats Up, Its Climate Denying Politicians Seek Federal Help

7 minute read
Linden has written widely on climate change. His latest book is Fire and Flood: A People's History of Climate Change, From 1979 to the Present

Audacity. Effrontery. Temerity. Whatever word you choose, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, and the state’s two senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, are setting the new standard for chutzpah when it comes to juggling climate adaptation with denial and promotion of fossil fuels.

Texas is now in the third week of a record-setting heat wave, exacerbated by climate change, but Abbott and the legislature are doing everything they can to slow the shift to renewables and promote fossil fuels. And, despite their dismissal of the threat of global warming, Abbott, Cornyn, and Cruz have been lobbying vigorously for the federal government to pay the lion’s share of hugely expensive coastal defenses to protect Galveston and surrounding areas from sea level rise and mega storms associated with climate change.

From sea level rise and hurricanes, to extreme heat, Texas is one of the most threatened states in the U.S. when it comes to the impacts of climate change. It ranked first in the number of billion dollar disasters per year since 2001, and a 2020 analysis by ProPublica and The New York Times of America’s 3,000 counties revealed that, of the 135 counties deemed most at risk from a changing climate, 24 are in Texas. In that group is Harris county, the third most populous county in the United States.

To adapt, the state must build up its defenses. And ever since a plan to bolster coastal defenses around Galveston was first developed following the $30 billion damage inflicted by Hurricane Ike in 2008, Abbott, Cornyn, and Cruz have been trying to get federal help to fund the massive infrastructure project. In total, Texas politicians are looking to the federal government to shoulder the lion’s share of over $60 billion in estimated costs for better storm and flooding infrastructure projects (including bolstering a sea wall and wastewater tunnels) resulting from a threat they’ve been actively ignoring—and making worse.

Read more: Texas Could Be the World’s Clean Energy Capital—If It Wants to Be

Over the years, many of Texas’s leading politicians have denied the overwhelming science that humans—and the burning of fossil fuels—is to blame for rising global temperatures. Cruz, for example, asserted in a 2015 Senate hearing on climate change that carbon emissions had made the planet “greener” than it once was. And while Cornyn acknowledges that it’s a threat, last August he voted against the Inflation Reduction Act, President Biden’s climate bill (in essence voting against funding climate change adaptation projects outside of Texas), and in 2021 he dismissed advocacy for climate action and renewables as a “cult.”

Not just that, they have fought for policies that will likely exacerbate the problem. In March, Abbott vowed to “…exclude renewables from any revived economic incentive program,” and introduced five bills that would lower support for wind and solar projects and, worse, force renewable energy to subsidize fossil fuel expansion. (Of course, it should be acknowledged that the mayors of Texas’s biggest cities are well aware of the climate threat. Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, for example, is chair emeritus of Climate Mayors, an association of mayors organized to promote climate action.)

In order to strengthen Texas’s infrastructure in the face of climate change, the state must raise and extend the sea wall that protects Galveston from hurricanes and storm surges. Estimated to cost over $34 billion, this would be the most expensive project in the history of the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for overseeing these types of civil works projects around the country. And Abbott, Cruz, and Cornyn want all U.S. taxpayers—not just Texas residents—to foot most of this bill. In January, President Biden signed The National Defense Authorization Act, greenlighting the project, but it’s still not clear how the funding will be divided between the federal government and Texas.

Meanwhile, Texas politicians are eyeing the Army Corps to pick up the tab for a series of underground drainage tunnels proposed as a way to protect Houston from floods such as those following Hurricane Harvey. The estimated price tag? $30 billion.

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Galveston’s 17 ft.-tall seawall was built after a hurricane in 1900 (immortalized in Erik Larson’s book, Isaac’s Storm) flooded the city, killing 6,000 people. The first 3 mile-long section of the seawall was completed in 1904, and it was gradually extended over the next 59 years to its final length of 10 miles. Its designers expected that it would protect the city forever, a reasonable expectation in the early 20th century, as, at that time, sea level had been relatively stable for thousands of years. As New York City learned during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, however, coastal defenses that had withstood 100 years of storm surges weren’t up to the added impact of sea level rise and higher winds associated with climate change. In the case of Sandy, a 1-ft. contribution from sea level rise in a 14 ft. storm surge was enough to flood the subways for the first time, inflicting $5 billion in damage on the mass transit system, and $19 billion in damage to the city as a whole.

In the case of Galveston, the storm surge from Hurricane Ike overtopped parts of the sea wall in 2008. The storm also produced a 22 ft. surge in Sabine Pass, located about 62 miles to the east. There’s no doubt that the storm was a harbinger rather than a never-to-be-repeated anomaly. This region of the Gulf Coast has seen the fastest sea level rise on the planet: some 2 ft. in the last hundred years. Ground subsidence due to over-pumping of groundwater for cities and various industries has also exacerbated sea level rise here.

And then there is Houston, just up the Houston Ship Channel from Sabine Pass. The city’s most recent problem is not storm surge, but flooding caused by rainfall. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey dumped up to 60 inches of rain on some of its suburbs and inflicted $125 billion damage on surrounding Harris County. The rainfall was so extreme because Harvey lingered over the area for days. It’s part of an increasing climate trend of slower, wetter, more-intense storms: Hurricane Florence moved at the pace of a leisurely jogger once it hit Texas’s coast in 2018, followed by Hurricane Sally in 2020, Ida in 2021, and Ian in 2022. And earlier this year, on April 12, 2023, a tropical system parked itself over Fort Lauderdale for 12 hours, drowning the city in 25.91 inches of rain.

Houston has multiple plans to defend itself against future floods, including the more than $30 billion proposed system of underground storm-water tunnels to speed rainwater to the ship channel now in the phase of feasibility studies. Naturally, Harris Country is going to look to the Army Corps of Engineers to cover most of the bill if they go ahead. Problem is, the Corps has a lot of such proposals coming at it, and its current backlog is many times its annual budget.

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Texas politicians seem to believe that voters around the country are eager to subsidize climate change adaptation projects in a state whose leaders are doing their best to make the problem worse. Texas is the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the U.S., twice the amount produced by California. If Texas were a country it would be the eighth largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world.

But regardless of whether U.S. taxpayers pick up the tab for saving Texas’s coast and cities, Texans are going to see their climate-related costs rise in the form of increased insurance premiums and energy costs for cooling homes during worsening and more frequent heat waves. Of course, that assumes that the power grid can keep up with the increased need for cooling as climate change intensifies (and if the grid holds up, it’s in part because of the contribution of those renewables that Abbott is trying to penalize). That grid is already straining as Texas is in the third week of a record-shattering heat wave. A few more such weather extremes, and perhaps Texas voters will begin to think about electing leaders who recognize the gravity of the threat.

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