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Conference: Climate Adaptation Crucial for Central Texas

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Jen Reel
A nearly-dry O.C. Fisher Reservoir near San San Angelo

Central Texas’ vulnerability to extreme weather events—and the pressing need for the region to adapt to climate change—dominated the discussion Friday at a conference hosted by UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. Organized by a group of public affairs students, the “Climate Resilience and Adaptation Strategies” symposium featured scientists, academics, architects, activists and leaders in city government discussing how to adapt to climate change in a state where many politicians deny its existence.

Rather than focusing on climate change mitigation, which typically involves actions meant to reduce global climate change (e.g. cutting greenhouse gas emissions), the conference explored how communities can adapt to the already evident effects of climate change.

The bad news: Central Texas, which is prone to drought, extreme heat, flooding and wildfires, will need to prepare for more extreme weather events. Climate change means longer and more frequent droughts; more numerous and severe wildfires due to higher temperatures; and rainfall that could come less frequently but with more intensity, worsening Central Texas’ status as the flash flood capital of the nation and producing more fatalities and property damage.

While some Texas cities have taken up climate mitigation, by reducing carbon emissions and investing in renewable energy, few have developed formal plans to adapt to the effects of climate change. Preparing cities for floods, drought and extreme heat is essential to preventing destruction and more damage in the future, panelists argued. For example, flood-prone cities could build higher bridges and highways, or direct homes in flood-prone areas to build on stilts. To reduce heat exposure to residents and conserve water and energy, rooftops could be painted white or seeded with drought-tolerant plants.

A crucial link in climate adaptation is simply assessing vulnerabilities and risks. In Central Texas, rising summer temperatures means more people are at risk of exposure. Stefan Wray, who organized the conference, presented his research that found those most at risk from the extreme heat of 2011, the hottest summer on record, were older, poorer folks concentrated in East Austin.

Another study, by LEED-accredited architect Adele Houghton, found that the areas most vulnerable to flooding and heat were also concentrated on the East Side. In contrast, LEED buildings—“green” buildings that often have features that can reduce exposure to heat, flooding and other extreme weather conditions—were clustered west of I-35.

While most green-building advocates tend to stress the benefits of sustainable construction to the community or planet as a whole—because of a smaller carbon footprint, comparatively smaller amounts of water consumption, etc.—Wray and Houghton both focused on how green buildings can shield individuals and families from weather events and conditions exacerbated by climate change. Cities could use these findings to plan ahead and protect more residents in the future, they said.

During another panel discussion, Steve Adams of the Institute for Sustainable Communities participated via Skype and gave examples of other cities and regions in the nation that are coming together to plan for and adapt to climate change. Four counties in Florida formed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, a vehicle for regional cooperation to reduce greenhouse gasses and also come up with concrete adaptation plans. The compact, for example, pooled the counties’ resources and came up with regionally consistent projections for sea-level rise by 2060, which in turn was used to create vulnerability maps.

No such effort is underway in Texas. Austin adopted a climate mitigation plan in 2007 but has only looked at adaptation in a piecemeal way. The city, along with the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), recently received a grant to study its regional transportation system’s vulnerability to extreme weather and will use those results to start planning for climate resilience.

Priscila Mosqueda is a contributing writer at the Observer, where she previously interned. She grew up in San Antonio and graduated with a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin in 2012. Her work has appeared in InsideClimate News, The Center for Public Integrity, The Daily Beast, and various Central Texas outlets.