The American Goldfinch can’t get out of Texas fast enough. Not because real estate is cheaper elsewhere, or birdseed more readily available, but because the climate it thrives in has been shifting north at an alarming pace.
According to a recent Audubon Texas State of the Birds report, the goldfinch’s Texas population has dropped more than 40 percent, while its population north of Texas has grown more than 80 percent. The reason is clear. Over the last four decades the average temperature in January—the time of year when temperature is the main impetus for bird migration—rose by nearly five degrees Fahrenheit across the United States.
“It’s not just thermometers and rain gauges that are telling us that things are changing, it’s the natural environment. It’s what we see outside our window,” says Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University. “Our winters are getting warmer. Sea level is rising. Rainfall is getting more variable. What we’re seeing is that the conditions we used to think were normal are not so normal anymore.”
With countless studies indicating temperature rises of at least several more degrees and significant drops in precipitation in Texas over the next century, it is time for the state of Texas to start adapting to these “new normals” as well. The American Goldfinch, the Canyon Towhee, and other native birds already know this, but unfortunately their chirpings can’t be heard inside of the echoing halls of the state Capitol. The birdbrains inside refuse to acknowledge climate change, let alone sit down at the table and have an adult conversation on the subject.
Thirty-six states have already completed comprehensive climate action plans. Texas—a highly vulnerable state due to its low-lying coastline, limited water resources, and already high temperatures—is standing by idly as entire ecosystems change.
“We’ve got this huge mega issue of climate change looming over us and the leadership of the state of Texas is in as much denial about this as they are about losing 100,000 jobs because of the budget cuts,” says Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth and author of House Bill 977, which proposes a climate adaptation plan for Texas. “It’s just reasonable to begin a planning process to take into consideration the variables of climate change.”
By ignoring climate change, lawmakers are setting us up for more budget-cutting and job losses down the road. In a May report, Sandia National Laboratories estimated the cost of climate change inaction in Texas at $137 billion over the next 40 years, with a loss of 1 million full-time jobs.
On Wednesday, April 20, HB 977 got a public hearing in the House Committee on State Affairs. After testimony from the Texas state climatologist and three other witnesses, all calling for immediate climate action, committee chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, asked Burnam if he’d seen this bill before.
Yes, he had. In 2009, a near-identical bill authored by Burnam passed unanimously out of the House Environmental Regulation Committee—only to be abandoned without a floor vote because Gov. Rick Perry made it clear he would veto the bill. “Texas is not going to be doing anything anytime soon about climate change because of the leadership that’s here,” say Burnam.
Burnam’s 2011 bill is modest, just a baby step in recognizing what a huge problem climate change is. It sets up a framework for agencies to start talking to each other and to begin to understand the implications of climate change. For instance, the Department of Agriculture, one of 12 agencies included in the bill, would publish a plan assessing how to deal with increased drought conditions and other predicted climate variability. No metrics, no regulations, and no cost to the state—just good old-fashioned planning for the future.
Still, Texas has a dedicated cadre of professional climate skeptics eager to smack down any climate-related legislation.
“It doesn’t impose new regulations. It’s not going to stop anyone from doing what they’re doing. It’s just a useless reporting requirement,” says Mario Loyola, a policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative, free-market think tank often referred to by Governor Perry.
“This requires the state agencies to invent voodoo science,” says Loyola. “I have a plan to minimize climate change. Let’s cause fifteen 100-megaton nuclear explosions in Texas and create a nuclear winter all over the world, there’s a plan.”
“That’s why we shouldn’t be worried about this,” Loyola continues. “If the temperatures really are going to get to the point where climate change is going to become a devastating factor all we have to do is set off a bunch of nuclear explosions and create nuclear winter.”
In reality, there’s incontrovertible evidence that Texas’ climate is changing. An adaptation plan increases the resilience of the system, regardless of the cause, or at least starts a coherent movement towards it. So if and when these extreme events do happen—the floods, droughts, heat waves, rising sea levels—we’re better prepared for them.
“The world is clearly telling us that something is happening, something is different, things are changing,” says Hayhoe. “And it’s prudent, it’s conservative, to make plans to adapt.”