Lack of Action on Climate Change Threatens the “Texas Miracle”

The Texas Miracle is at risk. With Harvey recovery underway, there has been a lot of discussion on how to prevent this from happening again, or at least reduce the damage by the next big one. There are two distinct discourses happening at this time. One arguing for business as usual and another arguing for significant change from the status quo of development.

What actually happens will likely fall somewhere in the middle. Policy makers will feel some pressure to take action of some sort, however, there will be significant pressure to limit how far the pendulum swings to mitigate future storm risk. Mitigating risk and improving resilience and adaptive capacity is expensive. However, we are also seeing that recovery and restoration are becoming pretty expensive, as well.

The Price Tag for Delaying Climate Action

Check out the chart below to see number of billion dollar storms in Texas since 1980. A good bit of them have happened since 2008. The black line is the average and it is on a steady incline. Right now we are clocking in at 2.5 billion dollar plus events a year. Several of them over a $10 billion price tag. Prior to Harvey the highest cost was over $30 billion in 2008. Harvey looks to more than double this at $75 billion. How many more of these events do we need to justify moving from business as usual?

billion dollar disasters NOAA update
NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters (2017).

What are Some Options? 

There is not an easy answer. Texas has been victim to a number of different types of natural disasters? Hurricane storm surge, flooding, drought, extreme heat, etc. Investing to mitigate in one event type won’t necessarily help to mitigate risk of other events. For example, building the Ike Dike, a storm surge barrier in front of the Houston Ship Channel, would not have limited any of the damage brought on by the Tax Day Flood, Memorial Day Flood, Harvey or the 2011-2012 drought. All of these billion dollar events happened since Hurricane Ike. Surprisingly though, (or maybe not Texas A&M has a significant amount of clout at the State House), the Ike Dike reached the top of the agenda for the State after Harvey. The Netherlands derived idea has been floundering about for years since Hurricane Ike devastated Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston, but it takes a non-related flooding event for it to get real attention. (To be fair, Ike Dike did get some traction in the State House this last legislative session but died in the spring. )

In any case, the big question is what do we prepare for next? Other than the resurgence of the Ike Dike after Harvey, which would require a special session to get it funded, the most pressing focus is on storm water management and flood mitigation. There is a significant amount of discussion about dealing with this flooding issue, but there is not any real money being made available. It is estimated that Harris County alone needs about $26 billion to upgrade its storm water infrastructure. Without significant changes in the way Harris County does business, they not have that kind of money.  Governor Abbott has refused to take any direct action or open up the rainy day fund,

need for repairs
Harris County Flood Control Map of Post-Harvey Damage

which is the largest in the country at $9.7 billion, to cover any of these costs. FEMA is over burdened and does not have the funds. Further, FEMA’s Director Long has already made it clear that the federal government is getting tired of bailing out communities.


This is politics as usual, particularly for Texas. The state expects the communities to fend for themselves or the Fed’s to provide the resources. It is OK for Texas to ask for disaster assistance funding, but other states better think twice.  Speaking of reaching for a handout, Florida did a 75/25 split with FEMA, Florida covering 25% of its recovery costs; Texas negotiated a 90/10 deal.  I am assuming we need the other 15% to enforce Senate Bill 4, the Sanctuary City bill.

Moving Forward

So what is going to move us ahead, away from business as usual? Right now we starve our infrastructure of funding, particularly on maintenance. There is absolutely no political will to raise taxes, even temporarily to just cover recovery costs, much less resilience. Contrary to what many politicians would have you believe, US citizens are willing to pay higher taxes to have better services and infrastructure. 90% of Americans are willing to pay their fair share of taxes if they know where the spending is going. I am not advocating that higher taxes are the best way to go, maybe there are other funding approaches such as public-private partnerships (some debate on the efficacy of these providing a public good) or resilience bonds and green bonds. So finding the appropriate funding resources is also not necessarily a problem. Further, knowing how to make our infrastructure more resilient is also not a problem. There are a growing number of voluntary resilience standards that can be used and plenty of Cities taking action.

The real problem, I would argue, is overall lack of mobilization from the private sector, primarily our oil and gas industry. The funding can be found, the resilience standards are available, the science and engineering capacity is boundless, the ability to innovate and lead is found across the region. Unfortunately, with all of this capacity and opportunity, we have allowed our City and Region to develop in a way that is not sustainable and is highly susceptible to hurricanes, flooding, drought, extreme heat, etc. Our largest economic sector, the oil and gas industry, has largely been silent, to the detriment of itself and the overall community.  The Houston region needs new industry and new talent. We will make our ability to recruit and retain high value and productive industry increasingly more difficult, if the private sector stays silent and does not push for change.  The Texas Miracle is already on life support. Is Houston up to the challenge to keep it alive?


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Gavin Dillingham

Program Director for Clean Energy Policy at HARC a sustainability research institute in The Woodlands, TX. Work on climate adaptation and investment strategies for resilient infrastructure.

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