Texas Currents: Climate Change in a summer of drought and flood

By Van Wagner

Photo “Predicting Dry Season with Soil Moisture Data” by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Texas Currents is a monthly news roundup examining the impacts of state, national, and global events on Texas and the diverse populations that call the state home.

During a summer of historic high temperatures and lethal floods, climate change makes its dangers apparent. In Texas, the heat endangers living things, droughts and flooding threaten communities, and people at the intersections of marginalization and oppression experience the most dire impacts of climate change. 

Here the realities of climate change are treated as questions on the political stage, rather than immanent problems. Voices raised against climate science often align themselves with the state’s fossil fuels industry and/or conservatism in Christianity and politics. However, neither oil execs nor conservative Christians accurately represent the diverse needs and cultures of Texans and those with ties to Texas.

Due to the state’s range of climate regions and diverse populations, climate change is already hitting Texas in multiple ways. But across Texas we can find a variety of relevant advice, opinions, and challenges that nuance the state’s climate struggle.

Flash flooding in the DFW area

From “Heavy rain floods streets across the Dallas-Fort Worth area” by Jamie Stengle and Jake Bleiberg; and “Wettest 24 hours in nearly a century for Dallas-Forth Worth” by Bob Henson

Flash floods hit across much of Texas on August 20-21, and their impact was particularly severe in the Dallas-Forth Worth area. On the 22nd, DFW airport observed the second largest rainfall ever recorded for Dallas. Both the summer’s long, hot drought and the urban environment contributed to the high volume of rain that could not be easily soaked up.

The damage of the floods included one fatality and property damage to homes and businesses. Dallas firefighters rescued people from their homes, and Dallas County Judge Jenkins declared a state of emergency. Unfortunately, despite the heavy rains, Texas remains in a considerable drought.

Though some droughts and floods of this summer have been referred to as “1,000 year events,” the wording is vague. We don’t know what the frequency of such events would be over a large area, and because attention is on the climate, scientists will record more of these events. Even so, it is certain that climate change is increasing heavy rainfall in many places like Dallas.

Preparing for water scarcity

From “DRIED UP: Texas cities in fear of running out of water” by Saul Elbein

Because of the drought that flash flooding cannot fix alongside development and population growth, preparation for water scarcity has become a priority for many locations in Texas. Texas’s large cities are attempting to use both conservation and creative solutions to ensure adequate water. However, because of the complications of planning in the long-term for climate change, it is difficult to know what methods of preparations will be most effective. Dangerous weather conditions in the short term compound this difficulty.

Beyond large cities, in both small communities and the state at large, water scarcity preparation poses different challenges. Small communities do not have the resources that large cities have, and therefore they are unable to invest in securing the water supply. Additionally, different immediate issues cause climate change to lose priority in these areas. Because the state is behind the cities in preparation, small communities will be more impacted when they require state resources such as easily evaporating open-air reservoirs.

Heat levels endanger incarcerated people without AC

From “‘It’s a living hell’: Scorching heat in Texas prisons revives air-conditioning debate” by Jolie McCullough; and “Cruel and unusual punishment: When states don’t provide air conditioning in prison” by Alexi Jones

During this record-breaking summer – and every summer besides – over two thirds of incarcerated people in Texas live in poorly ventilated cells without air conditioning. They also frequently go without adequate water to cool and hydrate themselves or sufficient health monitoring. As a result, heat-related illnesses and deaths are a real threat to incarcerated people in Texas and across the US south.

The issue of heat in prisons is an acute health concern. While prolonged intense heat can affect the able-bodied, people with disabilities and those who take medications are at greater risk. For example, psychotropic and high blood pressure medications can limit the body’s ability to regulate temperature. These types of medications are each taken by about twenty percent of Texas inmates.

A bill passed in the Texas House to gradually install AC in prisons and jails did not receive attention in the Senate or funding. Upcoming budget surpluses could provide hope for this situation, but Gov. Abbot and Lt. Gov. Patrick have made no direct comment on the issue.

Diversity among evangelical perspectives

From “Evangelical scientist Katharine Hayhoe finds hope in United Nations’ climate report” by Emily McFarlan Miller

Many are quick to pinpoint evangelical Christians when discussing religious opposition to fighting climate change. Many conservative American evangelicals do oppose the work of environmental defense, but it is inaccurate to describe evangelicalism at large as climate change-denying or anti-science. Further, evangelical Christians are not the only religious demographic who oppose climate science. 

Environmental scientist and Texas Tech professor Dr. Katharine Hayhoe has been a lifelong proponent of the marriage of science and her evangelical faith. Hayhoe is active in speaking across the climate divide, and she finds that starting with similarities is the most effective form of dialogue when teaching about climate change. 

Faith and values can make excellent common ground for starting discussion with religious climate change skeptics. Hayhoe advises that talking about climate change is the first step, and she says that starting locally, talking about the lands, cultures, and beliefs we share with those around us, can help make the topic approachable and meaningful.

Religion and climate change among islanders

From “Making religious sense of climate change on small islands” by Mark Silk

As sea levels rise, islanders such as those who live in the Caribbean and Pacific face imminent danger. Islanders the world over have unique religious and cultural interpretations of climate change. Respecting and dialoguing with these beliefs is a crucial part of preparing, relocating, and otherwise protecting islanders during the climate crisis.

Due to Texas’s geographic location and extant diversity, it will likely see an influx of Caribbean climate refugees as the climate crisis worsens. These refugees’ situations will not be helped by an inadequate immigration system and large coastal immigration hubs such as Houston that are themselves unprepared for flooding and rising sea levels. Economic hardships of climate change in the region will also impact Texas due to trade and labor ties therein. 

New book documents legacy of Hurricane Harvey

From “In an Urgent New Book, ‘Floodies’ Reinvent the Story of Hurricane Harvey” by Leah Hampton

More City than Water: A Houston Flood Atlas is a timely book telling the stories of Hurricane Harvey’s flood survivors. This multi-genre anthology harnesses the power of storytelling to share both the visible and invisible devastation of floods, showing throughout how disasters starkly reveal inequality. We see this book’s continued relevance after Texas’s recent flash floods.

The book begins by chronicling the development and zoning of Houston, a process that positioned people of color in spaces more vulnerable to natural disasters. It goes on to describe memories of Harvey in a variety of written formats.
More City than Water concludes on the hopeful note of suggesting solutions to Houston’s specific climate woes. This variety of responses includes addressing air quality, relocating resources, and conducting effective protests. The book aims to show that while climate change is a global problem, it can be addressed on the level of cities and communities.

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