As Texas warms, politicians give climate bills the cold shoulder
A 34-year-old father was the first to go, collapsing during a pickup soccer game at a Collin County park.
Two weeks later, a 70-year-old Dallas woman whose air conditioning had broken down days earlier died in her home.
In between, a 3-year-old died in a day care van in Houston. A trucker died after the air conditioning failed in the cab of his semi. A homeless man in El Paso was found collapsed next to his wheelchair.
The last two weeks of July 2018 brought a little-reported drumbeat of death across the Lone Star State. Triple-digit temperatures suffocated Texas cities and towns, and at least 17 people died of heat-related causes, according to a GateHouse Media/Austin American-Statesman analysis of death records from seven counties.
The true number of victims of the July 2018 heat wave is probably much higher: The Environmental Protection Agency cautions that heat stress often triggers fatal heart attacks and respiratory deaths, yet never appears as a cause on death certificates.
Since 1999, at least 1,400 people — 70 per year — have died of heat-related causes in Texas, second only to Arizona.
When it comes to heat, Texas leads the nation in several grim statistics: summertime electricity disconnections, heat-related work deaths, and infant and toddler deaths in hot cars.
Rising heat also quietly takes an economic toll on the state, reducing dairy production and agricultural output and limiting productivity of construction and other outdoor workers.
“It almost becomes like this is a normal thing,” said Lourdes Rodriguez, director of community-driven initiatives at the University of Texas Dell Medical School. “People may not see an urgency because it’s so normalized.”
Texas has entered a period of more intense and frequent heat waves that is anything but normal, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Climate scientists, including state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, say temperatures in Texas are irrefutably rising. The past decade was the hottest on record, and the brutal temperatures that killed 160 during the 2011 summer of drought will become the new normal here in coming decades.
Texas faces the “most extreme heat danger” in the country, according to the nonprofit Climate Central’s review of policies in 50 states. Yet it earned the organization’s worst grade, an F, for its preparedness.
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State leaders, whose campaign coffers are filled by powerful industry leaders who oppose climate-related regulation, have done little to address Texas’ warming temperatures and their impact on vulnerable residents.
State regulators have rejected recommendations from consumer advocates to make it harder for power providers to disconnect electricity for poor and sick Texans during the summer months. And lawmakers have repeatedly rejected proposals to require safety protections for outdoor workers and have refused to even debate proposals that would require climate change considerations when it comes to state policies.
During the 2019 legislative session, Democrats introduced half a dozen bills aimed at better understanding the economic and public health-related threats of climate change and preparing state agencies for the hotter future.
Not one received a committee hearing or vote.
Three months after lawmakers adjourned, Texas experienced the second-hottest August on record, followed by the hottest September since meteorologists began tracking temperatures. The summer of 2019 also saw the return of 1,000-year floodwaters in Houston. Just two years after Hurricane Harvey, Tropical Storm Imelda dropped 43 inches of rain in some places, becoming the fifth-wettest cyclone ever to hit the continental United States.
Toll on the body
Unlike hurricanes, floods and wildfires, the havoc wreaked by heat is invisible and inflicts its worst pain on those least likely to grab public attention: the elderly, poor and isolated.
While heat deaths are on the decline nationally, according to a 2014 study funded by the National Institutes of Health, Texas is bucking that trend. Between 2008 and 2016 (the latest year for which statewide figures were available), nearly 800 died of heat-related causes in the state, a 28% increase over the previous nine years, said Kristina Dahl, senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The underlying causes of those deaths in Texas remain mostly unexamined.
A first-of-its-kind GateHouse Media analysis of 320 medical examiner reports of heat-related deaths over the past decade sheds some light:
More than 100 Texans died inside their homes. Many were seniors living alone and struggling to pay high electricity bills.
More than 40 infants and toddlers died after being left in hot vehicles. In the summer of 2016, children died at a rate of one per week in the state’s major cities.
At least two dozen homeless residents died of heat-related causes on the streets. The true number is probably far higher since death records don’t always capture victims’ living situation.
Three dozen workers died on construction sites, while doing landscaping work, laboring in the oilfields or while training for municipal fire or police departments.
High heat also sends thousands to emergency rooms in Texas every year. Emergency medical services records from large cities, obtained through Texas Public Information Act requests, show that heat calls are increasing in some areas and hitting low-income neighborhoods the hardest.
In Austin, EMS calls for environmental exposure during the summer months had increased more than 80% since 2010, records show. In Dallas, the two ZIP codes with the most calls had poverty levels far above the city average.
The physical toll of heat is gruesome. As the body tries to cool itself by shunting superheated blood away from vital organs, proteins begin to break down, damaging kidneys and shocking the liver, said Dr. Tyler Jorgensen, the vice chief of emergency medicine at St. David’s South Austin Medical Center. Heat illness can often be treated if caught soon enough, but the body can quickly pass a point of no return.
Dr. Eric Higginbotham, chief of pediatric emergency medicine at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas, said some of the worst damage occurs in the brain. “Some of these proteins in the brain and body become denatured — in other words, cooked. Once that occurs, you can’t undo it. It goes from liquid to a solid, like cooking an egg.”
Rising temperatures even make allergy season worse, said Dr. Elizabeth Matsui, director of clinical and translational research at Dell Medical School, leading to earlier and longer pollen production.
“All those weather and climatic signals that tell a plant to wake are coming earlier,” she said.
The 2019 legislative session began with a rally of climate scientists outside the Governor’s Mansion.
A month earlier, Gov. Greg Abbott had earned their scorn when, in response to a question about a report on Hurricane Harvey, he said it was “impossible” to link human-fueled climate change and increasingly powerful hurricanes.
Twenty-seven scientists issued a letter asking to meet with Abbott and urging him to take a leadership role in helping “us adapt to the impacts of climate change.”
“We, the undersigned, are climate scientists and experts, and can report to you that climate change is happening, it is primarily caused by humans and it is having a devastating impact on Texas.”
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A number of Republican leaders quickly rallied to the governor’s side. Wayne Christian of the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, urged Abbott to hold his ground.
“I understand a coalition of climate catastrophists has written your office with a series of outlandish predictions about climate change with ridiculous speculation on the potential impact to Texas,” Christian wrote in an open letter.
The exchange, and lack of any meaningful communication between the two sides, foreshadowed the futile attempts to pass climate change-related legislation in the legislative session.
“The issue has become so partisan,” said state Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, whose bill calling for Texas A&M University to study the effects of climate change on agriculture and other industries was among the many that failed.
Rep. Erin Zwiener, a Democrat who represents the Hill Country, filed a bill that would have protected state workers from retaliation if they raised the issue of climate change at their agencies. Former staffers at two agencies had contacted her.
“They said they were discouraged from ever bringing up the cause of climate change,” she said. “They had to tiptoe around the issue. You can say ‘weather’ but you can’t say ‘climate.’”
Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, has sponsored numerous climate change bills in recent sessions.
“Confronting an existential threat requires long-term thinking, but when it comes to members of the Texas House, that thinking is condensed to two-year terms,” he said. “As a result, no (Republican) wants to take the first step because it would be a sign of weakness, a potential vulnerability in a GOP primary.”
The state’s reluctance to tangle with powerful oil and gas lobbies that oppose climate-related measures is linked to the very structure of the Texas budget, some lawmakers say.
Taxes on oil and gas production funneled nearly $7 billion into state coffers last budget cycle, paying for schools and highway construction and bolstering the state’s bountiful savings account.
“Last year alone, the Texas oil and natural gas industry paid the equivalent of $38 million a day to fund our schools, roads, universities and first responders,” former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, now the president of the Texas Oil & Gas Association, said earlier this year.
Anchia said he doesn’t believe the oil and gas industry is monolithically opposed to combating climate change.
And Republican-oriented groups such as Conservative Texans for Energy Innovation argue that free-market ideals will encourage clean energy production in a way that boosts the state’s economy.
But that hasn’t translated to efforts that could prepare the state to meet its warming future, which will bring an economic toll experts are just starting to understand.
Wide-ranging economic effects
Two decades ago, researchers made a startling discovery while studying a mysterious illness plaguing sugar cane workers in rural Central America: The workers were dying of what came to be known as chronic kidney disease of unknown origin. The disease’s origins remain mysterious, but researchers believe it’s caused by a combination of toxins, infections and prolonged exposure to high heat.
Dr. Renee Salas, a Colorado-based researcher, calls it “a sentinel disease in the era of climate change,” and the Migrant Clinicians Network is among those studying the disease’s prevalence in Texas.
Experts say rising temperatures will take a toll on worker productivity in coming years, especially for those in the agricultural and construction industries.
One report funded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg found that lost productivity due to rising heat will cost Texas more than $12 billion annually by midcentury.
Equally troubling, the Texas Department of Public Safety in its 2018 Hazard Mitigation Plan predicts that agricultural workers will lose an hour of daily productivity and that extreme heat will reduce the yield of both cotton and corn. The annual losses could total about $400 million.
High heat and changing climate have already radically altered the state’s dairy industry.
Beginning in the 1990s, dairy producers left farms in Central and Northeast Texas en masse and moved to the cooler, drier Panhandle. Dr. Ellen Jordan, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service state dairy specialist in Dallas, said heat and humidity reduced cow fertility and milk production, forcing the move.
But the industry did not escape rising temperatures. During an August 2018 heat wave, Hale County dairy farmer Bernadette Mullican told the Plainview Herald she was losing 3 to 4 pounds of milk per cow.
High heat has other unexpected economic effects. Extreme heat taxes the state’s electricity as sweltering Texans crank up their air conditioning, but it can also reduce the productivity of power plants. According to a 2013 Department of Energy study, 13 Texas power plants are in danger of lowered production because they could soon exceed EPA limits for the temperature of the water discharged after being used to cool steam-based plants.
The chief culprit, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne Laboratory, was “anticipated warming from climate change.”
In state vacuum, cities step in
Some state agencies have taken dismissive, even defiant, attitudes toward global warming. But others that deal directly with the ravages of climate-related disasters have taken a more clear-eyed approach, say environmental advocates.
The Texas Railroad Commission has dismissed data produced by the Environmental Defense Fund showing that oil and gas drillers are underreporting flaring, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.
And when it comes to water, state agencies also shrugged off climate change science.
The Texas Water Development Board looks instead at historical data such as tree rings when projecting water demands in coming decades.
”The tree ring records, recent drought, and very wet episodes indicate that the climate of Texas is highly variable and droughts with durations and intensities exceeding the drought of record could occur in the future,” the board concluded in its latest water plan.
But 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, the costliest storm in the state’s history, forced some hard looks at the impact of climate change, even if state reports avoid using that terminology or linking the changing climate to human causes.
In its recently released master plan for coastal resiliency, the Texas General Land Office wrote, “Natural drivers, like long-term changes in weather patterns, can result in pressures such as sea level rise and shifts in precipitation and storm intensities, which in turn can lead to more frequent and severe coastal flood damage.”
And the governor’s office’s report on Hurricane Harvey, which sparked the dust-up between Abbott and the climate scientists, talked of “future-proofing” the state against disasters.
“The current scientific consensus points to increasing amounts of intense rainfall coupled with the likelihood of more intense hurricanes,” the report says.
Kate Zerrenner, former manager at the Environmental Defense Fund, said the state’s planning efforts are too piecemeal.
“They are all pieces of this puzzle, but you miss where they overlap,” she said. “What we need is a comprehensive climate plan.”
As a result of the state’s reluctance, most planning for climate change occurs at the city level. Austin, Dallas and Houston all have begun climate planning efforts in recent years, setting up cooling centers, embarking on large-scale tree planting efforts and conducting their own local climate projections.
Cities have also begun regular tracking of heat-related illness and death, though detailed information on the root causes of heat mortality is rare.
Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist, said there is no doubt the state is headed to a blisteringly hot future.
The good news, Nielsen-Gammon said, is that by that time, humans will probably have adapted to the higher normal temperatures, meaning they might not be so deadly. The bad news is that heat waves will be more intense, potentially more life-threatening.
“We do expect heat mortality to increase as the temperatures go up,” he said. “We just don’t know at what rate.”
Dan Keemahill contributed data analysis to this story
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