Friday, December 19, 2014

Can We Address Climate Change Without Texas?

My family came to Texas in the 1850s, making me multi-generational Texan. I was born in Fort Worth, but we lived on a farm out of town and I grew up in the countryside. I was a junior scientist and explorer, doing things and going places that many parents wouldn't allow their kids to do (my parents weren't fully informed of my activities), but would get a lot kids full scholarships to college today. All the while, I was being educated on the history and culture of Texas. As a result, I grew up loving the state and when I left academia and the military I came home.

But, the fact that I love my home state doesn't mean I have to love everything about it. There are many things I would change, if I could. Certainly, the shame of having a governor supporting creationism would be high on the list. At least, he's gone and we have a new governor coming in next month. Except, the new one is even worse than the old one. Hard to believe.

In addition to creationism, another subject our state gets a big, fat "Failed" for is climate change. This is very strange considering just how vulnerable we are to the changes. The temperature has gone up since the 1970s, water shortage is becoming the single most important issue in the state, sea level rise is threatening millions of people and the changes in weather patterns are damaging the agricultural industry, one of the largest in the world. I'm sure you have seen pictures of empty reservoirs. I've seen them in person.

I know a highway overpass over the Pedernales River between Austin and the town of Llano. This overpass crosses a beautiful canyon with lovely, high bluffs. I used to take that route just to see that sight. Of course, it is so lovely someone decided it had to be developed and they put multi-million dollar homes there, equipped with floating docks so they could have their boats on the river. Today, the river is almost completely dry and those floating docks are not only sitting on dry ground, they have been there for so long they are overgrown with bushes and trees. Not just weeds - trees. My stand is I'll know the drought is over when I see those docks floating again. It is possible they never will.

I am involved with the wine-industry and am a certified viticulturalist through Texas Tech University. The Texas wine industry is one of the largest in the country and I am right in the middle of one of the principle grape-growing regions in the state. Several of my friends have vineyards and I work in their vineyards from time-to-time. What goes on with the farm fields is big news out here. So, when hail storms come through and pound the crops into mulch in a matter of a few minutes, it is a big hit for the community. Likewise, when we get hard freezes weeks after the average last freeze, you have to wonder what is going on.

Global warming is definitely making it worse here. I was out hiking with a friend last weekend and we both commented on how plants were starting to bud. It was the middle of December and there are plants showing new growth that normally don't do that until March, April and May. Fall and spring have gotten longer, winter has gotten shorter and milder and the plants are responding. And, that is fatal because the late-spring winter storms and freezes have increased in recent decades. A hard freeze will burn off new growth like a flame-thrower. If plants are no longer dormant and are sucking fluids up into the above ground parts that fluid will freeze and split the plant open. If this happens to a grape vine you might as well pull the plant out and replace it - along with the years invested to get to that point. It takes three growing seasons to get a crop out of a grape vine.

With all of this, why is Texas so reluctant to address climate change? Well, what is the thing Texas is most known for? Oil. We pump 40% of the nation's production, we have refineries all along the coast and we have some of the largest ports for the ships that carry it. Being the largest producer of fossil fuels means we are also the number one producer of greenhouse gases in the country. Would you like to guess where much of the funding came from for Greg Abbott's run for governor? Connect the dots and it isn't hard to see why our state politicians are climate change deniers.

But, the effect on climate change doesn't stop there. The reach of the Texas industry goes far beyond the state borders. To paraphrase the old commercial, when Texas speaks in Washington, people listen.

The irony is that Texas is also one of the biggest producers of renewable energy. The United States produces more electricity from wind turbines than the rest of the world combined. Texas produces more electricity from wind than the rest of the world combined, with the exception of the U.S. Wind power is big business here and it's getting bigger all the time.  

So, as long we have a governor that states carbon dioxide can't be a pollutant because it is emitted by humans, it is going to be an uphill fight. But, the fact is, if we want to do something about climate change, we need to start right here in Austin. If we can win that fight, the rest of the world is doable.

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