Federal report: Hurricane Harvey was a climate change harbinger


By Kiah Collier

Texas should brace for more — and worse — Hurricane Harveys, according to a major scientific report made public on Friday by the Trump administration.

Based on the research of hundreds of government and academic scientists, including several in Texas, the 1,656-page appraisal warns that Harvey and other recent extreme weather events are harbingers of climate change. Absent swift action to slash carbon emissions, the report says, the warming trend will have an even more crippling impact on life in the United States — and Texas.

The report is the second volume of the latest National Climate Assessment, which the federal government must produce every four years. The first volume, released a year ago, came to many of the same conclusions, but was less detailed and dire.

While both reports were released under the Trump administration, they stand in stark contrast to the president’s stance on climate change; he has repeatedly cast doubt on it. Indeed, environmental and other groups accused the administration of attempting to bury the report by releasing it the day after Thanksgiving.

The White House downplayed the findings of the report, saying in a statement that it was “largely based on the most extreme scenario.”

But the report makes a compelling case for the reality of disastrous climate change impacts — in large part because they are already occurring. The report highlights Hurricane Harvey, wildfires in California and other recent extreme weather events, describing them as consistent with what might be expected as the planet warms. It also details the crippling impact a multi-year drought had on Texas agriculture from 2010 to 2015, thanks not only to less direct rainfall but to the reduction of water released to farmers for irrigation.

Among the "key messages" in Friday’s report: Relative sea level rise along the Texas Gulf Coast will be twice that of the global average — 1 to 4 feet or more — between now and 2100. That will make communities more vulnerable to hurricane storm surge.

Texas "is vulnerable to increasing temperature, extreme precipitation and continued sea level rise, particularly as infrastructure ages and populations shift to urban centers," the report states.

The report also notes that poor land management practices in Houston exacerbated flooding there during Harvey — a subject The Texas Tribune and ProPublica investigated in late 2016, less than a year before the storm hit.

"In the area affected by Hurricane Harvey, regional land management practices over the last several decades have reduced the area covered by wetlands, forests and prairies, which historically absorbed stormwater runoff," the report states. "These natural environments have been increasingly replaced with impermeable surfaces, decreasing Houston's resilience to flooding."

Other impacts the report predicts for Texas: an additional 1,300 deaths per year due to higher temperatures and as much as $21 billion in flooded coastal property by 2030. The Edwards Aquifer, which supplies water to millions of Texans, also will suffer from “a decrease of water supply during droughts, a degradation of habitat for species of concern, economic effects, and the interconnectivity of these impacts.”

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