by Jill Capotosto
Summer has officially begun—we have welcomed in Austin’s first triple digit heat wave of the year, with temperatures projected to spike as high as 106° F through the rest of the week. Don’t be surprised if coming years bring heat waves like this earlier and earlier in the summer due to climate change. Extreme heat is one of the most obvious effects of global warming and it is one that most Texans are likely all too familiar with. Average temperatures in our state are expected to increase between 4.5° and 9° F by 2080, according to a 2009 report from the United States Global Change Research Program. This hotter weather poses a threat to both human and environmental health and security. In 2011, the Texas Department of State Health Services recorded over 150 heat-related deaths in the state. As heat waves become more frequent and severe, the instances of heat stress and stroke will rise.
A hotter Texas will lead to worse wildfires, as well. The wildfires of 2011 were the worst in the state’s history, devastating 4 million acres of land, including the Lost Pines of Bastrop State Park, and demolishing more than 2,900 homes. Ten people lost their lives and 566,000 more faced major disaster declarations in their counties according to a 2012 Environment Texas news release.
Rising temperatures also lead to more extreme droughts, which puts stress on already overtaxed water sources, hurting all Texans, especially farmers. Across the state, 213 counties have been designated as primary natural disaster areas, making the current drought one of the worst in more than a century. As of mid-August last year, crop and livestock losses from the current drought were estimated at greater than $5 billion.
Paradoxically, climate change also leads to a greater instance of flash flooding and other heavy precipitation events. Flooding has become the most common weather-related disaster in the country. In Houston alone, heavy precipitation events have increased by 49 percent between 1948 and 2006.
While Texans across the state face frequent water shortages, coastal Texans will be inundated by sea water—the sea level in the Gulf Coast is projected to rise as much as 2 to 4 feet between 2050 and 2100 according to the US Global Change Research Program. Hurricane intensity is also expected to increase with the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the Atlantic doubling over the coming century, although the total number of hurricanes is projected to decline. Between the droughts, floods and other weather-related disasters, nearly 84 percent of Texans have been adversely affected between 2006 and 2011, according to Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The weather is not the only thing affected by climate change; air quality is negatively impacted as well. Climate change leads to higher ozone levels, which causes an increase in problems related to asthma, particularly in children and the elderly. Pollution also comes directly from coal-fired power plants and, based on 2007 data from the EPA, Texas is the number one polluter from power plants, releasing a whopping 260 millions pounds of CO2. That is the equivalent of the amount that would be released by 45 million cars.
However, there is good news: we may be moving in a direction that will counterbalance some of these negative effects with the EPA’s proposed clean air safeguards that aim to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. Today, Environment Texas and a coalition of environmental and public health groups delivered over 2.1 million comments to the EPA in support of the Carbon Pollution Standard. This is the greatest number of comments ever submitted to the EPA during a public comment period. With continued support of standards like this, we may reduce the threats from climate change that have become imminent. However, continued and visible support is needed to counteract the groups fighting against such standards, namely coal industry lobbyists. Although we won’t be able to avoid the scorching heat for this week, we have the ability to change the weather we see in the future.
Jill Capotosto is a rising junior at Elon University in North Carolina where she is double majoring in Environmental Studies and Strategic Communications. She grew up in Austin where she spent lots of time outside hiking and kayaking with her dad, mom, brother and sister. She is interning with Environment Texas’ Fight Global Warming campaign this summer.