84 Percent of Texans Live in Areas Hit by Recent Weather Disasters; New Report Says Global Warming to Bring More Extreme Weather

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Environment Texas

AUSTIN – After a year that saw Texas hit by scorching heat, devastating wildfires, and extreme drought, a new Environment Texas report documents how global warming could lead to certain extreme weather events becoming even more common or more severe in the future.  The report found that, already, 84% of Texans live in counties affected by federally declared weather-related disasters since 2006, including last year’s wildfires. 

“21 million Texans have lived through extreme weather causing extremely big problems for Texas’ economy and our public safety,” said Luke Metzger, Director of Environment Texas. “Given that global warming will likely fuel even more extreme weather, we need to cut dangerous carbon pollution now.”

The new report, entitled In the Path of the Storm: Global Warming, Extreme Weather, and the Impacts of Weather-Related Disasters in the United States, examined county-level weather-related disaster declaration data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for 2006 through 2011 to determine how many Texans live in counties hit by recent weather disasters. The complete county-level data can be viewed through an interactive map available here. The report also details the latest science on the projected influence of global warming on heavy rain and snow; heat, drought and wildfires; and hurricanes and coastal storms.  Finally, the report explores how the damage from even non-extreme weather events could increase due to other impacts of global warming such as sea level rise. 

Key findings from the Environment Texas report include:

  • Since 2006, FEMA declared weather-related disasters, including Hurricane Ike, wildfires and flooding, affected 185 counties in Texas housing more than 21 million people –or nearly 84 percent of Texans.  
  • In 2011 alone, federally declared weather related disasters affected 86 Texas counties housing 3,855,681 people.  Nationally, the number of disasters inflicting more than $1 billion in damage (at least 14) set an all-time record last year, with total damages from those disasters costing at least $55 billion.
  • The wildfires of 2011 were the worst in Texas history, tearing through nearly 4 million acres of land, destroying more than 2,900 homes and the Lost Pines of Bastrop State Park and killing 10 people. The fires led to major disaster declarations in 52 counties that are home to more than 566,000 people. 
  • In June 2007, severe storms and flooding in Texas killed 11 people and damaged more than 14,000 homes and lead to disaster declarations in 43 counties.
  • Records show that the U.S. has experienced an increase in the number of heat waves over the last half-century. Scientists project that the heat waves and unusually hot seasons will likely become more common in a warming world. Texas recorded the hottest June and August in U.S. history. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, at least 121 people in Texas died from heat-related causes last year, including a high school football coach in Plano.
  • Other research predicts that hurricanes are expected to become even more intense and bring greater amounts of rainfall in a warming world, even though the number of hurricanes may remain the same or decrease.  
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture designated 213 counties in Texas, including Travis, Bastrop and Hays, as primary natural disaster areas after one of the worst droughts in more than a century. As of mid-August, crop and livestock losses from the drought were estimated at greater than $5 billion. The drought has also drained reservoirs with the combined storage Lakes Buchanan and Travis at just 38 percent of capacity.  

Metzger noted that global warming is expected to have varying impacts on different types of extreme weather events. While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently concluded that it is “virtually certain” that hot days will become hotter and “likely” that extreme precipitation events will continue to increase worldwide, there is little scientific consensus about the impact of global warming on events such as tornadoes. In addition, every weather event is now a product of a climate system where global warming “loads the dice” for extreme weather, though in different ways for different types of extreme weather.

Texas State Climatologist Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon called the report “comprehensive and accurate” and said “the extraordinary drought of 2011 was extreme by any measure, but as the climate changes those extreme temperatures will very likely become more and more ordinary”.  

“The Environment Texas report highlights the impacts of extreme weather events on Texas and quantifies our exposure,” said Dr. Kerry Cook, a climate researcher at the Jackson School of Geosciences at UT Austin.  “Global warming will increase temperatures and decrease water availability significantly in the coming decades, and result in more extreme events in Texas.  Our modification of the atmosphere’s composition has committed us to some of these changes already, underscoring the urgency to reduce emissions now”.

“Extreme weather is happening, it is causing very serious problems, and global warming increases the likelihood that we’ll see even more extreme weather in the future,” said state Representative Eddie Rodriguez. “Carbon pollution from our power plants, cars and trucks is fueling global warming, and so tackling global warming demands that we cut emissions of carbon pollution from those sources.”

The report was released as the Obama administration is finalizing historic new carbon pollution and fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, and as the Environmental Protection Agency is poised to develop carbon pollution standards for coal-fired power plants—the largest single source of the carbon pollution that is fueling global warming. At the same time, some polluting industries and their allies in Congress are working to block these and other clean air standards. 

“We applaud the Obama administration for the clean car standards they are finalizing, and urge EPA to move ahead with strong carbon pollution standards for coal-fired power plants,” said Metzger.  “The extreme weather we suffered through in 2011 is a frightening reminder of why we must do everything we can to cut the dangerous carbon pollution that is fueling global warming, and lessen the threat of even worse extreme weather in the future.”