Image courtesy of NCTCOG
Last week I, like so many Texans, watched my local county and city representatives’ daily press updates on Texas’ winter storm crisis. With each passing day, the slate of updates grew as more and more city officials and departments joined in the rapidly expanding disaster relief efforts.
Daily Press Conferences included:
Day 1 – our County Judge, City Mayor, City Manager, and General Manager of Austin Energy.
Day 2 – Judge, Mayor, City Manager, electric utility, city emergency response coordinator
Day 3 – Judge, Mayor, City Manager, electric utility, city emergency response coordinator, public transportation authority manager
Day 4 – Judge, Mayor, City Manager, electric utility, city emergency response coordinator, public transportation authority manager, water utility general manager, fire chief, public works director
It was a cascading crisis – a crisis event that compounds as interconnected systems fall like dominoes. Texas has emerged from the bitter winter storm that tipped the first domino – our electric grid – but is still reeling from cascading effects. Throughout last week millions of Texans lost power for multiple days; they were stranded in their homes due to unsafe, icy road conditions; risked carbon monoxide poisoning by resorting to propane camp stoves and burning furniture to stay warm; and lost water as supplies dwindled or became unsafe to consume. The extent of damage to property, lost income, and wellbeing is yet to be determined but may rival 2017 Hurricane Harvey’s $19 Billion in insured losses. The loss of life is devastating and unacceptable.
There are many excellent explainers out there detailing what exactly happened last week in Texas. UT Austin’s Dr. Michael Webber answered 4 key questions about weather-driven blackouts in the Plains and Dr. Joshua Rhodes provided a deeper dive into Texas’ electric grid for Forbes.
It might seem counterintuitive that climate change can contribute to record and sustained freezing temperatures in the region. But greenhouse gas emissions and associated warming throws off the balance of the earth’s atmosphere, leading to hotter summers, more intense storms, and record polar vortexes. This is why Texas Tech Climate Scientist Dr. Katherine Hayhoe calls it “global weirding.”
One thing this week has made abundantly clear is local and state governments not only play an essential role in real time response during a disaster, but in planning for and anticipating more frequent and extreme climate disasters. Historically, municipal planning for extreme weather events is based on the assumption that past climatic patterns will continue into the future. Calculation of risk and prioritization of investments rely on 100 year-floods, -storms, -freezes, or -heatwaves remaining 100-year events. Yet, Texas sure seems to be experiencing a lot of “unprecedented” floods, hurricanes, droughts, and now freezes.
Local governments across the globe and across Texas are increasingly recognizing the importance of forward-looking, robust climate risk assessments in the creation of more resilient cities.
- In 2013, Austin’s City Council passed a resolution to identify the potential environmental, economic, and social impacts to City operations and assets resulting from climate change. As part of this effort, ATMOS Research, led by Dr. Hayhoe, developed climate change projections through 2100 for Austin. The final report to Council, Toward a Climate Resilient Austin, provides details from this analysis, as well as recommendations for future planning efforts to increase resilience.
- Following years of devastating storms, culminating in 2017 with Hurricane Harvey, City of Houston joined 100 Resilient Cities and hired a Chief Resilience Officer. The City set about creating “the transformative change that comes from thinking and acting holistically to build and grow our long-term resilience.” In 2020, the City released Resilient Houston, a broad reaching resilience framework that includes the goal to “conduct a climate impact assessment to inform City policies and programs.” The Climate Impact Assessment was released in August 2020.
- Dallas’ Comprehensive Environmental and Climate Action Plan (CECAP) incorporated the 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment projections for the Southern Great Plains in their climate adaptation planning.
- The City of San Antonio identified 12 priority risks in their SA Climate Ready Vulnerability and Risk Assessment including increased exposure to high heat, high ozone concentrations, and infrastructure damage caused by a changing climate.
- The North Central Texas Council of Governments completed a Climate Change/Extreme Weather Vulnerability and Risk Assessment for Transportation Infrastructure in Dallas and Tarrant Counties in 2015, and leads on-going regional floodplain and emergency preparedness planning efforts that consider the changing climate risks for the North Central Texas region.
In order to better prepare for the next climate events, Texas cities should complete climate risk assessments to evaluate and uncover vulnerabilities. Climate risk assessments augment existing hazard risk assessments by pushing planners to consider more extreme and frequent climate events into future scenario plans. Incorporating a realistic view of future climate events into disaster preparedness plans is the first step to funding and implementing processes and programs that lead to a more resilient Texas.
Not considering and preparing for climate risks can have broad implications for local governments as credit rating companies, including Moody’s, are factoring in climate disaster risk and preparedness into municipal bond analysis.
Completing a climate change risk assessment and developing an adaptation plan is not an insignificant undertaking. Fortunately, guidelines and tools are available to assist in the process.
The C40 Cities Climate Change Risk Assessment Guidance is a concise 4-step guide to help cities conducting a Climate Change Risk assessment in line with requirements of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy (GCoM) and C40 Cities. Steps 1 and 2 are preliminary phases for establishing context, goals, and convening stakeholders. Climate risks are identified, analyzed, and evaluated in Step 3. In Step 4 risks and vulnerabilities are mapped to identify how and where risks will affect the city, identify interdependencies, and prioritize risks.
C40 Cities Climate Change Risk Assessment Process# STEP 1 | Establish the Context
- It is essential for the city to determine the goals & objectives of this assessment, what would be considered as a success. Identify the existing & potential human and financial resources, as well as the relevant internal (local government) and external stakeholders to engage throughout this process.
# STEP 2 | Stakeholders, Interdisciplinary Team and Resources
- Identify and involve relevant actors: universities, scientific/academic institutions, different government agencies who can take part in the study.
- Identify and analyze the existing sets of data: what documentation is available, incomplete or have dated. An independent pre-assessment can be used to facilitate the city acknowledging gaps and sets the new objectives.
# STEP 3 | Identify, Analyze and Evaluate Risks
Create a report detailing the sector-based hazards and risks:
- Analyze the demographic, socio-economic and environmental context, to understand the potential evolution of impacts and priorities on the city;
- Study the past climatic events: intensity, frequency, scale and impacts; # Set the climate change trends, future scenarios of evolution;
- Research each of the future hazards: likelihood, consequence, frequency # Assess the impact these extreme events could have on people and sectors.
# STEP 4 | Create Risks and Vulnerabilities Map
Include spatial maps highlighting vulnerable areas and hot spots, to the previous report:
- Identify how and where each climate hazard will affect the city, and which assets/sectors will be affected.
- Consider the cascading effects on other sectors via an interdependencies assessment.
- Identify priority risks based on level of exposure, sensitivity, interdependencies and vulnerability
The weeks and months ahead will certainly bring a lot of reflection and hopefully action to address the factors that led to the crises of last week. As the climate continues to change, leading to more extreme and unpredictable weather patterns, local governments have a responsibility to be realistic and honest about vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure, economic systems, and human well-being.
 Mayor Sylvester Turner, Resilient Houston, Page 6 (https://www.houstontx.gov/mayor/Resilient-Houston-20200518-single-page.pdf)
 C40 Cities, Climate Change Risk Assessment Guidance, August 2018, Page 3 (https://cdn.locomotive.works/sites/5ab410c8a2f42204838f797e/content_entry5ab410fb74c4833febe6c81a/5b17dd2614ad660612c5dc54/files/C40_Cities_Climate_Change_Risk_Assessment_Guidance.pdf?1541689629)