Sept. 4, 2015 – Texans will feel the impact of climate change by the middle of the century in the form of higher average summer temperatures, more wildfires, and rising sea levels along the Gulf coast, the state’s official climatologist said last week at the University of Houston Law Center.
Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University and the governor-appointed head of the Office of the State Climatologist was at the Law Center as the featured speaker of a joint session of UHLC’s Environmental Law and Climate Change Law classes, taught by UHLC lecturer Tracy Hester.
Average temperatures could rise by 1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 35 years, from a current summertime average of 95 degrees, depending on natural variability, Nielsen-Gammon said in a brief interview after the class.
“(Texans) will feel higher temperatures, that’s a direct impact,” he said. But most Texans will likely notice the effects of climate change most during unusual or extreme weather events, he added.
A potential sea level rise of a foot before the end of the century will not likely cause flooding in Houston, he said. “But you add a foot onto the storm surge of a hurricane, then you’re going to expand the area that’s flooded by the hurricane.”
Climate change would cause wildfires to burn hotter and longer, affecting more people than would have been previously, he said.
In his talk to the class, Nielsen-Gammon gave a broad overview of the current state of the science of climate change, as well as how it is interpreted in the public policy and legal spheres.
Nielsen-Gammon noted that most of the public gets its information about the issue through the popular media.
“In my experience, that means most of what you know about climate change is probably wrong, no matter which side of the political spectrum you’re on,” he said. People advocating for or against a policy that would reduce carbon emission tend to be those who are most passionate about it, and will use evidence in such a way that most reinforces their own points of view, he said.
“People are going to present the evidence that most supports their point of view, whether or not it’s reliable or presents the whole picture,” he said.
“The state of the science is actually somewhere in the middle, where the relatively boring stuff happens, the creation of knowledge,” he said.
Nielsen-Gammon said that the vast majority of climate scientists believe that the climate has been warming over the past couple of centuries, and that human activity is a major cause of that warming. However, he said, the contention that the effects of climate change will be “catastrophic” unless the use of fossil fuels is vastly reduced or eliminated is not a scientific statement, but rather a policy statement.
In southwestern parts of the United States, including Texas, Nielsen-Gammon said, the effects of climate change thus far have been less noticeable than in many other parts of the globe.
“That in part explains people’s sense of urgency about things, because it’s a lot more motivating to actually experience something and respond to it rather than hearing about something abstract and respond to it,” he said.
Measurements have shown that temperatures have gone up a few 10ths of a degree over the past 50-60 years, with year to year variations, he said, and most scientists agree that period was a few 10ths of a degree warmer than at the end of the 18th Century, when the Industrial Revolution and its increasing dependence on fossil fuels began.
Nielsen-Gammon said that especially in the United States, the debate over whether climate change is real or is caused by human activity is often muddied by the selective use of data.
”Those who argue against the existence of climate change will often point to years in which measurements have anomalies from the general trend,” he said. “The shorter time period you’re looking at, the less likely that trend is going to continue into the future.
“Globally, the climate is changing. It always changes, and there are always reasons for it to change. Right now, however, on a timescale of multiple decades, we are the primary reason for its change,” he said.
“What’s going to happen, for a variety of reasons, is hard to pin down,” he said. “Society is not really good at dealing with uncertainty like that, especially when it’s uncertainty that’s going to affect primarily people other than the ones who are having to make decisions now.”
In Texas, Nielsen-Gammon said, the effects of climate change are not immediately apparent. But, he said, the state will become warmer over the next few decades, and the effect will be felt by Texans on a number of fronts: increased evaporation of reservoirs, changes in stream flows, subsidence along the Gulf coast, sea level rise, and changes in the salinity of estuaries.
“Climate change in most cases is not the primary driver of change, but it is an aggravating factor in just about everything,” he said. In Texas those areas include water supply, subsidence, endangered species, wildfire, and population displacement.
During a question-and-answer session, a student asked what policy initiative he thought would best protect people from the effects of climate change.
“I think the most important policy initiative would be to acknowledge the existence of climate change,” Nielsen-Gammon said, adding that in Texas, that is slowly becoming the case.
For instance, the latest version of the state water plan, released in 2012, had for the first time included a section on climate change. But its conclusion was that “the uncertainties of climate change are so large that it would inappropriate” to institute new statewide policies to combat it. “If you heard me talk about risk management, you probably know what I think about that opinion,” he said.
“We’re almost there. I can talk about climate change in Austin openly now. It wasn’t possible before. I have met with individual leaders who want to know more about climate change. But It’s unfortunate that saying, ‘I’m not a scientist. I don’t know whether climate change is real,’ is still something acceptable in modern politics,” he said.
“It’s perfectly legitimate to say, ‘Climate change is real, but I don’t think we can do much about it without major economic disruption.’ That’s a policy decision. And this is a politician. OK, so you don’t know about the science. Assuming the science is correct, let’s talk about the policy,” he said.