In a warming world, the long-term forecast for Houston’s climate and economy is cloudy.
If governments leave greenhouse gas emissions unchecked, scientists say, increasing concentrations would continue to push temperatures higher, raise the seas and possibly intensify hurricanes and other severe weather events that cause flooding.
Yet quick action advocated by environmentalists to arrest global warming, such as a steep tax on fossil fuels that spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, could rock the area economy. Some 49 percent of Houston’s economy comes from the energy sector.
It now appears likely that some measures will be taken to address global warming as the debate moves beyond questioning of its existence. Late last month, a long-skeptical President Bush declared that human activity was warming the planet and that governments must take action to reverse the trend.
It’s impossible to say what that action will be or whether it will be effective.
But for a warm, energy-producing region like Southeast Texas, the issue is central to the region’s climatological and economic future.
“Houston clearly has some unique vulnerabilities,” said Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M University.
While climate researchers haggle over some details of global warming, all but a smattering of scientists agree on the basics: The world has warmed, greenhouse gas emissions from sources such as automobiles and power plants are largely to blame, and such warming will continue and possibly accelerate in the absence of strict regulations on greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.
Without such regulations, scientists generally agree, global temperatures will increase by 4 degrees to 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.
Winter insects? Temperatures in Southeast Texas would probably rise a similar amount, maybe a bit more, said John Nielsen-Gammon, the state’s climatologist and a Texas A&M climate professor.
“Texans are adapted to the heat, so there may not be much increase in morbidity except for those who can’t afford air conditioning,” Nielsen-Gammon said.
During warmer winters, tropical vegetation – and, unfortunately, insects – could flourish.
Although there would be more moisture in the atmosphere, it’s unclear whether a warming world would lead to more overall rainfall in Texas, Nielsen-Gammon said. Flood events, however, almost certainly would increase in frequency and severity.
Scientists differ on whether hurricanes would become stronger and if the exceptionally active 2005 Atlantic hurricane season would become the norm.
However, with at least a foot or two rise in sea level – and possibly much more if the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melt more rapidly than expected – high tides and storm surges could inundate low-lying areas, including much of Galveston Island, scientists warn. Much of the upper Texas shoreline already is receding.
If energy costs rise as expected, global warming could have a greater impact on newer, Southern cities than on cities in the North.
“A lot of cities in the southern United States were built with the idea that people have cars, access to cheap energy for air conditioning and don’t need public transportation,” Dessler said. “Living in Boston without energy would be a lot easier than doing so in Houston.”