In a public lecture sponsored by the Houston Audubon Society on Thursday night, Jim Blackburn discussed the unique challenges of advocating for progressive environmental policy in the Lone Star State. “Convincing Texas to implement climate change preparation and mitigation efforts is just about the hardest nut to crack in the world… And I’ve been banging my head on this nut for 40 years, so I can testify to how hard it is to crack.” Blackburn, who is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University and co-director of Rice’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation Disaster (SSPEED) Center, has been an environmental lawyer in Houston for the better part of three decades.
Blackburn represented the Sierra Club in their now infamous 2011 suit to stop the construction of Texas State Highway 99 over parts of the Katy Prairie between I-10 and US 290 just northwest of Houston. He and the Sierra Club believed that the increased development around the highway would lead to a substantial increase of water runoff into the nearby Addicks and Barker reservoirs, which would put their dams at extreme risk of failing in the case of a major rain event. The judge in the case ultimately ruled against Blackburn and the Sierra Club, giving the highway a green light. And unfortunately, the rest is history. Construction ensued, housing developments and shopping centers sprang up around the highway, and when the “1,000+ year” rains from Hurricane Harvey arrived in late August of this year, the overrun Addicks and Barker dams released a deluge into the surrounding communities.
Just two weeks after Harvey moved through Houston, Blackburn took the stage to deliver a lecture on the “horrors” and “hopes” of a changing climate. Speaking to an auditorium full of Houstonians still reeling from one of the worst natural disasters in American history, he didn’t have to do much to convince his audience of the horrors of extreme weather. He did, however, make a point to explain the direct connection between higher ocean temperatures and stronger storms, the increased frequency of major rain events in a warming atmosphere, and the looming environmental disaster awaiting the Gulf Coast if and when sea level rise inundates the Port of Houston’s petrochemical hub.
Perhaps more unsettling than the destruction caused by storms like Harvey, though, was Blackburn’s discussion of Texas’s response to the “unequivocal” scientific consensus on human-caused global warming and its projected effects. State government employees, forbidden from saying “climate change,” have deferred to using “weird weather” instead, according to Blackburn, and perhaps nothing sums up the bizarre relationship between the state of Texas and climate science better than the existence of this unofficial terminology. As part of its wholesale rejection of scientific data, the state has completely ignored the calls to reduce carbon emissions or make efforts to mitigate global warming, but even more absurdly, there has been little done in recent years to prepare for the near-certain disasters Texas will be faced with in the not-so-distant future. Hazardous waste sites, civil engineering protocols, and floodplain maps are all still developed according to rainfall and storm surge data that has proven to be drastically underestimated given the annual “100+ year” floods that have hit Houston over the past few years (Memorial Day 2015 floods, Tax Day 2016 floods, and now Harvey). As a result, there is nothing to stop Houston developers from once again making the same mistakes that exacerbated the devastation of these natural disasters.
Faced with such resistance, Blackburn has dedicated his entire career to “cracking” this hardest of nuts. Keeping an open mind about options moving forward, he discussed possible solutions ranging from “gifting” coastal woodlots or annual carbon footprints to friends and family, to a transition to a renewable energy infrastructure. Ultimately, though, Blackburn sees the most viable response to climate change in carbon neutrality achieved through terrestrial sequestration. As he put it, to date “the only technology that has successfully captured carbon is nature.” Recently, Blackburn has worked with the SSPEED Center to develop and begin implementing a system called the Texas Coastal Exchange (TCX). The TCX is “a nonstructural hurricane surge damage reduction concept in which landowners who restore natural areas to provide certain ecological protection service receive compensation through a voluntary market exchange.” Essentially, private landowners in the Gulf Coast region will be paid for retaining and developing prairies and wetlands on their property in critical ecological regions. Whereas landowners in places like the Katy Prairie have recently felt the financial pressure to sell their land off to incoming developers the TCX will provide extra incentive for them to hold on to their property. As more and more major companies pledge to go carbon neutral, and pressure continues to ratchet up on oil and gas companies to follow suit, investing in programs like the TCX will be a useful way for such organizations to offset their greenhouse gas emissions by paying for an equivalent amount of sequestered carbon on these protected properties.
There are problems abound when it comes to such instances of “green” capitalism, and these must certainly be addressed. But practical solutions like those we see from Blackburn and his colleagues working on the Texas Coastal Exchange provide real-life solutions that at least let us begin to see a way to move from “horror” to “hope.”
Kevin MacDonnell is a PhD student in the Department of English at Rice University. His research interests include the history of science, ecocriticism, science & technology studies, and narrative theory. His research has been focused primarily on 17th and 18th century English literature, and in particular, the ways in which literature and art influenced the development of theories of energy as well as the production of industrial technologies.