Reporting Texas

‘Wicked’ Climate Crisis Being Tackled at Texas State Day-Long Conference

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Robert Mace, executive director at The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment. Image: Courtesy

‘Climate Science, The Good, The Bad, and The Wicked’ promises a think tank for climate intervention in Texas—and you’re invited.

Greg Harman

In some ways, the climate crisis is resoundingly simple. Every day massive amounts of carbon is torn from the Earth in the form of coal, oil, and gas and incinerated to generate power and fuel. Last year that resulted in nearly 37 gigatons of heat-trapping CO2 moved from a stable state beneath our feet and into the atmosphere, where it acts like a blanket trapping more and more heat close to the planet.

But that’s just the energy component.

Helping lock in these steadily rising global temperatures (last month was the hottest July in at least 125,000 years, you probably felt that) and disrupting water cycles across the planet also involves clearing land for industrial agriculture and the elimination of forests. It’s the destruction of wetlands and mangroves. It’s the eradication of indigenous cultures. It’s our throwaway lifestyles and the behaviors of the mercilessly profligate uber rich. It’s a violence defended and extended through myriad forms of denial and delay by the fossil fuel industry, which itself continues to make record-breaking profits, thanks in no small part to (also record-breaking) $1.4 trillion in public subsidies thrown at the monster just last year and a quasi-religious movement within the Republican Party assembled to defend all of the above causes of climate breakdown.

Industrially driven global warming is, in academic and pedestrian parlance, a “wicked” problem begging for intense attention.

Next month, Texas State University will host researchers from around Texas and beyond in a full-day conference intended to empower area residents with the knowledge they need to push solutions into the public—and hopefully political—sphere. Keynoting will be Michael Mann, well-known climate scientist and popular author of multiple books on the science and politics of global warming. Assembled by The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, the conference looks to facilitate conversations and build relationships capable of advancing solutions to many of these issues, as well as ways of adapting to changes already well underway. Deceleration spoke with Robert Mace, executive director and chief water policy officer at Meadows, to get the skinny on the event. The interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

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Deceleration: Why wicked?

Robert Mace: Wicked is a term that is often associated with problems. And wicked problems are super complicated problems that are very difficult to solve because there’s technical aspects, and there is socioeconomic aspects. There’s political aspects. And climate change certainly checks all those boxes. Living in Texas, as we both do, there are definitely some political challenges and getting the state in a place to be resilient to what’s happening and what’s coming.

Are you concerned about political blow back hosting a conference like this? I know you were at the Texas Water Development Board and you know the politics around water and climate. There’s been concern about the lack of climate forecasting within the regional water planning processes. So how is this landing with some within Texas state or beyond?

Well, Texas State has been supportive. It certainly helps being associated with an academic institution, but as we have seen recently, academic institutions are not completely absolved from political influence. Does it worry me? Yeah it does worry me a little bit. Because there could be blow back. Pardon the pun, but I do feel like folks in Texas are warming up to climate change, if you will, as something to be concerned about. This summer with historic temperature records falling to the wayside, it almost seems like we’re almost always in drought these days. I think people and to a certain degree leadership is starting to recognize that this is something that’s happening and this is something that we need to deal with. I’m being asked to come speak to more rural groups specifically about climate change and that’s also a difference over the last six to 12 months.

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I’m looking at the language of the conference and I see there’s a spot about dealing with misunderstandings about climate science. I feel like, as I’ve said about the governor and former attorney general, there’s sort of a willful ignorance being used to fight climate action, less than misunderstandings. I hope the reception you’re getting in some of these spaces is maybe better than what some of the climate community have seen, including death threats.

I would call these the climate curious. It’s respectful audiences but you can also tell that not everybody is on board with the science. And that’s fine. I do speak in a way where I don’t try to ram it down people’s throats. My intent is to put some data out there. Pull in their experience with what’s been happening with weather and climate in Texas.

So what’s your elevator pitch? What do you say when someone asks you, you know, we just experienced the hottest July in 125,000 years. What do you say when someone asks you: What does that have to do with me and my pickup truck?

I would say there’s a number of factors that are happening. This probably would have still been a hot summer without human-forced climate change. But it is a lot warmer because of [human-forced] climate change.

These are the warmest temperatures we’ve seen— I use 130,000 years. And in the next decade or so we will surpass that high, which will throw us into the warmest temperatures in three million years.

I know there’s different philosophies about that. Katherine Hayhoe’s recent book talks about relating to people, to have personal stories and experiences, and also to be up front. Another thing that helps me is I’ll acknowledge the uncertainties. Some people say don’t be uncertain. That’s a way detractors take advantage of the science. But in most things we’re not 100-percent sure. One thing I tell my students is, I ask them, how do you tell a scientist is lying? It’s when they say we’re 100-percent certain about something. It’s very rare that we’re 100-percent certain about things. So I’ll say, oh yeah, we have ups and downs. But this isn’t about ups and downs. This is about a trend going upwards, and we can look at the record and see that we’re way outside the realm of normal with these events. And this is going to become more and more common.

There’s been more conversations about what wet bulb temperatures and survivability. And it’s pretty telling that in past years I’ve watched headlines about India or Bangladesh or across the Middle East and temperatures and wet bulb hitting the threshold of survivability. But now we’re talking about Louisiana and East Texas.

That’ll come up in discussions. It’s just going to get harder and harder to live in this climate. You’re absolutely right. Imagine that we’re in heat stroke territory with wet bulb temperatures and the grid goes down. Millions of people lose their air conditioning. That could be her horrific in terms of its consequences.

thu07sep8:00 amthu5:00 pmClimate Science: The Good, The Bad, & The Wicked ConferenceA Texas Think Tank for Climate Intervention

This conference seems designed in some ways as a mixer. I know some people probably still think about this as a carbon management problem. But it’s also a social and a cultural problem. It’s so much more. Did you kind of design it that way? What do the other disciplines have to bring to the conversation outside of the hard sciences?

I think that’s a great perception. The conference covers a wide variety of topics there’s something in there for everybody. We’ve got Dr. [Rob] Dussler from here at the Meadows Center at Texas State University talking about environmental philosophy and education and climate discourse. And education is a big thing we do here at the Meadows Center. We have hundreds of thousands of people come through our site on the glass bottom boats on an annual basis, as well as tens of thousands of school children who come through on programs. These are opportunities to engage and educate folks on climate along with other environmental issues that are there. We’ve got David Ruth, who’s from the University of Texas at Austin, talking about transforming higher education to match the acceleration of our world. And I know you are with Deceleration.

But it does seem like things are just coming quicker and faster. So how do we equip people with the tools they need to address the wicked problem such as climate change?

We’ve got some folks talking about sustainable energy and infrastructure and adaptation to climate change with ecology. There’s discussions on energy transition and how do we transition from the way we live now to the way we need to live the climate issue? I consider myself a realist. There’s sort of like the ideal that people should always be thinking about, the ideal of what we really need to get to. But then it’s like, Okay, we need to figure out how to get there.

From where we are now.

You can’t just snap your fingers. Even though we think about climate change and climate resilience on a daily basis, most people don’t. They’re just dealing with their lives and living with the existing infrastructure of life. Our car culture and the lack of a good public transportation, like along the I-35 growth corridor. It kind of limits what we can do. You mentioned earlier the political situation and in my mind I try not to judge in general. So people have these different backgrounds they come from; they believe what they believe for various reasons.

I think there’s also folks that are concerned about—folks in leadership positions in the state—are concerned about climate change. But it’s political suicide for them to talk about it, let alone try to pass legislation to do something about it.

So our approach is let’s provide information to the people, from the citizen, to a water manager for a city, or a water corporation or groundwater conservation district, a river authority, a planning group, in order to see what climate change might mean for our water resources. Then they can do things to build additional resilience to address those climate concerns. And so rather than a top-down change rushing towards the Texas Legislature like Don Quixote and being brutally rejected, because there’s a number of people clamoring for this information because they don’t have it. So let’s give them that information and build resilience. Along the way, I think the best way to reach a Texan’s heard is through their water supply. People in Texas love to talk about water, so I’m real popular at parties. So maybe even talking about climate impacts on water is a way to get people more concerned about climate change and those issues.

I’ve tended to think of water within that matrix of global warming as either there’s too little or too much too fast, but there’s so many ways that water ecosystems play significant roles. The ocean certainly absorbs 90 percent of the heat we spend spinning off from our power plants and fossil fueled highways. But what are we overlooking in terms of water as a solution that we might hear about at this conference?

Not surprisingly for our state the vast majority of water suppliers are not considering climate change. We are fortunate as a state we have a state water planning process with these regional water planning groups. It’s something of a more bottom-up approach with each group representing different stakeholder groups like the environment, and business, and cities, and groundwater districts, and river authorities, and on and on. It’s great we have that and we plan for a drought of record—the drought that’s passed. But climate change…

We can’t be looking in the rear view mirror on this to understand what’s coming up ahead of us.

It’s even worse because you know the drought of record, it was different depending on where you were, but that was 50 years ago. When it hits next it’s going to be really different and really scary—and worse. In Austin the drought from 2011 to 2015 was a new drought of record that beat the 1950’s. And we’re going to see more of that. People have started to see that we need to do more then we’re doing now. Every day that goes by the chance that we’re going to see something even bigger increases. People think another year went by and we don’t didn’t have another drought of record. But when it comes, it could be scary.

Wichita Falls during the 2011 to 2015 drought, a community of 115,000 people, at times was less than three months away from completely running out of water. And there was no solution for them. The Red River to the north of them was almost dry. It was going to take too long to run a pipeline to them.

And there’s legal issues with that. That was very troubling. On the bright side, Texans are very creative, particularly in the water sphere. So there’s all these things that we can do to build that resilience. One Water, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but using the built environment as a source of water collecting rainwater and air conditioning condensate and storm water. Even reusing the black water. There’s a building in Austin, a City of Austin new permitting building, that has onsite the cutest wastewater plant you’ve ever seen. I actually cried during the grand opening it was just so adorable. But they take their black water from the building and treat it and bring it back into flush toilets and flush urinals and that—along with rain water and condensate harvesting— they’re able to reduce their use of the Colorado River by 95 percent. So there’s some really neat and creative things that can be done with water that we already have

What about an ecosystem level? I know you were you were on KLRN and you came out saying that you were “not hopeful” in terms of water in the Hill Country. We’re definitely in a spot right now.

The issue with the Hill Count would certainly be an issue even if there was no human-caused climate change. We would still be having that conversation about the Hill Country. It’s growth. It’s people. And it’s water wells. It’s all overwhelming the Hill Country aquifer which is the Trinity Aquifer. And that decreases spring flows or even causes some spring flows to stop flowing, like the Jacob’s Well. And it reduces base flow. So that’s one of those concerns. But your point is well taken that, yeah, there are folks in the Hill Country that are completely reliant on rainwater harvesting it’s a perfectly reliable source of water if the system is designed right. A lot of the installing companies, they know how to install a properly sized system that will get you through I drought of record. I’m working with a graduate student now here and we’re evaluating how big of a roof and how much storage do you need to have reliable rainwater system in the different regions around the state. Ii might be pretty hard to do in El Paso, but it’s really easy to do in the center for the I-35 corridor and to the east.

We have a 275-gallon tote on the front of our house for a garden just to have that high quality water for a pollinator garden and our food garden. This is the first year that it ran dry in the summer, but I think it’s just because we left the switch open one day. One Water at a city scale: where are the conversations happening? Who’s exciting you in terms of a city as a source of water?

It’s Austin. Since the drought for them started around 2008 and went through 2015. That was a scary drought. No one had seen the Highland Lakes go that low that quickly. That was a wake-up call. The city council instructed the water provider Austin Water to provide a 100-year water plan that considered climate change as well as equity issues and protecting the environment. I joined halfway through the first cycle of that planning process and I’m still involved now. They had a plan that they published in 2018 that was based upon One Water-type principles.

The new main library in Austin, 90 percent of its water comes from air conditioner condensate harvesting. In this current drought it’s been able to supply all of its non-potable needs by air conditioner condensate.

Imagine how much water is being generated In Houston from air conditioner condensate. Really anywhere in Texas. Austin decided that, unlike San Antonio, they’re not going to go out and pump water out of a rural area to meet their needs because of the equity issues associated with that. My feeling is that you take care of the environment by taking care of people first because if people are taken care of then the environment falls into place. In my mind building this resilience, getting ready for the drought of record and worse than the drought of record, is also protective of the environment, because it will have that water available.

I assume there’s going to be an ongoing conversation at Texas State and with participating communities beyond this conference?

Yes. We will definitely continue to be doing work and figuring out how climate change impacts Texas water in a way that can be addressed in the current water planning process. I encourage people to come. There’s some ample breaks in there. Part going to conferences is to hear the speakers and learning something to get inspired. But it’s also interacting with folks and having conversations. I think it’s a great opportunity for that if you’re 100 percent on climate change and you want to learn more and hear some interesting people and what they’re thinking on this topic going forward. But also the climate curious. If you’re sort of like a little bit but you’re just not sure, this is also a good place to come and hear what people are thinking and interact with folks.


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