Ellis: Preparing for climate change

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The science is clear: Our climate is changing, and we are witnessing its effects throughout the world. Here in Texas, we are undergoing the state’s worst one-year drought and just finished the second hottest summer in U.S. history.

Estimates from August place the drought’s financial impact on our agricultural industry at more than $5.2 billion, and half of Texas’ rivers are flowing at 10 percent or less of their normal rate. Elsewhere, disastrous flooding and wildfires affect regions across the globe, as extreme weather events occur much more regularly than in the past.

Climate change is the most important moral issue of our time, affecting people across all dividing lines. While there may still be some disagreement as to the precise level of human impact on climate change and specific projected regional effects, that debate must not prevent us from actively preparing to meet the oncoming challenges. The potential costs of not acting now far outweigh the known costs of planning ahead.

In recognition of the need to act, I am proud to be joining international economic, business and political leaders gathering to discuss critical issues surrounding the global environment at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa. I am attending as part of the official delegation of the Commission to Engage African Americans on Climate Change, for which I serve as the co-chair. The 17th annual Conference of Parties is focusing on efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change and developing a framework that can lead to cuts in greenhouse gases.

Despite the acknowledgment that urgent action is required, there is some pessimism about what will officially be achieved in Durban. Stalemates between developed and developing countries and a resistance to making firm commitments has lowered expectations.

In the face of this uncertainty in the international community, Texas has all the more reason to plan for the changes ahead. With the world already getting hotter, policymakers at all levels of government, not just internationally, must commit to ongoing preparations. This is certainly true here in Texas.

Texas State Climatologist Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon of Texas A&M University’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences wrote that it would be “irresponsible not to plan for the possibility that the locked-in warming due to greenhouse gas increases will come to pass.” Whether Texans believe the rising temperatures are caused primarily by humans or natural cycles is immaterial. In order to face higher temperatures, heavier storms, loss of coastline and more severe droughts, Texas needs to start getting ready.

The past two sessions, I have filed legislation requiring key state agencies to make plans to adapt to changes in the climate in coming years. Each climate adaptation plan would include specific steps necessary for the agency to fulfill its mission considering climate variation, as well as the budgetary impacts of implementing these steps.

Far too often, governments must dramatically reassess their approach to disaster planning only after the disasters have occurred. While advance planning will not prevent the changes from occurring, it will help mitigate some of the most significant consequences of global warming. This is greatly preferable to the head-in-the-sand approach taken by some in our state. Censoring scientific data when it does not fit your political worldview, for example, will only serve to harm Texas in the long run.

Climate change is a complex international issue that must be addressed by governments worldwide, but Texas has too much at stake not to start preparing for changes that are inevitable. It’s time for Texas to step up and meet that challenge.

Ellis represents a Houston district in the state Senate.

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