I originally wrote this blog aiming to publish it in mid-March of 2020. I was traveling back to Austin at the time and suggested that we hold off until we saw how COVID unfolded. It is a year later, and I’m still not sure if now is the right time to talk about climate change in Texas. We’ve lost 2.8 million people to COVID-19 around the world, 550,000 of those in the U.S. and almost 50,000 in Texas. It has been a year characterized by unspeakable tragedy and uncertainty.
I was fine with this post going in the trash. It seemed so out of touch given everything we were trying to survive or overcome during the past year. Then the February 2021 winter storm hit Texas and more than 100 people died. Their stories are heartbreaking and their deaths were preventable. Also preventable were the hardships that so many of us faced as 75% of Texans lost power, and 12 million of us either lost or had to boil water, according to the Texas Tribune. The storm and the failed response felt like the straw that broke the camel’s back. Really? This too?
Regardless of the political or ideological differences people might have about COVID and the winter storm, I think most of us agree that these were both catastrophic government failures, and the results did not have to be as bad as they were. I doubt many of us think that our preparation and response to COVID or the February winter storm were sufficient or the best we could do — and in light of that, we thought we should pull this blog post out of the trash bin and share a little bit about our research trying to understand how Texas cities are preparing for climate change. How are cities thinking about extreme events and trying to be better prepared in the future?
We repeatedly hear phrases like “unprecedented” and “not in living memory” — which is ironic because if these events were rare, we wouldn’t be talking about them with increasing frequency.
I’m working with a team of University of Texas at Austin researchers on a Planet Texas 2050 project investigating how San Antonio and Houston are developing strategies to understand and address the effects of climate change. As an emerging field of practice, there are a lot of things we don’t know about how Texas cities are planning for a changing climate. We have basic questions about what climate risks cities are prioritizing. Our more complex questions delve into the ways cities are working with neighborhoods to design safe and fair responses to flooding.
For our team, one of the most pressing questions we’re trying to answer is how cities are grappling with the ways climate change can exacerbate existing social inequalities. That same question is being asked by a growing number of researchers, community groups, and government officials across the United States who are increasingly concerned that climate change will amplify racial, income, and health inequalities and make daily life harder for our neighbors, friends, and family members, particularly those forced to bear the unequal brunt of these climate changes.
As we’ve spoken with city planners, engineers, and community members for this research, folks have told us that climate change feels like it is turning the volume up on challenges we’re already trying to deal with — extreme weather, economic precarity, inadequate infrastructure, mental and physical health issues, and social inequality. As researchers, we’re trained to listen to peoples’ stories, to pay attention to what they have in common and how they’re unique. Often, we’re taking what we hear and comparing that with information we already have. In my case, I also think about my own experience living in Texas and what climate change will mean for my friends and neighbors.
Since arriving in Austin in 2016, the city has experienced record-breaking rainfall, heatwaves, flood events, and this most recent winter storm disaster. Outside of Austin, we’ve seen Hurricane Harvey devastate the Gulf Coast. Last year’s Tropical Storm Imelda was the second 1,000-year flood event to hit southern Texas in two years. As these events happen, we repeatedly hear phrases like “unprecedented” and “not in living memory” — which is ironic because if these events were rare, we wouldn’t be talking about them with increasing frequency.
In relation to the 2018 flood-related 5-day water boil notice in Austin, the director of Austin Water said, “In our 100-year history, we have never seen conditions like we experienced this week. To say that this is unprecedented is an understatement.” Folks from here will tell you that Texas weather is fickle, but what used to be extreme — even for Texas — is now happening yearly. It is becoming our new normal.
These extreme events not only affect our infrastructure and public services, but in the last decade, we have also seen floods destroy homes, neighborhoods, and communities. Many of our fellow Texans are still trying to recover from the last flood event even as a new one hits. They will tell you when they’re not worried about the rain, they’re worried about the heat. When we enter another long stretch of over 100-degree days, many of us are concerned about the health of our older family members who don’t do as well in the heat and our kids with asthma who have a harder time breathing. We think about our friends who work outside and families who have to make hard financial choices about turning on the air conditioning. We worry about water availability — or at least we should. As a result of climate change, Texas could see 10-year or more megadroughts that will affect the state’s water supply.
We know from our own lives and decades of research that extreme events rarely affect people and places equally, and our ability to recover from them is also uneven. In the climate change research community, you’ll hear a lot of people talk about “vulnerability” and how we need to consider where and who might be most at risk from climate challenges and who will face the toughest recovery. As city governments in Texas are thinking about vulnerability, they’re asking which parts of the city are more likely to flood, which areas are hotter, where might wildfires happen, and which neighborhoods have inadequate infrastructure. They’re also thinking about who lives, works, and plays in these areas and how climate change might affect individuals and communities differently.
It is clear that climate-related changes are happening in all of our cities, but they aren’t happening equally.
Each city has groups they are focusing on, but typically they pay special attention to seniors, kids, people with existing medical issues, our unhoused neighbors, and people who are still learning English. Increasingly cities are also focusing on existing social inequalities, both to understand some of the underlying drivers of unequal social outcomes and because there’s a big concern that climate change may increase those inequalities. When we think about what social inequality looks like in Texas, we think about things like race, income, wealth, and health.
For example, in Austin, the average white household makes $72,000 a year compared to the average Black household, which makes $40,000 — a spread that has grown since 1980. In Dallas, the median property value for white families is three times higher than property values for Black and Latinx families. One in four children in Texas live in poverty, but Black and Latinx children are three times more likely to live in poverty than white children, and in Houston they are five times more likely. Outside of income and wealth, there are devastating disparities around health. Black mothers in Texas are twice as likely to die in childbirth compared to white mothers. In San Antonio, Black residents are hospitalized for asthma twice as much as white residents.
These inequalities are often tied to the ways our cities have been racially and economically segregated. In San Antonio, parts of the Prospect Hill neighborhood are 92% Latinx and have a median income of $22,000. Seven miles away, parts of the Oak Park neighborhood are 80% white and have a median income of $92,000. There is a 14-year gap in life expectancy between those neighborhoods. These inequalities are deadly. Similar patterns can be found in Austin, Dallas, El Paso, and Houston.
Robert Bullard, a leading environmental justice scholar, has said for decades that your “zip code is the best predictor of health and well-being.” The ways our cities have been segregated and the destruction that brings to our communities is mostly the result of decades of private and public practices that include racial housing restrictions, redlining, zoning areas for toxic or unwanted land uses, disinvestment in infrastructure, unfair housing practices, regressive school funding, and the unequal distribution of public goods and services. Those acts have often concentrated Black, Latinx, and low-income communities in areas that have greater exposure to flood and heat risks, inadequate infrastructure, fewer parks and trees, less access to goods and services, and higher exposure to pollution.
Our research team, which has expertise in climate change, urban planning, city infrastructure, and environmental justice, is trying to understand how these hazards are playing out in San Antonio and Houston. We are looking at how flooding and heat risks vary across cities and asking if those risks are higher in areas with greater racial and economic segregation.
As an example, we can think about how temperatures vary across cities. There are parts of cities that are hotter than others during heatwaves — which are also getting longer and more frequent — often in locations that have a lot of pavement and not many trees or shade. A recent study of 108 U.S. cities found that often hotter parts of the city are in neighborhoods with more residents of color who have lower-incomes and were subjected to redlining — where banks and mortgage lenders denied loans based on race. While redlining was only officially linked to mortgage rates and lending, there were often parallel practices of unequal public investments for things like parks and trees, which can help keep local temperatures down.
In San Antonio, we looked at heat differences between areas that are predominantly white and those that are predominantly Latinx. In the Oak Park and Prospect Hill neighborhoods, not only are there stark differences in income, life expectancy and race and ethnicity, but in heat and flooding too. On a recent 100+ degree day, parts of Oak Park, which is predominantly white, were 10 degrees cooler than parts of Prospect Hill, a predominantly Latinx neighborhood. Generally, Oak Park has more trees and less pavement than Prospect Hill. Of the parts we looked at, 40% of Prospect Hill is in the 100-year floodplain, compared with 3% in Oak Park.
We plan to develop a case study and policy brief sharing lessons learned from Houston and San Antonio’s climate planning efforts.
It is clear that climate-related changes are happening in all of our cities, but they aren’t happening equally. That’s why a growing number of community groups, urban planners, and researchers are worried that climate change will amplify these inequalities.
Given these concerns, we’re investigating how cities are preparing for climate change especially in regards to its effects on residents, public health, and infrastructure. Where we target energy efficiency programs, shade structures, flood infrastructure, flood buyouts, and new housing for our growing populations are choices about resource distribution. These choices have major equity implications for people’s health, finances, and well-being. If money is tight for folks in warmer neighborhoods, the decision to turn on the air conditioner can be a choice between staying safe and being able to pay all of the bills. If you already have asthma or a heart condition, heatwaves can be deadly. An unexpected doctor or hospital visit can break families financially. The stress behind making those decisions and living with the choices is enormous. In the face of these issues, where cities locate cooling centers, what language they share information in, if police are present or not, and if residents can get to the centers by bus or functional sidewalks are all choices about how we will adapt to climate change.
To understand these choices, we’re asking planners and community members about their perception of existing social inequalities, what they’re concerned about in terms of unequal climate vulnerability, and how they are working towards climate equity.
This isn’t just about risk. It is about how we respond to the risk.
A Way Forward
Two years ago, when we began talking to people in Houston and San Antonio, extreme cold events weren’t on our radar. But, as this winter showed us, they should be.
We plan to develop a case study and policy brief sharing lessons learned from Houston and San Antonio’s climate planning efforts. The case study will be a longer piece that shares information about how these cities are planning for extreme heat and flooding. It will include things like an analysis of how many cooling shelters are in hotter parts of the city and if communities with lower-incomes have equal access to refuge. This type of analysis is combined with interview information about how city organizations and community groups would prioritize new cooling efforts. The policy brief condenses these findings to top-line takeaways for cities and community organizations embarking on similar processes. We hope sharing this information through our networks in Texas can help other cities and communities as they make choices about how we respond to climate change.
Please join us on this journey.
Planet Texas 2050 is a research grand challenge at The University of Texas at Austin. We’re a team of more than 150 researchers across all disciplines working together over the next decade to find ways to make our state more resilient in the face of extreme weather events and rapid population growth. Follow us on Twitter, visit our website, and come back to our blog for updates.
Deidre Zoll is fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in Community and Regional Planning at the University of Texas at Austin. Her current research investigates the connections between city-led climate adaptation planning and environmental racism in the United States. She uses mixed methods including plan evaluation, spatial statistics, and case studies to identify the ways structural racism influences exposure to climate risks and proximity to adaptation interventions, and how urban planners and community activists navigate these dynamics.