Hurricanes, Houston, and the Hullabaloo over Climate Change

Did it or didn’t it? If it did, how much was its fault? How many more can we expect?


All of these questions are being asked about links between climate change, hurricanes, and coastal destruction. But they are being asked the wrong way around, and until we fix that, we will not learn and deal with the problem for next year, let alone the next century.


“Houston, we have a problem”…but it really was not Hurricane Harvey, but rather Houston itself, that was the problem.


Why blame a city that just finished bailing out from catastrophic flooding? Why not blame Hurricane Harvey? My answer is simple—it is no surprise that a hurricane would eventually hit Houston, or indeed any coastal city in that location. The surprise was how horribly poorly-designed the city was to cope with this absolute surety.


The devastation wrought by the hurricane was certainly compounded by a warmer planet, with higher sea levels due to the melting of continental ice and warmer sea surface temperatures, which drive much “wetter” hurricanes. And yes, there are likely to be more such catastrophic storm events in the future, a result of this new game of Climate Chaos that we are now experiencing regularly. But even absent these conditions, Houston would have had a huge problem on its hand, as illustrated by one picture:


Houston built itself into this problem. As eloquently put by Joni Mitchell “They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.” Natural systems have capacities to absorb and release all kinds of things that are valuable for life, including carbon, oxygen, and yes—water. These capacities, called “ecosystem services” are grossly undervalued in a capitalistic society because we have always had a hard time putting a price on, say, paradise. But as pioneered by Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel Prize winning economist from Indiana University, Bloomington, we need to start putting values on these services in order to place them among the other “competitors” that capitalism demands.


So what happened in Houston? Well, it likely happened in your city as well—it certainly did in Indianapolis where I live. The post-WWII boom in urban development occurred during a time of nearly no application of environmental fundamentals in our daily lives. As suburbs exploded, value was placed on esthetics and ease and “normalcy.” Bare land, or farmland, or often woodlands, were bulldozed and covered over with houses, schools, malls, and vast, endless, excruciatingly unnatural stretches of asphalt and concrete. Probably many will remember entire school playgrounds that were asphalt, with one shabby tree in the corner—indeed, many old schools in our neighborhood still look basically like this!


Nature was a lawn (and lawnmower to keep it perfect), and maybe a tree or two that was chosen for its foliage and swing-carrying capacity and not because it was native to that area. And that was enough for most, so long as they had paved driveways and streets and parking lots of zip around to with their cars.


Cities doubled, tripled, and quadrupled in size over the span of several decades, grabbing more and more land and converting these paradises to parking lots. But have you ever seen it rain on a parking lot? Of course you have—sheets of water streaming between the curbs and lines, looking for somewhere to go. Indeed, gutters gushing, streets awash, all with water that before soaked into soil and now has no place to go.


How puzzling if water could think, and have a memory—it would wonder what in the world happened to the old days, when it would drop out of the sky, and then trickle down through layers of soil and eventually make its way to groundwater, or streams and lakes and rivers. But it would be a slow journey, one controlled by the earth’s permeable nature.


Now, we have this same deluge coming down, and actually more of it given climate change, and it is all trying to find lower ground in a hurry. Without the ecosystem functions that would slow this flow and absorb a fair amount of it, we see massive flooding. Water is this scenario is viewed as harmful waste—one that we want to get rid of as soon as possible.


Most sewer systems in older cities in the US are built to do just that—to take sewage to wastewater treatments plants, and to also take the rainfall that runs off all of the impervious services to the treatments plants. A silly arrangement, obviously, because water running off a sidewalk or a parking lot is not nearly as harmful to humans as our own sewage that goes down the toilet—yet it ends up in the same place, and must be treated to regulatory levels before being released back to waterways. This is like airport security—almost all of the people going to catch their flights are fine, upstanding citizens, and only a tiny number are aiming to do something bad. But we have to check everyone to the same standards before they board. Hard to design “crazy bad” out of the human race, but it would have been easy to design water systems that separate the good and the bad water at its source, and treats it accordingly.


The problem with this model was recognized early on, even as these systems, called Combined Sewer Outflows or CSOs, were being designed and installed. During rain storms, you would simply have too much water going into the treatment plants, effectively flooding them out. So a safety valve was put in. During times of high rainfall, gates would automatically release the rain+toilet sewage into creeks and streams and rivers, sparing the treatment plants from failure. Yay for engineering! Boo for salamanders, fish, and people!


It was bad enough when these CSOs would just activate once or twice per year, flooding waterways with sewage and leading to significant issues with pathogenic bacteria. But here is where we circle around to development again—imagine that now we have paved over most of the area that would absorb those rainstorms and slow the flow of water into wastewater systems. And that is exactly what has happened in many cities, resulting in CSO activations 10, 20, and even 50 times per year.


I wrote about this in a previous post, and creative solutions are being put in place to make cities more water-resilient, but we are an incredibly long way away from that point. In fact, we might even be farther away given the number of environmental policies and protections that are being removed in the current administration, in the name of “reducing restrictions to companies and getting our jobs back.” Ironic, I think, that the US saw a string of roughly 5 years of continuous job growth come to an end this month, because of all of the employment disruption of the massive hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast and US territories in the Caribbean.


So, Houston, and most other cities, built their way over the decades into this problem of climate fragility. They did this with a combination of engineering hubris, environmental devaluation, and racism/classism (one of the drivers of suburbanization). With the quickening pace of climate change and the incredibly poor commitment to infrastructure investments, I fear that we won’t have time to build our way out of this unscathed.


Every single new building or development should consider first how it impacts ecosystem services, and how it can be made to minimize those impacts—to capitalize on these functions to conform to the flow of water, energy, and heat that is most sustainable. Every infrastructure rebuild should be looking at climate states 50 years from now, and engineering to those standards.


And herein lies the rub. It is the rare company that will intentionally build something more expensive but more sustainable in a general sense, because the company doesn’t typically reap the majority of the benefit, but rather the overall system. And it is a rare institution that will accept a bid for a new major building at a substantially higher price than a competing bid based on the sustainability factor alone. And in fact, many state institutions are not allowed to do this.


Policies and incentives help companies and cities make better decisions by leveling the playing field. These might be modest, like a net metering system to allow homeowners to sell excess solar-produced electricity back to the grid at a rate approaching the price they pay to buy it from the grid. Or these might be substantial, like committing to increasing the total area of greenspace and pervious landscapes by 20% using public bonds to cover the cost.


The time is now (actually, it was more likely 20 years ago) to make these investments in resilience. We need to work with a changing climate, anticipating these changes and leading with our heads instead of our bottom line. Because really—the bottom line is us on this little, blue, insanely resilient ball.


We can’t lose sight of that, because the ball will survive long after us. Scathed, and a bit depleted for awhile, but still chugging along!


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