Warming hits home

“It got so that some old cows wouldn’t eat anything but warm prickly pears,” one rancher told me. “They followed me and my butane flame around like puppy dogs.”

— Farewell to Texas

When researching a 1967 book about threats posed to the natural riches of Texas, former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas found the nexis of looming disaster between a wash of shallow local appreciation for nature and the always-hovering greed of developers and politicians.

“They see a tree and think in terms of board feet. They see a cliff and think in terms of gravel,” Douglas wrote after roaming the Hill Country for his landmark book.

Texans haven’t completely shaken off this fixation on profit and imagined boundless resources, as a short drive over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone up U.S. 281 will show.

A land of extremes, Texas weather has always been a joke in progress: If you don’t like it now, wait a few minutes, lay back and enjoy it, etc. While ranchers have battled their way through many a drought since the Spanish first brought longhorns to these parts, it has been our underlying attitudes about nature that have turned to bite us back a good one. And roasting prickly pear with a butane torch won’t pull us through this time. Thanks to skyrocketing greenhouse-gas emissions linked to human industry, we’ve loosened the already unwieldy Texas weather a few more notches.

Just ask any of the Aggies involved in writing, researching, and editing The Changing Climate of South Texas, 1900 – 2100: Problems and Prospects, Impacts and Implications, released this month after repeated delays.

Bypassing the innocuously academic title, the choice of cover art — an apocalyptic, peyote-button projection of gathering sand storms and fence-crashing dunes sweeping away telephone lines, railroad tracks, and the determinedly rigid frame of a desert homestead — is a revealing visceral grab. The late Missouri-born artist Alexandre Houge is best known for such images — images of the Dust Bowl-era West. Gracing the cover of this Aggie offering, an attempt in nine chapters to project what Global Warming portends for South Texas’s agriculture, air quality, water resources, wildlife, and — of course — you and I, Avalanche by Wind may be the most accessible expression you find in the oversized, 158-page book.

As Rumsfeld would have us remember, there are known knowns. Changing Climate states them thusly.

By 2100:

• South Texas gets drier, hotter, and more unpredictable where violent weather is concerned.

• Loss of barrier islands and saltwater creep further reduce freshwater resources in the state.

• Stronger storms and longer droughts abound.

• And (the darling of simplicity) “South Texas’ character as a ‘problem climate’ will be exaggerated.”

There are also known unknowns. These include a wide range of impacts such conditions, which are expected to increase annual average temperatures by 7 degrees before 2100, may have. Likely outcomes include the tropical march of dengue fever and malaria into Texas as bird migrations continue to lurch further inland; increased smog-forming and asthma-creating ozone around our cities; and “very significant” impacts on all our ecological systems.

Yes, we will still be a “problem” climate, the editors state: a problem for human economies and natural ecology, though I never saw a javelina or roadrunner complain, only the hard-hatted Caterpillar captains and suburban Texas

While each of us would be better off for consuming this treasure of informed projection, the failures of the work reside in the extreme difficulty in placing Texas’s ailing climate in perspective. Here the editors land in (to finish off with our dislocated Rumsfeldian trajectory) the realm of unknown unknowns, the things we “don’t know we don’t know.”

The reader must ask, what does Global Warming mean to increasingly populous Northern Mexico and our explosive NAFTA-forged borderland? To state industry? To water-intensive electricity production? How do increasing scarce global resources and international agricultural policies intersect with projections for an overheating Texas? To be fair, some of these questions are raised in Changing Climate, but remain unaddressed.

Consider for a moment that the Texas Water Development Board projects water demand in Bexar County (as well as Hays, Comal, Kendall, and Guadalupe, among others) will surpass available supply by 2050. Now consider these calculations were made without taking the impacts of Global Warming and the Aggies’ water models into consideration.

Book One is only just out; it’s already past time for the follow-up. •

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