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Climate change is trapping Texans in an arid 'fortress of solitude,' expert says

Texas faces a brutal climate and development paradox heading deeper into the 21st century, a state climate scientist said.

“Everything is bigger in Texas, including our climate challenges,” said Jay Banner, a geologist at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Texas sees synergistic issue more than anyplace else,” Banner said.

The state is trapped between two difficult realities, Banner told audiences at South By Southwest, Austin’s signature technology and culture event.

About 40 percent of homes in the United States are at “extreme” risk from climate change — whether in the form of heat, wind or air quality, according to data from First Street Foundation.

That means nearly $20 trillion in American home value may be at risk — that is beginning to ripple through the real estate sector.

That breaks down to nearly a third of American homes at risk from extreme heat, about 20 percent from extreme wind, and about 10 percent from air quality.

Much of this risk is concentrated in cities where high risk coincides with stratospheric property values — driving the $2.5 trillion in at-risk capital in Miami or $1.4 trillion in San Francisco.

But when it comes to water and heat, Banner said, Texas is in a uniquely precarious position.

On the one hand, the state population is expected to nearly double by 2070, according to the state Water Development Board.

That expansion means a vast expansion in both thirsty customers — and the water-demanding industries and power sector that supply them — as well as asphalt and concrete that traps heat and whisks away water that might otherwise seep into subterranean aquifers.

At the same time, the rising temperatures — largely driven by the burning of fossil fuels — are driving Texas toward a reality where the number of 100-plus degree days doubles by midcentury.

That heat “warms the atmosphere over land — and robs the land of water that would serve as a buffer against drought,” Banner said.

Thus, the paradox. “Twice as many people — demand for water goes way up,” Banner said. More heat means “more drought, and water availability goes way down.”

“It doesn’t look like a resilient future for our state.”

That means a difficult future for those who work outdoors, Banner said.

But it also means a grim world for those who work indoors.

“If you work indoors in an increasingly climate-controlled house — imagine what your life will be like if you’re in your fortress of solitude,” Banner said.

“It’ll be really different — I enjoy the therapeutic benefits of being outside.”

Past fossil fuel burning has locked in much of that heat, but Banner noted that built environments play a powerful role in keeping cities cooler than they otherwise might be.

Homeowners and developers, he said, need to ask “how much do you want to invest in your home being powered by renewable energy? How much of land you own do you want covered with impervious cover?”

But in the case of water the opportunity for adaptation is even clearer, Banner said. “If you live in an arid climate, you should be trapping rainwater,” he said.

Then there is the reuse of grey water — lightly used wastewater that comes out of bathtubs or washing machines — for irrigation or sewage.

“We wash our hands and it goes down the sink, and then we use clean water to pee in,” Banner said. “Our toilet is filled up with drinking-water quality water. It takes a lot of energy to pick up water and pump it around time. We have to do our business in water that’s drinkable.

“So instead we can use grey water — you wash your hands, could go right to fill up your toilet tank.”

For the existing housing stock, that’s not a trivial adaptation, Banner conceded. “You have to put in new piping and check valves — it’s not a big contracting job, but not an easy DIY.”

But that picture looks different against the perspective of the tens of millions of new houses that Texas will have to build to accommodate the anticipated millions.

“We’re going to have twice as many Texans,” he said, and trapping grey water for a new development is “simple — it’s a line on a blueprint.”

But he also cautioned against individual solutions. Only if a critical enough mass of people are optimistic about the future can a significant change occur that bends the curve on heating.

“We have no choice but to be optimistic,” he said.

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