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Think It's Hot in Austin Now? Get Used To 110

While an aversion to climate science persists in much of conservative, Republican-led Texas, Austin is looking to prepare for what scientists say are the inevitable consequences of climate change.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
The Onion Creek substation was badly flooded with heavy storms last fall. It is one of the many "critical infrastructure assets" whose vulnerability to climate change will be studied by Austin.

At the end of the century, Austin’s average summertime high temperature could be six degrees above today’s average high of 97 degrees. And it may be hotter than 110 degrees in the city more than 20 days a year; even one day that hot is a rarity now.

Those are among the findings of a study that the city commissioned last year on the impact of climate change. While an aversion to climate science persists in much of conservative, Republican-led Texas, Austin is looking to prepare for what scientists say are the inevitable consequences of climate change that are already hitting the city.

“If you’re going to build a substation that’s going to cost tens of millions of dollars but it’s not going to operate over 110 degrees, it’s really important to be thinking about that now,” said Zach Baumer, the city’s climate program manager. While other Texas cities have looked at climate change issues, none have done comprehensive studies of their impact.

The study, which Baumer said cost less than $20,000, was the start of Austin’s efforts to apply global climate projections specifically to the city. Reports from groups like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change focus on global temperature and rainfall models, which for Austin are “just not useful to actually make decisions,” Baumer said. With forecasts specifically related to Austin, “we can start to put plans in place and act in ways that make sense, and not just sort of generalize, ‘Oh, we’re doing something about it,’ ” he added.

The study, which was done by the scientific research and consulting firm Atmos, also found that while Austin would probably experience longer dry spells and receive less rain over all, it would be hit more frequently with “extreme precipitation” events that could lead to widespread flooding. City departments recently asked the City Council for more than $650,000 for detailed assessments of how climate change could affect Austin’s infrastructure, from its water reservoirs and power plants to its parks.

Beyond Austin’s efforts, regional planning organizations in the Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth areas are among several across the country using federal highway funds to study the effects of global warming on critical road infrastructure. Baumer said the impact on roads was among the easiest to study in the context of climate change, because engineers already know what temperatures and conditions the roads can withstand.

Still, without broader cooperation from the state, it is unclear how far individual cities can go. State water officials do not consider climate change when planning for Texas’ future, and legislators will not ask them to anytime soon, said state Sen. Troy Fraser, a Republican and chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

“It’s not a parameter that we’ve requested they look at,” Fraser said in a June intervew. “There’s a disagreement within the people of Texas on the science of greenhouse gases.”

The operators of the electric grid that serves Austin and most of Texas have not done comprehensive studies on the effects of climate change on power plants or substations, although they have noted that the record-breaking summer in recent years has caused power plants in Texas to stop operating or reduce their loads. Robbie Searcy, a spokeswoman for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, said its projections of energy demand rely on temperature data from the last 12 years.

“A projection for higher temperatures in the future would not be in the models at this time,” Searcy said. “If we see trends change, we can tweak the models in the future.”

Still, Austin’s City Council plans to go ahead with its own assessments of climate change, as well as adopting goals to better keep track of greenhouse gas emissions and reduce them accordingly.

“I think there is real value to setting an example and demonstrating what a city can achieve,” said Chris Riley, a councilman who has pushed for climate change studies.

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