Texas Legislature 2019

Once again, bills to study the impacts of climate change in Texas have stalled

Democratic state lawmakers filed multiple bills this year to require the state to prepare for a warming planet. None of them have been scheduled for public hearings.

Record rainfall in Llano and Burnet counties in the Texas Hill Country cause major flooding in Marble Falls on Oct. 16, 2018.
Record rainfall in Llano and Burnet counties in the Texas Hill Country cause major flooding in Marble Falls on Oct. 16, 2018.  Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.

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A few months before this year's biennial legislative session, a report commissioned by Gov. Greg Abbott on lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey declared a dire need to "future-proof" the state.

Some progressives hoped that might involve planning for climate change — a concept that remains politically divisive in Texas even as public opinion has shifted in the state toward the overwhelmingly scientific consensus that the warming trend is real, and human-driven.

But half a dozen bills filed earlier this year that would require the state to study the issue were never even scheduled for public hearings — the first, big step legislation must go through before becoming law.

All of them were filed by Democrats, who have unsuccessfully pushed for climate action for years now but hoped Abbott's future-proofing declaration — and Harvey's unprecedented intensity — might bolster their cause.

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Scientists have linked climate change to bigger and more frequent storms in Texas, as well as increased temperatures and more intense droughts. States from Alaska to Maine are preparing for such impacts with climate action plans and other policies.

Abbott, along with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, didn't respond to requests for comment on why requiring for state-level climate change planning isn't a priority for them.

State Rep. Ron Reynolds, a Democrat from Missouri City, filed House Bill 1980 to study the impacts of climate change on “the health, safety, and welfare” of Texans. Reynolds said it's unfortunate that climate change has become such a partisan issue that even discussions of the subject have been blocked.

“The bare minimum is having a hearing,” said Reynolds, who filed his bill in February. “You can get people from both pro and con, but at least you’re having a formal hearing to listen and move the conversation forward.”

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Reynolds, whose district experienced extensive damage from Harvey, said constituents have approached his office to ask what the Legislature is doing to address climate change, but that he feels his “hands are tied.”

Recent polling by the University of Texas and the Tribune found that 48 percent of Texans say the U.S. government should be doing “a great deal” or “a lot” about climate change. Twenty-one percent said the government should be doing nothing.

Produced by the Commission to Rebuild Texas — a coalition of scientists from Texas A&M University — the 175-page report Abbott ordered only mentioned climate change once, in an endnote. It outlined a variety of steps Texas should take to better protect the state against future natural disasters, including improving local emergency response procedures and construction of big infrastructure projects aimed at hardening the state. (Those projects will have to built to certain standards that could incorporate climate modeling.)

Abbott called the study a “roadmap” for the Legislature and the state to use moving forward. And several bills were filed mirrored the report's recommendations.

Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, who was appointed in 2000 by then-Governor George W. Bush, said there are definitely known impacts of global warming in Texas, and the state could be doing more with that knowledge.

“It’s my mission to help the state of Texas make the best possible use of weather and climate information, and if they’re not using the information they’re not making the best possible use of it,” he said.

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So far, efforts to prepare for climate change have largely happened at the local and regional level; Austin, for example, adopted a climate resilience action plan last spring and the Houston-Galveston Area Council issued a report in 2008 on the potential impacts of climate change on the region. Even more conservative cities likes San Angelo in West Texas, are preparing.

Senate Bill 2069 by Democrat Sen. José Menéndez of San Antonio would have required the development of a state-level climate adaptation plan; It was referred to the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce but has not yet had a public hearing. (Unlike the House, the Senate has no hard deadline for committees to vote on bills.)

Other climate change-planning bills, like House Bill 3023 by state Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, and House Bills 942 and 928 by state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, have also stalled. HB 3023 and HB 928 would study the expected effects of climate change on Texas and how the state would address those impacts. HB 942 would create a global climate change commission to study how to address the consequences of climate change and how Texas should adapt to remain economically competitive.

State Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, filed a bill that would prohibit retaliation against state employees for referencing climate change or global warming. Zwiener said House Bill 2558 was her attempt to get the conversation on climate change “back on pragmatic grounds here in Texas.”

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Zwiener, whose district has experienced catastrophic flooding in recent years, said Texas needs to factor climate change into everything from state flood planning to agriculture to water availability.

“I don’t see Texas being willing to take that step right now, largely because of a scientific conversation that never should have been politicized,” said Zwiener, who holds a degree in natural resource conservation. “When I was in school, we talked about how to prepare for it [climate change], and to make sure ecosystems were resilient enough to be prepared for the changes coming forward.”