Climate change alone cost Houston $13 billion during Harvey, study says

by | Jun 18, 2021 | Environment, Policy

It’s widely known that Hurricane Harvey, one of the costliest storms in U.S. history, was supercharged by climate change.

At least three separate studies have tried to quantify to what degree. In 2017, one research group led by Berkeley National Laboratory climate scientist Michael Wehner estimated that rainfall totals were 38 percent higher than expected because of human-induced climate change.

Now, another study by Wehner and Berkeley Lab focusing on the flooding from that record-breaking rainfall, models what Harvey’s flooding would have looked like without the influence of climate change.  

The study relies on a mathematical model that analyzes fluids to present a detailed “what if” of Houston area flooding.

“[The amount of flooding you experienced] depends a lot on where you are, whether you were victimized by the flood first of all, and then by whether climate change caused that flooding or not,” Wehner said in a prepared statement. 

“That’s why this is an interesting data set,” Wehner said. “It’s so high-resolution that people can search for their own houses, or at least their own blocks, and see whether their house was flooded because of climate change — at least according to these simulations.”

A view of a South Houston neighborhood showing actual flooding as well as simulated flooding without climate change. Credit: Michael Wehner, Berkeley Lab. 

Wehner said he hopes the neighborhood-by-neighborhood data, which is publically available, will enable people to find out if they have been impacted by climate change. 

“At the end of the day, our best estimate is that 14 percent to 15 percent of the cost of flooding during Hurricane Harvey is because of climate change, which doesn’t sound like a whole lot … but $13 billion does,” Wehner said, referring to a portion of the estimated $125 billion in damages brought by Harvey. “And that’s going to grow as climate change continues.”

More proof of that came last month when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its latest “climate normals,” or the latest set of data collected and compiled every 30 years that averages values for temperature and rainfall — the new average “normals” for U.S. climate. 

As expected, large parts of the U.S., especially Texas, have only grown hotter. Compared to 1981–2010 climate normals, temperatures in Texas have increased by at least .5 to .75 degrees Fahrenheit.

While cities in local governments have developed their own action plans for climate change, statewide action on global warming remains nonexistent. 

Of the ten climate change-related bills filled this past session, all were left pending in committee. 

That includes a filed bill by Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock) to develop a statewide climate action plan with emissions reduction targets, as well as a bill by Erin Zwiener (D-Driftwood) that would have seen the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issue a report on the impact of climate change on the state every four years.

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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