As record drought hits Texas, Congressional delegation votes to deny climate change

Our guest blogger is Nick Sundt, Director of Climate Change Communications at the World Wildlife Fund, and a longtime forest firefighter.

Last Thursday, all but one of the Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas voted for H.R. 910 to reverse the Environmental Protection Agency’s endangerment finding that greenhouse gas pollution threatens the health and welfare of Americans with a wide range of impacts, including more frequent and severe droughts and wildfires. One Texas Republican (Rep. Michael Burgess) abstained and one Texas Democrat (Rep. Henry Cuellar) also supported the measure. The measure passed the House (255 Ayes, 172 Nays), with no Republicans voting against it. 19 Democrats also voted in favor of the legislation.

The vote came immediately after Texas experienced its driest March on record, and as nearly 98 percent of the state is experiencing drought conditions. This includes 60 percent that is experiencing “severe” drought and 5 percent experiencing “exceptional” drought, the most extreme category. The National Drought Summary from the National Drought Mitigation Center on April 5th reports:

The first USDA soil moisture reports are out and they don’t paint a prettypicture, with 86% of Oklahoma showing short or very short topsoil moisture conditions. Texas is reporting 90% short/very short as well. Other statistics provided by the National Weather Service (Austin/San Antonio WFO) show that Del Rio has reported only 0.31 inches of precipitation for October-March, the 2nd driest since 1906. Austin reported its 5th driest October-March since 1856 and San Antonio came in as the 12th driest October-March since 1871.

Conditions are likely to deteriorate further. The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook issued on April 7th and valid through June 2011 indicates that drought is likely to persist or intensify in Texas.

By Friday, the Texas Forest Service warned that “critical drought conditions, high temperatures and high winds are combining to create a perfect storm for wildfire.” On Saturday, the Texas Forest Service responded to 16 fires that burned 65,181 acres, and it said in a press release that wildfire weather conditions “could shape up to be among the worst in Texas history“:

Key weather factors include pervasive drought conditions, sustained winds of 30 – 35 mph – gusting up to 50 mph, high temperatures and low relative humidity. These weather conditions along with record-dry vegetation increase the potential for wildfires not only starting but also spreading quickly.

After wildfires in late February burned over 88,000 acres and destroyed 58 homes in Western Texas, Texas Forest Service spokesman Lewis Kearney said, “With the drought pattern Texas has had, fire season now is almost running 12 months out of the year. I mean that’s not normal.”

Unfortunately, it is the new normal. As Forrest Wilder said in February in the Texas Observer:

While Republicans in Congress, led by members of the Texas GOP delegation, work to defund and defang the EPA, climate change – and the science of climate – marches on. The GOP’s willful suspension of trust in what ever-mounting evidence – and dare I say, common sense? – tells us is happening to the planet is not just short-sighted. It’s reckless.

Nick Sundt in a WonkRoom summary of an extended WWF post. From 1976 through 1990, Nick spent most of his summers in the West working for the U.S. Forest Service as a firefighter – including six seasons as a smokejumper.   From 1982 through 1990, he was an analyst with the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) where he contributed to six major assessments — including OTA’s first report on climate change.

For a review of the literature on drought and climate change, see:

45 Responses to As record drought hits Texas, Congressional delegation votes to deny climate change

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Nothing about Texas surprises me anymore. Michael Tobis, you have our deepest sympathy. Look at it this way: at least it’s not Oklahoma.

  2. paulm says:

    Drill Joe, drill….keep drilling away at this.
    Its going to hit home with these idiots as climate change starts tightening her grip on them.
    Hopefully, they will snap out of it sooner rather than later.

  3. Tom Mallard says:

    None of them took any geology … interglacials are between ice-ages, from a recent working of the Milankovich equations & all the “next” ice-age began about 2,000 years ago give or take, so, we should be seeing sea-level going down by now, oooops, please explain why sea-level is going up after the end of an interglacial as there’s no geologic explanation for that.

    These people create fantasy for rhetoric and call it “truth” and could never pass a geology 101 test if they tried.

  4. Peter M says:

    The states on the Map, encompass almost the same area as the Dust bowl in the 1930s. Just add western Missouri. A .5 degree C rise more by 2030, will see the region covered in dust again.

  5. Robert In New Orleans says:

    You can lead a Republican to science……

    Why do we even bother anymore?

  6. Scott says:

    Texas is chock-full of “who coulda thought?” characters. The fierce Texan independence has always been supported by USDA checks and oil depletion allowances, so you can bet they will be looking for that disaster designation. Governor Perry hates taking that Federal money though. He will try to enhance his national image with this situation some way or other, probably failing as per usual.

    Having lived in Texas my entire life it is still amazing to see so much wrong-headed decision making here and such “fiercely independent” sheepishness when it comes to questioning authority.

    Come on Texans! Take off the blinders! The 225 men who stepped across Travis’ line in the sand at the Alamo were not fighting to preserve Texas for the likes of the Koch brothers and the corporations. Climate Disruption is real and it is in Texas today, and our representatives in Austin and Washington have seemingly lost their senses; that or they do not really represent Us. Tell them to change their votes and to get the rest of the head in the sand Republicans to wake up to the reality.

  7. Rick Clifford says:

    Texas is experiencing Klimate Karma Komplications for hoisting G.W. Bush on the country and putting the country on the road to perdition.

  8. While I pledge support and good wishes to all the fine citizens of Texas in their struggle – however this will be some deliciously entertaining political Schadenfreude.

  9. paulm says:

    We are heading down a rough road. We dont have to look far behind to see what may lie not far ahead…

  10. Rather than Schadenfreude they are about to be hoisted on their own petard.

    One can feel empathy toward a political opponent… but not when their troubles are so obsessively self-inflicted.

  11. Douglas says:

    In other news, could fracked natgas be even worse than coal for the climate?

  12. jyyh says:

    I think someone in Texas could start keeping a new commodities index: price bottled water/price of gasoline. There might become a time when it hits 1.

  13. John Mason says:

    Perhaps a new award should be introduced:

    The D.P. Gumby Policy Award for Ability to Overlook the Bleeding Obvious.

    Here is the current holder:

    Cheers – John

  14. Sime says:

    “Welcome to Texas… eyes wide shut!”

  15. A face in the clouds says:

    Over the past year, relatives in the Paris, Texas, area have repeatedly written to me complaining about a deepening drought, persistent high winds and an unusual number of dust storms. They are Paris-area old-timers and weather observers who also lived in Lubbock during “The Other Dust Bowl” in the 1950’s. They call this “The New Dust Bowl.” I’ll let someone else determine the significance of this situation, but keep in mind this area may qualify as a canary in the mine because it is located in such a lush part of the state. Serious problems with water quality are also becoming apparent, based on the letters. Formal warnings of Liver cancer hotspots have also come down from health officials.

    In Central Texas, we’ve been haunted for months by a long series of strong but dry cold fronts. What little rain they produce is spotty and only provides more fuel for what looks like a potentially historic wildfire season. The state is even asking motorists to avoid throwing shiny candy wrappers out the window for fear the sun’s reflection will trigger a fire. Much of Western Texas has just been hit by major wildfires with more in the forecast. Even worse, the area of Exceptional Drought on the Drought Monitor map covers a good deal of East Texas forest and farmland. The fires we’ve seen so far in Western Texas mean business. An unusual number of homes have been consumed and livestock losses could turn out to be shocking. With no meaningful rain in the longer-term forecast, a spark in East Texas could send a massive chunk of the state up in flames.

  16. Tony O'Brien says:
    Tornados in Iowa
    Floods in North Dakota
    ““It has never been this bad,” said Bonnie Johnson, the county administrator. ”

    fires in Texas.

    Could there be a touch of climate change?

  17. Wit's End says:

    paulm, that video “Climate Change at the Doorstep” is hysterically funny and a great example of Richard Pauli’s comments. These people in Norfolk VA are already witnessing the sea rise, and are paying millions (in FEMA dollars!) to raise houses and roads, they’re talking about rebuilding infrastructure like bridges, tunnels and high speed rail, and the Navy is spending tens of millions to redo piers – and it’s all a complete waste!

    The couple they interview whose waterfront house has been flooded several times have replaced appliances and heating ducts multiple times and they talk about how “expensive” it is – when obviously, it’s not merely expensive, it’s ultimately just impossible. Talk about cognitive dissonance…

    Meanwhile Virginia has Cuccinelli petitioning the EPA to not regulate greenhouse gases, and investigating – no, harassing climate scientist Michael Mann.

    One resident who lives further from shore actually says, he doesn’t begrudge tax dollars to adapt to sea level rise but only to a point, because on the other hand, all those people with seaside property never invited him to the dock to have a margarita at sunset…priceless.

    Schadenfreude indeed!

  18. Mike says:

    There are 50 states in the union. There are 12 months in the year. Therefore, 6 times a year ((50 X 12)/100) a state should be having a record dry month. The Texas drought is just a natural event that should occur quite frequently across the nation.

  19. sydb says:

    The Texas congressional “Koch whores” show us that, if given the vote, turkeys would indeed plump for Thanksgiving, and the survivors would embrace Christmas with open arms.

    On the serious side, however, I am appalled by the unfolding disaster, even if it is completely expected. Many innocents will pay the price. The Kochs can just buy Wisconsin and sit it out until the heat reaches them. Then it will be Alberta, NWT, and Ellesmere Island.

    I noticed the Cornell study of fracking that Douglas referred to earlier. If methane is about 23 times as potent as CO2 as a GHG, you don’t need much to leak. When you frack the rock, how do you know how much may leak into the enviroment through newly-opened access to porous rock or groundwater? More important for the gas companies, do they give a damn?

  20. eaarthman says:

    Hi Joe,

    This is not terribly apropos, but I wasn’t sure how else to ask this question. A friend of mine (PhD physics candidate at Drexel) recently forwarded me the following study: titled “A Solar Transition is Possible” from the Institute for Policy Research & Development. Here’s part of the abstract:

    We model the conversion of our present global energy infrastructure to a fully renewable alternative, inputting properties of current state-of-the-art renewable technology, notably its EROI (energy return on energy invested) and lifetime. Energy investments come from the depletable (i.e., non-renewable) energy sources dominated by fossil fuels as well as the growing renewable infrastructure. We find that we can replace the entire existing energy infrastructure with renewables in 25 years or less, so long as EROI of the mixed renewable power infrastructure is maintained at 20 or higher, by using merely 1% of the present fossil fuel capacity and a reinvestment of 10% of the renewable capacity per year. Furthermore, in this time frame, for an annual contribution equal to 2% of the present energy fossil fuel capacity, the global power capacity can grow relative to the present level so as to provide energy consumption per person levels sufficient for every one on the planet to live at high human development requirements, while radically reducing carbon emissions. Even faster replacement times result from higher dedicated commitments of depletable energy and energy invested from the growing renewable capacity.
    I was wondering if you’d come across this, and what you thought of it. Seems an EROI of 20+ for renewables is rather high, and they’re also ignoring the liquid fuels problem that is the hallmark of peak oil, but I am intrigued.

  21. Joan Savage says:

    Who in the Texas delegation has experience with a major drought?

    Mike Thornbury (R-TX) was born on a ranch in 1958.
    Sam Johnson, (R-TX) was born in 1930.
    Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX) worked in his family’s food processing business.

    Law, mass communications, military or real estate seem to be more frequent professional backgrounds for the Texans in Congress. In life experience or professional training, as a group they seem largely unprepared to address a “New Dust Bowl.”

    I have to wonder if it will be their constituents, or the rising cost of coffee when they venture out of the Congressional lunch room, that could alert them at last to big changes.

  22. jrship says:

    According to Ch 2 of The Impact of Global Warming on Texas ed. 2 ( the climate models predict 21st century precipitation changes that are less than natural variability. They also predict increased evaporation rates due to higher temps, however, hence lower soil moisture retention. But we should be a bit careful about attribution here. Many Texans will remember the 50s and see natural variation as the primary explanation, and they might be right as far as precipitation is concerned. Though maybe overall precipitation is expected to not change much but the pattern of precipitation is expected to change: e.g. periods of heavy precip followed by drought would average out to roughly the same but would be a significant difference for agriculture. This needs to be researched and documented.

  23. PurpleOzone says:

    Guess the drought will produce even more sand in Texas for their congressmen to stick their heads in.

  24. Prokaryotes says:

    Isn’t there an eye witness, a blogger reporting from the Texas onslaught?

  25. Joan Savage says:

    Mulling over the potential effects of drought and dust storms on a modern Texas has brought to mind more than the enormous agricultural and personal human consequences. Water use for computer manufacturing in Austin and petrochemical refineries in various locations seems vulnerable. Travel by air or highway is obstructed by dust storms. Even microwave and satellite communication can be hindered by dust and sand storms.

    Some electrical engineers in Libya were studying the storm effects on signals in 2010. Who knows what they are doing now!

    Abuhdima, E.M.; Saleh, I.M.; Effect of sand and dust storms on microwave propagation signals in southern Libya Abuhdima, E.M.; Saleh, I.M.;

  26. dhogaza says:


    There are 50 states in the union. There are 12 months in the year. Therefore, 6 times a year ((50 X 12)/100) a state should be having a record dry month.

    God, I’d love to play poker with you.

    You need to know the how unusual the record dry month is. Let’s say there’s been 150 years of records. Your back-of-the-envelope calculation then becomes (((50 * 12)/100)/150) = 0.04 times a year, not six times a year.

    This still isn’t accurate but is sufficient to expose your guess as being whacked-out wrong.

  27. Ric Merritt says:

    You just know that after the drought has dished out enough punishment, the next thing we’ll be reading about is floods.

    If only I could think of a snappy phrase to convey the heat and floods, something that would make a nice book title, I could make my fortune and become a famous blogger.

  28. Mike says:

    dhogaza says

    “God, I’d love to play poker with you.

    You need to know the how unusual the record dry month is. Let’s say there’s been 150 years of records. Your back-of-the-envelope calculation then becomes (((50 * 12)/100)/150) = 0.04 times a year, not six times a year.”

    I’ll play you in poker anytime.

    The formula I used divided by 100 because I assume a 100 year weather record. If you want to use 150 years then a record dry month should occur four times per year on average. ((50 X 12)/150)= 4 Not very unusual at all.

  29. John Mason says:

    Mike, that sounds more like “guess when the climate fruit-machine will pay out” – or not!!!

    Such things are for leisure – the subject material here is a tad more serious, I’d suggest, so that satire is only worthwhile when appropriate. But I’m a Brit – I know our senses of humour differ at times!

    Cheers – John

  30. W Scott Lincoln says:

    Wouldn’t these kinds of rough calculations assume that the chance is equal for both a mean, record highest, and record lowest precipitation amount? Isn’t that distribution more of a bell curve than uniform?

    Assuming all things equal and uniform, the chance of a record dry month for a state with 150 years of data is 0.67% each year. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The drought wasn’t caused by one month with low precipitation, it was a number of months in a row. Start multiplying those subsequent months in a row out and the percentage starts dropping.

  31. Joan Savage says:

    The random sample equations don’t work because the rankings are based on a cumulative time-series data collection.

    With a sufficiently long timeframe for data collection, it becomes less and less likely to set a new extreme, provided that the phenomenon itself has an inherently stable mean with purely random variability around it. Rather like having already drawn 51 cards including all four aces there is no expectation of seeing another ace appear.

    So, when Texas hits a new precipitation/drought extreme after 117 years of data collection, that is almost like seeing a fifth ace. Now, even 117 years of data might only pick up on 1 or 2 standard deviations of data, but the new extreme suggests that the moving precipitation average should be tracked, or to follow the card metaphor, check to see what is stacking the deck.

  32. W Scott Lincoln says:

    I think for the December-March period we just finished, the chance of us having a 13th, 65th, 17th, and 1st driest value (or drier) is roughly 0.0079%, assuming a uniform distribution and calculated with:


  33. Joan Savage says:

    I’m sure some full time statisticians could fine tune that. The rare events can show up any time, so the key is to look for trend as well as extremes.

  34. Joan Savage says:

    Apologies.. My comment on “full time statisticians” refers back to my own remarks about time-series data collection.

  35. J.B. Austin says:

    wow. Why all the hate for Texas? Seems some of you are very unreasonable and hold some very misguided grudge against our residents.

    What you should be angry about is the bogus “record”. I have lived and farmed Texas all my life. There is nothing unusual about this drought. We have drought spells. Always have and always will.

    In fact, ive seen it much worse than this. Our well has gone dry a few times from drought. Last time was some years ago and was followed by record rain. Its a cycle. We are no where close to going dry this year so I don’t know how this can be considered a “record”.

    [JR: it’s only record for the month if one goes by actual data.]

  36. Richard Brenne says:

    J.B. Austin (#35) – Shame on us for looking at global, national and statewide records and trends when we should’ve just been looking at the well on your ranch.

  37. Merrelyn Emery says:

    face in the clouds #16. Do you mean that it is normally OK to throw litter out of your car? ME

  38. Scott says:

    J.B. #35 and Prokaryotes #25 — I don’t blog and this is only anecdotal, but my relative on a family farm (100+ years) in a central Texas county cannot plant this year due to lack of soil moisture. He put off his decision for as long as possible hoping for enough rain to allow planting. He applied for drought assistance yesterday. I do not know if from a state or a federal program.

  39. Lewis C says:

    Ric at 28/. –

    how about – “Flood, Sweat and Tears” ?



  40. Bob Doublin says:

    #35 JB Austin sounds just like the troll on Alternet who first would publish several posts claiming that he hasn’t noticed any warming at all from his little old corner of Nebraska, then just a few weeks ago claimed he was a life long resident of New Jersey and hasn’t noticed any rise at all in sea level at the beaches he’s frequented since a child (oh yeah the guy never said he actually did any sea level measurements as a child or even recently. Apparently he was trying to play on people’s anger at fancy pants scientists using their elitist instrument measurements to lord it over the common sense observations of us everyday folk)I’ll stick to careful scientific measurement all the same,thank you very much.

  41. Lewis C says:

    Regarding the various assessments of the probability of current weather phenomena in Texas, there are two considerations absent from the discussion thus far.

    First, there is the context factor, being the likelyhood of Texan drought conditions occurring contemporaneously with the current degree of floods in North Dakota and the intensity of tornado transits in Iowa.

    Second, the idea of the probability of records being broken is itself novel. Our experience of climate phenomena provides the frame of probability – with natural outlier events’ probability being calculable both in principle and from the paleo-records. The present spate of diverse weather records being overturned is extending the amplitude of observed phenomena, and the probabilities of these abundant events are neither predictable from within a stable climate system nor, in practice, under the assumption of a turbulent destabilized system.

    From this perspective, the declining longevity of new climate records seems a particularly cogent aspect of the shiploads of evidence for anthropogenic climate destabilization [ACD).

    Thus I wish those with the talent and skills in maths would have a go at a loosely related question, which is this – With people on average having a circle of around 700 freinds and acquaintance, and a population of the USA at over 300 million (quite similar to that of Europe) how soon will the increase of flooding and other weather shocks affect enough people to affect on average the indirect personal experience of the whole society via diverse social networks ?



  42. A face in the clouds says:

    Merrelyn Emery #37 — No, although the state with the famous or infamous “Don’t Mess With Texas” anti-littering slogan is also the nation’s most polluted. That means we don’t cotton to people littering up the roads in front of our Superfund sites. (I am accepting pity rimshots.)

    As for the candy wrappers and wildfire threats, I don’t know whether to credit candy packaging engineers or blame Global Warming. Just don’t be surprised if people start tossing Three Musketeers bars into the wildfires to see if the chocolate melts.

  43. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Thanks. I’ve not been to Texas outside airports, ME