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: