Design in a Time of Uncertainty
By Rives Taylor, Principal, Global Resilience Research Lead
The 2014 National Climate Assessment, a sweeping summary of the last few years’ scientific findings and projections about the current and future impacts of climate change on the United States, had a stark message about the need to adapt:
The fact that climate change impacts are increasing points to the urgent need to develop and refine approaches that enable decision-making and increase flexibility and resilience in the face of ongoing and future impacts. Reducing non-climate-related stresses that contribute to existing vulnerabilities can also be an effective approach to climate change adaptation.
The National Climate Assessment – a federally sponsored report that was prepared by more than 300 expert authors including former HARC President Robert Harriss, now a HARC Distinguished Fellow – defines resilience, a key component of adaptation to climate disruption, this way:
A capability to anticipate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from significant multi-hazard threats with minimum damage to social well-being, the economy, and the environment.
Utilizing its staff members’ extensive knowledge and experience in different areas, HARC has long been involved in various projects aimed at assessing and enhancing resilience (also known by the word’s alternate form, resiliency) in the Houston metropolitan region and elsewhere along Texas’ coastline bordering the Gulf of Mexico.
Now, with an growing national and regional focus on the need to improve resilience to climate impacts, HARC will be offering diverse expertise in resilience matters explicitly under a resilience umbrella.
HARC’s experience includes resilience-related work involving coastal ecosystems, the numerous services to human society that they provide, the region’s energy and power systems, and urban infrastructure, observed Gavin Dillingham, a HARC research scientist focusing on clean energy policy.
Even so, he said, HARC “has not presented itself as regional expert in climate resiliency and adaptation. Rather, the focus has largely been on projects without tying them to the large picture of climate resiliency.”
That’s now changing, Dillingham said, with initial steps toward the introduction of a HARC initiative that is tentatively being called the Texas Resiliency Project.
“The intent of this initiative is to position HARC as one of the leading experts in the areas of climate resiliency,” he added.
With this explicit focus on the broader concept, HARC will be able “to tie together many of its previous and current initiatives under one umbrella and allow it to move forward with a strategy that ensures that all work in this area is presented as a part of a larger resiliency program,” Dillingham said.
In this effort, HARC will conduct resilience research including the development of climate-related indicators, similar to reports and score cards it has developed to measure the environmental status and trends in the Galveston Bay system
To expand upon that work, HARC also intends to move more into planning, including the planning tool known as scenario development, in relation to the ways that Houston and the Texas coast can adapt to climate change and build resilience to its impacts, Dillingham said.
“Also, we will become more engaged in outreach and stakeholder education, policy and regulatory impacts and assessments, and technology assessment and validation,” he said. “In all of these areas we will present ourselves as a third party that provides unbiased analysis and reporting.”
The 2014 National Climate Assessment emphasized the social and economic ramifications of the impacts of climate change for coastal regions:
Coastal lifelines, such as water and energy infrastructure, and nationally important as-sets, such as ports, tourism, and fishing sites, are increasingly vulnerable to sea level rise, storm surge, erosion, flooding, and related hazards. Socioeconomic disparities create un-even vulnerabilities.
HARC leaders and/or staff experts have participated in a number of recent meetings and activities that reflect growing attention to such concerns in the Houston region:
- HARC consulted with City of Houston officials, providing input regarding the city’s advice to the federal government on how it can better respond to community needs resulting from weather extremes and other climate-change impacts. The city is providing that advice through the President’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. Houston Mayor Annise Parker was appointed as a task force member in 2013.
- HARC took part in a Houston Climate Change Preparedness and Resilience Workshop at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as part of its National Exercise Program. The FEMA initiative was designed “to test, assess and improve the nation’s preparedness and resiliency” by measuring regional preparedness “against a set of common national preparedness priorities.”
- HARC participated in the 2014 Coastal Resilience Workshop: Living on the Edge, which was organized by the Galveston Historical Foundation’s Center for Coastal Heritage in partnership with the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Center in Environmental Toxicology. The meeting provided “a platform to discuss the challenges and strategies for building and preserving a resilient Gulf Coast” by examining “the connections between the natural environment and the cultural heritage of coastal populations.”
HARC’s previous work in various areas has involved a resilience-oriented focus. A few examples:
- HARC’s Jennifer Ronk, program director for environmental science and energy efficiency, has assisted Houston officials in their assessment of the vulnerability of municipal infra-structure and operations to extreme weather and other manifestations of climate change to improve readiness The aim of the work is to the city get ready for such impacts. (See www.harc.edu/feature/harc_helps_houston_plan_for_climate_change)
- Stephanie Glenn, HARC’s program director for hydrology and watersheds, and Lisa Gonzalez, HARC vice president and chief operating officer, contributed to a project of Texas A&M University’s Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center, titled "Advancing the Resilience of Coastal Localities: Developing, Implementing and Sustaining the Use of Coastal Resilience Indicators.” HARC developed an in-depth study of a series of coastal indicators, focusing on bacteria and land use.
- With regard to the San Jacinto Waste Pits, an abandoned toxic waste site on Galveston Bay that the federal government includes on its Superfund priority list, HARC reviewed proposed remedial options, advising the Environmental Protection Agency that the pro-posed remedy did not adequately account for potential impacts of waves, storm surge and other hurricane-related damage.
- In the realm of energy resilience, the Gulf Coast CHP Program is housed at HARC. CHP stands for “combined heat and power,” a technology also known as cogeneration, which is the concurrent production of electricity or mechanical power and useful thermal energy (heating and/or cooling) from a single source of energy. The program is a continuation of the U.S. Department of Energy-funded Clean Energy Application Center (CEAC). The CHP Program largely focuses on removing regulatory and technical barriers to CHP deployment. CHP is seen as one of the primary power systems that can keep the lights on during a natural disaster.
HARC’s Texas Resiliency Project will be closely aligned with the National Climate Assessment’s identification of three key impact categories – (1) threats to natural and manmade environments from sea level rise, which can magnify risks from tropical storms; (2) hazards posed by increasing temperatures to public health, energy systems, agriculture and the natural environment; and (3) the prospect of decreased water availability, accompanied with increased competition for water resources as the human population grows.
Texans face a number of significant issues that illustrate the ways HARC could analyze options for dealing with such issues and advise policymakers in a dispassionate way, Dillingham said.
One example is competing proposals for protecting coastal areas in the Houston-Galveston region from storm-surge flooding, which were inspired by the devastation in 2008 from Hurricane Ike. The Texas Legislature has indicated it may weigh in on that subject in its 2015 session.
Another example involves the pending decisions that officials must make in coming years regarding the allocation of state funds – approved by voters in the aftermath of the record-setting drought and heat wave of 2011 – for enhancing water supplies and advancing water conservation efforts in Texas.