The climate in San Antonio has been intense in the last two weeks – meteorologically and politically.

First there was the wild storm that produced 3,500 lightning strikes and 70-mile-per-hour winds, leaving up to 250,000 CPS Energy customers without power and hundreds of downed trees. Two more storms since then have echoed the first, including ones Sunday night and Monday that featured a spectacular lightning show and heavy rains and knocked out power for more than 20,000 CPS customers.

Two days after the first storm came an election in which the incumbent mayor, who has championed an aggressive plan to combat global warming, barely beat a challenger whose climate action plan was to plant thousands of trees, something the city had already been doing.

Then came a rally in Main Plaza by a coalition of liberal groups demanding City Council action on climate change and a panel discussion at the Central Library hosted by a conservative group opposing such efforts.

“Do y’all know how much the plan costs?” said panelist Rafael “Rafa” Bejar, a director of outreach at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “Because if you do, please tell me.”

Never mind that TPPF, the group that sponsored the panel at the library, was founded by Dr. James Leininger, the conservative San Antonio billionaire, and has received millions from the Koch Brothers, among other oil interests. The question asked by Bejar is important. Very important.

Here’s another very important question: What would it cost not to address the consequences of a warming planet?

The plan being considered by City Council doesn’t include dollar figures because at this point it is setting goals, not authorizing programs. Only after specific measures are studied will cost estimates be possible. Unquestionably they will be expensive.

But failing to slow the warming of the planet also will result in new challenges that will need addressing. Some of those challenges are detailed in the latest National Climate Assessment, a periodic massive coordinated study by federal agencies that was mandated by law in 1990. The fourth report was issued last fall. Like the city’s plan, it does not give dollar figures for the consequences of inaction, but it does lay out some of the challenges, and they, too, will be expensive.

The assessment includes a chapter on what it calls the Southern Great Plains, including Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. The assessment expects a significant rise in temperatures in the next 80 years if greenhouse gases are not curbed, with South Texas adding 40 more 100-degree days at the low end of estimates and 100 more days reaching 100 degrees at the high end. The report predicts longer droughts and fewer but more intense and damaging storms, producing more floods as warmer temperatures put more water into the atmosphere. As a result, here are a few of the many challenges we will face:

  • Longer droughts will have a major impact on the farm economy and the food supply for a growing population. During one year in the most recent drought “planted acres of rice in Matagorda County, Texas, dropped from 22,000 acres to 2,100 acres. The ripple effect on the local economy was severe, with a 7 percent decline in sales of farm implements and machinery. Some family-owned establishments that had survived for decades closed permanently. Irrigation strategies shifted from river-based to pumping water from the Gulf Coast Aquifer, and dozens of new wells were drilled. Drilling water wells then resulted in declining groundwater levels, adding stress to water levels that had historically been falling in the region.”
  • A record drought in 2060 “would result in as much as half of the state’s population facing a water supply shortage.” Water would become more expensive. Damage to water infrastructure and to roads would increase. And wet periods followed by droughts would increase wildfires such as those that struck Bastrop in 2011, destroying more than 1,500 homes.
  • Increased flooding would eclipse the $2.6 billion in damage done in Texas and Oklahoma in 2015. In addition, more frequent severe floods would stress dams in Texas. In 2017 the American Society of Engineers gave Texas dams a “D” for safety, with thousands in need of repair.
  • Roads will need upgrades to deal with heat and flooding. Asphalt roads, for example, will need improved binders. Bridges will also need to be fortified for extreme heat.
  • Health costs will rise considerably. For example, a heat wave in 2011 led to a 3.6 percent increase in emergency-room visits. Mosquitoes, ticks, rodents, and fleas that transmit a variety of human diseases will flourish. Look for more dengue virus, chikungunya virus, and Zika virus transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes.
  • The economic impact on East Texas with its refineries, petrochemical plants, and other assets being threatened by rising Gulf waters and more powerful hurricanes will be even greater, with considerable consequences for the entire state. One example: San Antonio faced a gasoline shortage after Hurricane Harvey disrupted the supply chain.

These are just a few of the factors that will bring huge price tags if climate issues are not addressed. You can read the National Climate Assessment report on our region at https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/chapter/23/.

The impacts will be more than economic, of course. The Pentagon, for example, considers the issue to be one of national security, predicting global unrest from weather events and migration as a result of climate change. And there is the moral issue of what kind of a planet we are leaving to our heirs.

But if the Texas Public Policy Foundation wants to focus on costs, I say do it. Just count the costs of inaction as well as action.

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.

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