What Houston and the rest of the world are up against is physics. As we’ve heated the planet by burning fossil fuel, certain things have changed. Since warm air can hold more water vapor than cold air, for instance, the stage has been set for previously unimaginable rainstorms like the one that accompanied Harvey.
Houston may, with great creativity and at great expense, figure out a plan for how to deal with 50 inches of rain if it comes again. But that won’t solve the problem, because the world’s temperature continues to rise. Harvey showed how bad it can get now that the world’s temperature has risen about two degrees Fahrenheit. But that’s just the beginning. If we keep burning fossil fuels at current levels, we’re going to eventually raise the earth’s temperature at least six degrees. With each passing year the clouds will get more freighted with water, and the Gulf of Mexico, into which the bayous drain, will rise even higher. It’s a horrible dilemma.
But Houston does have one advantage over India, Nigeria, Yemen, and the other places that experienced disastrous floods the same week as Harvey. Because its major industry is oil and gas, Houston’s civic and business leaders could play a serious role in helping stanch the flow of carbon into the atmosphere. Harvey could be the wake-up call the city needs.
Imagine if Harvey convinced ConocoPhillips, Marathon Oil and other Houston-based companies to transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. Does this sound impossible? Well, last month Denmark announced that it had sold off its last state-owned oil company and would be using the cash to build more windmills. This wasn’t just the right thing to do, it was the smart thing. Anyone with a long-term view-which is precisely what’s needed in a time of rebuilding-can see that the sun and wind are the fuels of the future.
Texas already has substantial renewable assets, such as wind turbines. Harvey provides the perfect moment for energy companies to cash in their winnings from the fossil fuel age and head for the exits. Since solar energy now employs more people than coal, Google, Facebook and Apple combined, it’s almost certainly the right business decision.
I don’t expect this to happen. So far, the leaders of the fossil fuel industry have chosen climate denial, deceit and delay at every turn, in an effort to extend their current business model another decade or two. But when Superstorm Sandy barreled down Wall Street, it changed some minds-the cover of the next issue of Bloomberg Businessweek read “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”
Clearly, Sandy helped turn the finance industry’s attention toward the future. There’s now more investment capital headed toward renewables than hydrocarbons.
Harvey gave Houston a bitter taste of what a warming world feels like. It will be interesting-and, given its economic power, potentially very important-to see what it makes of its current opportunity.