Hurricane Harvey transformed Houston’s sprawling, paved environment into a network of lakes and gushing rivers, making the case that the city—and the state—should have been more diligent about preserving green spaces that could have absorbed all that water.
Scientists have pointed out that that a storm of Harvey’s proportions would have flooded the Houston area even if it were devoid of subdivisions and roads, but they also say it would have surely fared better had it kept more of the wetlands and prairies that once dominated its landscape. Those natural features act as sponges, soaking up the runoff. The fewer the region has, the more water will pile up when big storms come.
Harvey has underscored the urgency of addressing the risks of climate change in Texas. People are calling it a freak storm, and by all measures it is unprecedented. But in the past few years, Houston has suffered through other weather events that at the time they hit were also considered freakish: Allison (2001), Ike (2008), and the Tax Day and Memorial Day storms of 2016 (April and May, respectively). As the storms get stronger, and rapid development has swallowed up open land in Houston, the city’s ability to absorb precipitation has become weaker.
A non-Texan watching Harvey unfold on the nightly news might have come to the conclusion that this is a problem to be solved by imposing strict land-use regulations that would limit development and restore wetlands. Jim Blackburn, who’s been practicing environmental law in Texas for more than 40 years, knows better. In a state whose leaders are regulation-averse and where land is largely privately held, efforts to protect the environment don’t get very far if they don’t have local and private-party buy-in. As Blackburn puts it, bring up tougher, government-imposed rules in Texas and you might lose your audience; talk about making money by protecting the environment, and you start getting people’s attention.
That’s the premise behind the Texas Coastal Exchange, a project Blackburn has been developing with Rice University’s SSPEED Center (short for Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters). Researchers there who studied Ike’s aftermath found that coastal ranch land inundated by the storm survived largely unscathed, and that it wasn’t too long afterwards that owners were able to put the land back to use. The recovery time was much longer for built-up parcels.
Those coastal ranch lands also acted as a buffer that protected the Houston region from extreme weather. But given Houston’s dizzying population growth, the temptation to sell these ranch lands to developers is high, and it’s unlikely that Texas authorities would be willing to impose rules to protect them. So the SSPEED team came up with an incentive to get coastal ranchers to keep their land undeveloped: the Texas Coastal Exchange.
Under the exchange, landowners in flood-prone areas along the Gulf Coast would be able to sell any floodwater or carbon emissions they can trap in their land. The carbon in a participant’s land would first be measured to set a base point; after some time, the amount of carbon would be re-measured; the rancher would then be able to put the extra accumulated carbon up for sale; buyers, such as companies wanting to reduce their carbon footprint, or needing to offset their emissions to comply with environmental rules, would bid on the carbon. (Something similar would be done with floodwater.) The more the ranchers capture through conservation methods, the bigger the payback.
“Carbon dioxide sequestration is just like growing potatoes,” wrote the project’s proponents in a draft report about it. “You undertake certain action, bear the fruits of that labor, and then sell it.”
That’s assuming that people want to buy potatoes, and want to pay good prices for them. For the moment, the report admits, the carbon market is modest, but adds that it’s primed for growth as “more and more corporations, institutions, cities and individuals move toward carbon neutrality.”
If the buyers do materialize, there’s evidence to suggest that there will be sellers. Putting “ecological services,” as Blackburn calls them, in a market exchange is a novel idea. But Texans have been selling those kinds of land-derived goods on their own for a long time. They sell the right to hunt through “deer leases,” and the right to graze cattle. They even sell the right to develop land. The Katy Prairie Conservancy, a Houston-based non-profit land trust that has been working with Blackburn, has bought the development rights of more than 3,000 acres to keep them unbuilt. The sellers get to keep the land, but are not allowed to modify it in a way that would reduce the ecological services it provides.
That’s why Jaime González, community conservation director for the group, believes Texas ranchers will buy into the idea of the exchange. “Land owners are very savvy in terms of the economics,” he says. Carbon and flood water storage “is an opportunity to add to the portfolio of the property.”
Blackburn admits that the exchange is one piece of a much bigger puzzle Houstonians have to put together to protect themselves against storms. (He has other ideas.) But it might be one of the easier sells. “The beautiful thing about the Texas Coastal Exchange is it doesn’t need anything other than a buyer and a seller,” he says.”It doesn’t need community action; we don’t need any regulations for it to work; we don’t need any governmental funding. We are depending on economic self-interest to be the guiding principle.”
The exchange, which is still in the works and won’t be up for several years, is a Texan solution for a Texan problem. But it’s also a useful blueprint for communities outside the Lone Star State. There, too, offering carrots instead of threatening with sticks might be the most practical and fastest path to adapting to the realities of climate change.