In the winter of 2021, extreme weather caused by the polar vortex brought rolling power outages and water shortages to Texas, America’s second most populous state. The unprecedented freezing temperatures would leave 4 million residents without power, cost an estimated $155 billion in damage, and claim the lives of at least 210 people.
Although this record-breaking storm caught public officials off guard, the Lone Star State is not unfamiliar with extreme weather. Nearly a decade ago, Texas suffered a crippling four year drought which led to wide-spread soil erosion and nearly toppled the state’s acclaimed cattle industry. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Southern Texas and decimated the Houston metropolitan area.
Scientists warn that these extreme weather events are in line with climate change projections—rapidly shifting temperatures and rates of precipitation are expected to increase the variability and impact of hazardous storms. In case anyone was on the fence about the severity of what we as a society face, the UN’s IPCC report is a major wake up call.
Due to its unique geography, Texas is one of the most vulnerable states in the U.S. to the effects of climate change, and yet—despite the state’s numerous encounters with natural disaster—remains largely unprepared.
In spite of this, there are a growing number of cities in Texas putting in the work to address vulnerabilities and prepare their communities for climate change.
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Using public data provided by the Notre Dame Adaptation Initiative (ND-GAIN), we’ll explore the six cities in Texas most prepared to face future climate challenges—as well as three cities currently lacking a plan.
How we built this list
The ND-GAIN Urban Adaptation Assessment is a program that emcompasses data from 270 cities within the United States and allows the user to explore the connections between a city’s vulnerabilities, adaptive capacities, and distributed effects of climate change.
City assessments are guided by two factors: risk and readiness. Risk is determined by a city’s overall vulnerability to climate change, whereas readiness is determined by a city’s preparedness for adverse climate events. The study examines risk and readiness indicators for flooding, extreme heat, extreme cold, sea level rise, and severe drought events.
Reading the city matrix: the top left quadrant represents high risk and low readiness, the top right is high risk and high readiness, the bottom left is low risk and low readiness, and the bottom right is low risk and high readiness. This graph was created using the Urban Adaptation // Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative city matrix feature.
Note: this study does not indicate whether or not an extreme weather event will happen in any given city; rather, risk vs. readiness scores are determined by what would likely happen if these cities are hit by an extreme weather event.
Out of the 20 most populous cities in Texas, these six received the best risk vs. readiness scores:
Situated in Northern Texas’ Collins County, Plano is one of the largest, and most prosperous, Dallas suburb. Plano has a high adaptive capacity, meaning the city can respond and adjust to climate events with relative ease. The city also has less sensitivity and exposure to hazards overall. High risk flood zones are sparse and the city is less vulnerable to drought given that its industries are less water intensive.
Plano has numerous tax incentives for renewable energy and its citizens are highly engaged in climate policy. These factors give Plano a low risk, high readiness score and position the city as one of the most climate-prepared in the nation, and the best in Texas.
You can read Plano’s Cleaner Air and Reduced Emissions Strategy (CARE), which includes a goal of carbon neutrality in all city operations by 2040, here.
The city of Frisco in Collins County is a rapidly growing suburb known for its lush tree lined parks and eclectic museums. Frisco has a high adaptive capacity and its sensitivity and exposure to climate events is generally quite low.
With Frisco sitting at an impressive 774′ above sea level, and far away from major flood plains, the chances of detrimental flooding or drought in the city are unlikely.
Yet another sprawling Collins County city, McKinney is the furthest suburb from the Dallas metropolitan area. The city boasts a top-tier public education system and a charming Southern atmosphere. Much like the other Collins County communities listed above, McKinney maintains a high adaptive capacity.
Although there is reasonable concern over flood adaptation in the area, the Department of Emergency Management is working on obtaining a Flood Mitigation Assistance grant. The population as a whole is well prepared for future climate events.
Austin,Texas’ state capitol, is situated in Travis County with sections extending into Hayes and Williamson Counties. Austin is a rapidly growing city, known for its music venues, colleges, and well-established tech and business industries.
Apart from concerns about extreme heat and extreme cold events, Austin’s climate risk remains quite low when compared to other high-population cities in the US. Economic and political support for climate investment in the city are both high, and Austinites are enthusiastic about adaptation efforts.
In 2018, the city drafted a Climate Resilience Action Plan to help protect city operations and assets.
The Houston Chronicle has said that the most populous city in the state of Texas will either be a climate change leader or a casualty. In either scenario, it’s clear the Bayou City isn’t going down without a fight. Houston’s location near the gulf coast in low lying Harris County seems an obvious liability as hurricanes increase and sea levels rise.
Past weather systems have taught us that Houston is much more vulnerable to severe flooding and sea level rise than the other cities on this list. However, the city is to be commended for having a plan. Despite significant risk, Houston’s notable economic investment into climate change adaptation grants the city a high readiness score.
Under the leadership of Mayor Sylvester Turner, the city recently released a Houston Climate Action Plan which details measures to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions and implement adaptation policy. We are rooting for Houston. Their proactive approach to climate change is to be commended.
#6. San Antonio
Located in Bexar County 80 miles south of Austin, San Antonio is Texas’ second most populous city. San Antonio is home to The Alamo and the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.
Although the city of San Antonio is prone to flooding, it is considered low risk given the city’s adaptive capacity and investment in climate adaptation projects. In 2019, San Antonio adopted the Climate Action & Adaptation Plan which sets a framework for the city to reduce emissions and move forward with adaptation strategies.
Texas cities in trouble
The cities of Garland and Irving are both located on the outskirts of Dallas. These cities have a high risk of flooding, extreme heat, and extreme cold—and inadequate means to adapt to any of these dangerous events. They both ranked very low on the ND-GAIN risk vs. readiness scale, with Irving ranking slightly better than Garland on climate preparedness.
Out of the 20 most populous cities in Texas, the city with the highest risk and lowest readiness score was Pasadena. Sitting on the Galveston Bay and extending up toward Houston, Pasadena faces high risk of flooding, extreme heat, sea level rise, and drought. Increased poverty rates and low economic investment and civil engagement in climate adaptation efforts leave this city in a risky position.
The bottom line
Although this study is slightly dated and could expand to include other hazards such as wildfire, hurricanes, and blizzards, it does give us an idea of which Texas cities are more or less equipped to deal with extreme climate events.
More and more Texas cities are recognizing that climate change is upon us. Although it does take the combined efforts of local government, industry, and society, adapting communities to better face climate challenges is our best bet for ensuring a safe and just future for all. Cities must be at the forefront of any global climate solution.