Flooding and Climate Change: French Acceptance, Texas Denial

By Elliott Negin

Texas and France have a number of things in common. They're roughly the same size. They were both republics. They have delectable, widely loved cuisines. And, just last week, both were battered by torrential rains and flooding turbocharged by human-made global warming.

What's different between them? Plenty, to be sure, but given that the recent deluge is the topic du jour, what's most interesting are the diametrically opposite views French and Lone Star state officials hold about the climate change connection. For the French, it's "Mais oui, bien sûr!" But as far as the Texans are concerned, "It just ain't happenin'."

But before diving into that, let's survey the damage.

People watch the flood water levels of Seine river from Pont de l'Alma bridge with the partially submerged statue 'Le Zouave' in Paris, France, June 3. Photo credit: EPA / Jeremy Lempin

Paris, France, was particularly hard-hit. The Seine crested at 20 feet above its usual levels last Saturday, more than 19,000 metro area homes lost electric power and 20,000 people in Nemours and other towns had to temporarily evacuate their homes. May was the country's rainiest month since 1886, according to Radio France International and as of last Saturday, the flood-related death toll stood at four.

Paris, Texas, was largely spared. But in the southeastern section of the state, floods killed at least 17 and dozens more are missing. The Brazos River, which cuts diagonally across the state, reached a record flood level of 54 feet near Richmond, 30 miles southwest of Houston and some 1,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes in Fort Bend County. Meanwhile, more than 130 roads were either flooded or closed and the governor declared 46 counties disaster areas.

Climate Change is Making Things Worse

Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences published a study that definitively verified that human-caused climate change is exacerbating heat waves, droughts and heavy precipitation, but Texas and France are already painfully aware of the consequences. The catastrophic flooding they just experienced is not the first time they have been slammed by punishing, climate change-related weather.

Texas is getting pummeled by a double-whammy: extreme precipitation and drought, depending on the Pacific Ocean's natural cycles that can either produce hot and dry (La Niña) or wet and cool (El Niño) conditions. Climate change intensifies the weather events they spawn.

Last year, for example, more than 35 trillion gallons of water fell on Texas in May, enough to flood the state's entire 268,820 square miles with 8 inches of water. A study published last October in the journal Geophysical Research Letters concluded that "anthropogenic [human-caused] global warming contributed to the physical processes that caused the persistent precipitation in May 2015."

Back in 2011, meanwhile, Texas suffered the costliest drought in its history. Texas A&M University calculated that farmers and ranchers lost $7.82 billion. The likely culprit? Climate change. A July 2012 study in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society compared the dry La Niña year of 2008 with La Niña years in the 1960s and determined that climate change has made extreme hot and dry conditions in Texas in La Niña years 20 times more likely today than 50 years ago.

As for France, a deadly heat wave centered in that country in August 2003 killed more than 70,000 people across the continent. It was the hottest European summer on record since at least the year 1500 and apparently a harbinger of things to come. A December 2014 study in the journal Nature Climate Change concluded that Europe is now 10 times more likely to experience a similarly extreme heat wave than it was a decade ago because of human-made global warming.

France also will likely have to cope with more floods. A March 2014 study in Nature Climate Change projects that by mid-century the frequency of flooding across Europe could double and the annual average losses could jump fivefold. The study attributed two-thirds of those financial losses to development in flood-prone areas and the remaining third to climate change.

French Acceptance, Texas Denial

How did elected officials in France and Texas react to what amounts to just the latest in a steady parade of climate change-related, extreme weather disasters?

French President François Hollande unambiguously linked the rains and flooding to global warming. "When there are climatic phenomena of this seriousness," he said, "we must all be aware that we must act globally." Hollande's perspective is representative of the view held by virtually all elected officials in France, regardless of party affiliation.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, meanwhile, was forced to declare a state of disaster in four dozen Texas counties or, as he put it, "literally from the Red River to the Rio Grande," but made no mention of the role climate change likely played.

That's not a surprise: Abbott is a climate science denier. He maintains it is an open question whether human activity is influencing the climate. "We must be good guardians of our Earth," he told the San Antonio Express-News in 2014, "but we must base our decisions on peer-reviewed scientific inquiry, free from political demagogues using climate change as an excuse to remake the American economy."

Never mind that peer-reviewed science is unequivocal about the threat carbon emissions pose to the climate.

What about U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, who represents a Texas congressional district that includes San Antonio and Austin? Both cities just experienced intense rain and severe flooding and Smith is the chairman of the House Space, Science and Technology Committee. Surely the head of a science committee must be aware of the link between global warming and extreme weather.

Nope. Like Abbott, Smith is a confirmed climate science denier. Although he rejected that characterization during a meeting with constituents last November, claiming that he's merely a "semi-skeptic," he went on to dispute mainstream climate science.

"I think the human component may actually be a small fraction of the contributing forces on climate change," Smith told the gathering. He then erroneously claimed "natural causes" and changes in the tilt of the Earth's axis over time play a more significant role.

Likewise, Smith dismisses the climate change-severe weather connection. "Administration officials and the national media regularly use the impacts from hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts and floods to justify the need for costly climate change regulations," he said in a December 2013 press release. "The fact is there is little evidence that climate change causes extreme weather events."

Smith not only subscribes to specious theories about climate change, he also harasses climate scientists in the federal government and at nonprofit organizations with whom he disagrees. Last fall, for example, he subpoenaed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for its internal emails and research data because he believes the agency's scientists are using "skewed" data. And just last month, he requested internal documents and emails from my organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists, because we have been openly encouraging state attorneys general to investigate ExxonMobil for failing to disclose to investors and the public what its scientists knew about climate change.

Vive la Différence?

What could explain this stark divide between French and Texan politicians? There may be a number of reasons, but an obvious one to consider is the role of undue corporate influence. In France, corporations are not allowed to donate money or provide services to political candidates or political parties. In Texas, it's a very different story.

Abbott, a former Texas attorney general, won the governorship in 2014. The $4.2 million he received in contributions from the oil and gas industry for his gubernatorial campaign was more than twice the amount he got from any other sector. Among his top benefactors were Nustar Energy ($90,000), Koch Industries ($57,500) and Valero Energy ($50,000). Other donors included ExxonMobil, which kicked in $15,000 and Chevron and ConocoPhillips, which each donated $12,500.

The oil and gas industry, meanwhile, has been Smith's leading patron during his nearly 30 years in office. Over the last decade, his biggest contributors from that sector include Koch Industries, which gave him $87,000 and Valero Energy, which gave him more than $100,000.

So how well do French and Texan politicians reflect public opinion in their respective locales?

According to a November 2015 Pew Research Center survey, 56 percent of the French people consider climate change to be a "very serious problem" and 86 percent endorse an international agreement limiting carbon emissions. Presumably most French citizens supported President Hollande when he declared at the U.N. climate conference in Paris last December that the world "is entering the low-carbon era" and that "France will do everything it can not only to enforce the [international] agreement—that is our responsibility—but to accelerate the movement" to dramatically cut carbon emissions.

On the other hand, Abbott, Smith and the other climate science deniers in the Texas statehouse and congressional delegation are letting their constituents down. A September 2013 survey conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found that 70 percent of Texans accept the fact that global warming is happening and more than 50 percent want local, state and federal officials to do more to address it.

So what is to be done?

There's an old Texas saying that points to the fact that special interest money rules today's politics—at least in the U.S. It goes like this: "You got to dance with them that brung you." Given the likelihood Texans are in for a lot more drought and flooding, it's about time they interrupted that two-step and cut in.

Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.


Atmospheric CO2 Reaches New High, Arctic Ice Shrinks to New Low

228 Cities Around the World Take the Lead on Climate Action

'Free Trade' Will Kill Progress on Climate Change, 450 Groups Warn Congress

At Least 18 Dead After Severe Flooding in Central Europe

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

An adult bush dog, part of a captive breeding program. Hudson Garcia

A Rescue Dog Is Now Helping to Save Other (Much Wilder) Dogs

By Jason Bittel

Formidable predators stalk the forests between Panama and northern Argentina. They are sometimes heard but never seen. They are small but feisty and have even been documented trying to take down a tapir, which can top out at nearly 400 pounds. Chupacabras? No.

Keep reading... Show less
RoNeDya / iStock / Getty Images

What Is Mead, and Is It Good for You?

By Ansley Hill, RD, LD

Mead is a fermented beverage traditionally made from honey, water and a yeast or bacterial culture.

Keep reading... Show less
U.S. Army member helps clear debris from Tyndall Air Force Base following Hurricane Michael. U.S. Army

Pentagon: Climate Change Is Real and a 'National Security Issue'

The Pentagon released a Congressionally mandated report (pdf) that warns flooding, drought and wildfires and other effects of climate change puts U.S. military bases at risk.

The 22-page analysis states plainly: "The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense (DoD or the Department) missions, operational plans, and installations."

Keep reading... Show less
Protesters interrupt the confirmation hearing for Andrew Wheeler on Capitol Hill Jan. 16 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

5 People Calling Out EPA Acting Head Wheeler for Putting Polluters First

This week, people across the country are joining environmental leaders to speak out against the nomination of former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to lead the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As Scott Pruitt's hand-picked successor, Wheeler has continued to put polluters over people, most recently by using the last of his agency's funding before it expired in the government shutdown to announce plans to allow power plants to spew toxic mercury and other hazardous pollution into the air.

Keep reading... Show less
Great white shark. Elias Levy / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Marine Biologists Raise Flags About Viral Great White Shark Encounter

By now you might have seen Ocean Ramsey's rare and jaw-dropping encounter with a great white shark in waters near Oahu, Hawaii.

Ramsey, a marine biologist, said on the TODAY Show that it was "absolutely breathtaking and heart-melting" to be approached by the massive marine mammal.

Keep reading... Show less
A tree found severed in half in an act of vandalism in Joshua Tree National Park. Gina Ferazzi / Los AngelesTimes / Getty Images

Wall Before Country Takes Mounting Toll on Americans Everywhere

By Rhea Suh

One month on, the longest and most senseless U.S. government shutdown in history is taking a grave and growing toll on the environment and public health.

Food inspectors have been idled or are working without pay, increasing the risk we'll get sick from eating produce, meat and poultry that isn't properly checked. National parks and public wilderness lands are overrun by vandals, overtaken by off-road joyriders, and overflowing with trash. Federal testing of air and water quality, as well as monitoring of pollution levels from factories, incinerators and other sources, is on hold or sharply curtailed. Citizen input on critical environmental issues is being hindered. Vital research and data collection are being sidelined.

Keep reading... Show less
The W. A. Parish Power Plant, owned by NRG Energy, is one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the U.S. Roy Luck / CC BY 2.0

All Coal-Fired Power Plants in Texas Found Leaking Toxins Into Groundwater

Power plants across Texas are leaching toxins into groundwater, according to new research. A report released this week from the Environmental Integrity Project found that all of the state's 16 coal-fired power plants are leaching contaminants from coal ash into the ground, and almost none of the plants are properly lining their pits to prevent leakage.

Keep reading... Show less
Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. NPS

MLK National Park to Re-Open Despite Shutdown, Thanks to Delta

Hats off to Delta Air Lines. The company's charitable arm awarded the National Park Service an $83,500 grant to help reopen the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta from Jan. 19 through Feb. 3 in honor of Dr. King's legacy.

The Atlanta-based airline was inspired to act after learning that some of the park's sites, including Dr. King's birth home, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Fire Station No. 6 and the visitor center, were closed due to the partial government shutdown, now on its 28th day, according to LinkedIn post from Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian.

Keep reading... Show less


The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!