Houston at the Crossroads: Resilience and Sustainability in the 21st Century examines population growth, economic vitality of the Houston region, the increasing frequency of severe rainfall events, and the ability of agriculture to sequester carbon dioxide in the ground. The basic premise? Houston’s current financial position in the world is at risk if we don’t change.
Blackburn’s white paper begins by tracing the Houston region’s meteoric growth, from about 110,000 in 1900 to 6.4 million people today. This growth, says Blackburn, was enabled by the intersection of several factors and trends. They included the transition to a carbon-based economy in the early 1900s, the presence of plentiful hydrocarbons in the region, and the development of the Port of Houston at about the time the Panama Canal was completed. Conditions were ideal for Houston to rapidly blossom into the world capital of the oil industry.
Changing Trends Put Houston at a New Crossroads
After the year 2000, however, Blackburn says, the complexion of growth began to change, just as it did in the previous century during the transition from horses to automobiles. We are now at another crossroads.
Concerns about the increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as Tropical Storm Allison, Hurricane Harvey and other recent 500-year storms have been widely linked to increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Concerns about CO2 have encouraged the development of alternative sources of energy, such as wind and solar. These alternative sources compete with oil and gas, the traditional drivers of Houston’s economic growth.
These trends also work together, according to Blackburn, in a way that makes the region less desirable for corporate re-location. Blackburn cites the recent decision by Amazon, which was looking for a second “headquarters” city. Houston did not even make the top 25 list of cities under consideration despite it’s mid-continent location; huge port; and excellent air, rail and highway transportation networks.
At the Crossroads of the Future and the Past: Decision Time
He makes a good point. We must make sure Houston is positioned for the future, not the past, if we want it to remain vital. The rust belt is littered with examples of cities that failed to see change coming. Blackburn also cites examples of cities that have successfully weathered change through history and discusses how they did it.
Blackburn crammed this 23-page white paper full of charts, graphs, maps, and tables that show the nature of the changes around us. He then poses the central question.
How can we capitalize on our assets to ameliorate our liabilities?
His prescriptions for change make this paper well worth reading. They include the way we manage flood plains and green spaces; how we grow and distribute food; and how we can capture the value of ecosystems by allowing land owners to be compensated for storing carbon through agriculture and forestry. Using nature, he says, is the oil industry’s only viable option for closing the carbon loop.
Blackburn proposes something called a Soil Value Exchange program. It reminds me somewhat of the emissions trading programs that helped reduce air pollution in Southern California. His descriptions of how farmers and ranchers can verify and capitalize on carbon capture represent hope for the future of a city whose economy is based largely on oil.
When you’re scraping muck out of a flooded home, it’s hard to focus on the big picture. It’s also important. Blackburn’s prescriptions are both visionary and practical at the same time. They are keys to economic resilience and sustainability.
Posted by Bob Rehak
April 29, 2018, 243 days since Hurricane Harvey
Houston at the Crossroads: Resilience and Sustainability in the 21st Century is reproduced here with the permission of the author, Jim Blackburn, and Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.