Diamonds in the Swamp
Author: Jamie Hicks Masterson, Associate Director Texas Target Communitites
Though my family was not connected to the oil industry, I grew up a devout Houstonian and deeply connected to the place. I appreciated its imperfection, grit, and fiercely independent nature. Houston has rapidly changed since the gun-slinging wild-west it once was. The city has the highest GDP in the state, Texas being the second highest GDP in the nation. Houston has 3,600 energy-related companies and produces 40% of the nation’s chemicals. It also has a thriving financial center and is second, behind New York City, with the “most Fortune 500 headquarters in the United States." If Texans embody the independent, rugged spirit of the nation, Houstonians embody that of Texas. So what, if we have "flood days" instead of "snow days" in school? So what, if we have “hurricane cookies” (or “hurricane cake”) when a hurricane is in the Gulf? We are Houstonians. We are tough. To this point, I've learned that it is not the place, but rather the character of the people that have made it so--the spirit of the people that do not give up.
In fact, Houstonians deal with pollution, environmental justice, hurricanes, storm surge and ever constant flooding. The place has allowed toxic industries adjacent to neighborhoods and schools—primarily communities of color on the East End. Houston has excessive ozone levels and is ranked among the most ozone-polluted cities in the United States (American Lung Association, 2010). A study by the University of Texas School of Public Health found that children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel had a 56% greater chance of contracting leukemia than children living ten or more miles away. The residents within the Manchester/Harrisburg neighborhood of Houston bear some of the highest cumulative cancer risk among all of Harris County. As for flooding, between 1996-2007 Houston had $1.1 billion of the $1.8 billion in insured flood loss of Texas. Predictions show that the frequency and intensity of heavy rainfall events will only increase due to climate change.
You might not look the other way when you drive down Highway 225 with refineries on either side. You might not chuckle when you hear a local refer to the toxic fumes by saying, “smells like money.” It's the neighborhoods adjacent to it that can’t look the other way. It's the people near it that weez when they laugh. In reality, it’s what we’ve all done---looked the other way, laughed off the fear of today’s climate reality. So you might be surprised to learn in August of 2016, the Climate Reality Project Corps Training came to Houston, TX. The training began in 2006, when Nobel Laureate and former Vice President Al Gore grabbed our attention with the Academy Award-winning film An Inconvenient Truth. People impassioned to act began developing strategies to communicate today's climate reality.
This is not a neighborhood problem, or a Houston problem, this is a global problem. We know that 97% of scientists agree that carbon pollution from burning fossil fuel like coal, oil, and natural gas is warming our planet. Since 1880, the earth has warmed 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit). With current carbon-emitting trends, by 2100 the earth will warm by 4 degrees Celsius (or 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit). Because of these grave numbers, in April of 2016, 175 of the 196 world countries committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by curbing the impacts to only 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). This Paris Agreement set the record for the highest number of countries to sign an international agreement, and the highest emitters--such as the US, China, India, and the EU--all committed to lessening the impacts of climate change.
So what does that mean for Houston? Even when the land recedes, there will be people there that bear the burden--those who can't move away. Community groups across the region and initiatives like the Environmental Grand Challenge are working to make a difference. Here lies a fragment of hope: The people make a place resilient--that fierce, never give up mentality. With that spirit we can make our communities a little better. The many people in Houston that the Environmental Grand Challenge has been fortunate enough to work with are the diamonds in the rough—or rather, diamonds in the swamps of this imperfect place and our home, Earth.