Kerry Cook

Will Wynn, former mayor of Austin, moderates a panel presented by the Campus Environmental Center to discuss issues of sustainability and environmental policy at the Texas Union Theatre on Wednesday evening.

Photo Credit: Debby Garcia | Daily Texan Staff

Hoping to advance environmental policy and sustainability awareness, experts discussed the relationship between climate change and economics at a panel Wednesday evening.

The Campus Environmental Center, the only UT-sponsored environmental student-run organization, hosted “Climate Change in Texas: Risks and Opportunities,” featuring former Austin Mayor Will Wynn.

As chairman on the Board of Directors of Austin Energy for nine years, Wynn said he has seen the momentum of climate change and global warming fluctuate. Wynn also highlighted the dichotomy between Texas as the worst carbon-emitting state and yet the state that offers the most renewable energy, attributable to wind power.

“There’s a revenue source for some land out in West Texas that wasn’t particularly profitable otherwise,” Wynn said. “That’s a good example, though. You can make an economic argument, set aside the environmental debate and show somebody how it’s beneficial economically. That’s really [what] the big opportunity and challenge is for in Texas — to figure out and sell the economic benefits of environmental protection and just know it in our heart that we're also helping the environment.”

Others on the panel included Ramon Alvarez, senior scientist at the Texas office of Environmental Defense Fund; Zach Baumer, climate program manager for the city of Austin; and Kerry Cook, professor at the department of geological sciences.

Cook said by 2050, Austin’s climate will increase by three degrees Fahrenheit and precipitation will decrease by 10 percent in the winter and 15 percent in the summer.

“We have a huge challenge in front of us to perform interdisciplinary research when we have different jargon, different ways of approaching and different ways of thinking about this,” Cook said. “We are trying to educate the next generation of scientists more broadly so they can all communicate effectively.”

Collin Poirot, political communication, Plan II honors and history senior and assistant director of the Campus Environmental Center, said the importance of this discussion is highlighted by the fact that people don’t know what to believe.

“Adapting to climate change means that you have to make some changes, it doesn’t mean you have to lose money or shut down your business,” Poirot said. “It just means you have to change the way you go about your business, and people don’t want to have to do that.”

Printed on Thursday, April 25, 2013 as Panel hopes to raise citizen involvement 

Although the city of Austin has managed to stay clear of wildfires, the air above it has not escaped unscathed.

Clouds of smoke rolled into the city Tuesday and Wednesday morning, causing some to become concerned about air quality and breathing conditions. Geological sciences professor Kerry Cook said winds from Tropical Storm Lee, which blew through Louisiana, brought smoke from the Bastrop fires as they drifted to the southwest. As of press time, firefighters have contained 30 percent of the Bastrop blaze that began Sunday and burned approximately 43,000 acres and 785 homes and caused two fatalities.

Tropical storm winds did not bring smoke from fires burning to the west of Austin in the Lake Travis area, such as the Steiner Ranch fire that damaged and destroyed more than 50 homes. Travis County Fire Chief Jim Linardos said crews have contained 75 percent of the Steiner Ranch fire as of Wednesday and expect to have it under full control by Thursday.

“As I look out my window, I can see smoke over the city,” Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said. “We’re getting a lot of calls concerning the issue, but it is only a result of the winds dying down, and we have no fires in the city.”

Cook said smoke appearing Wednesday morning could also be associated with a temperature inversion, in which cooler temperatures do not allow the smoke to rise.

“This is just like when pollution is trapped above the city in L.A.,” Cook said. “The smoke doesn’t reach up into the atmosphere, and the winds are in the direction to bring that downtown.”

Theresa Spalding, University Health Services associate director, said drifting smoke is a greater concern to people living in places directly impacted by the recent wildfires because the possibility of soot and ash inhalation is greater in these areas. Spalding said lingering smoke in Austin may cause respiratory irritation or minor headaches, but symptoms will not appear as strongly as they would in residents of directly affected areas. Austin residents with asthma may feel stronger symptoms and should limit outdoor activity if necessary, she said.

“Some people are asking about masks,” Spalding said. “We have gotten calls about that. The masks you can get [at stores] are more about trying to keep large particles out of your passageways. We aren’t recommending masks to people just walking around campus.” 

Printed on September 8, 2011 as: Tropical storm ushers winds from windfires into local area