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Texas’s Fossil Fuel Elite Is Driving Us to Climate Disaster

Oil and gas donors have spent $100 million on elections in Texas. Now storms made worse by climate change have flooded the state capitol building in Austin.

Texas Republican governor Greg Abbott signs energy legislation on June 8, 2021. (Montinique Monroe / Getty Images)

Petroleum refineries shut down by climate-intensified storms and flooding. Oil pipelines threatened by thawing ice. A fracking state’s population choked by air pollution from fracking sites. A climate-denying senator fleeing an extreme weather event for a Cancun vacation.

These are just some of the most powerful symbols of the insanity, nihilism, and willful ignorance that define the era of climate change — and this weekend, one of America’s oil bastions added another. Torrential rains flooded the halls of the Texas state Capitol just a few months after lawmakers in that same building passed some of America’s most radical initiatives to boost the fossil fuel industry.

For years, scientists have been warning that Central Texas — and Austin in particular — is threatened by storms made bigger by climate change. On Sunday, what had once been a typical month’s worth of rain poured down on Austin in the span of thirty minutes, flooding the Capitol building.

But those warnings, and climate-linked catastrophes throughout the state, have not deterred Texas’s oil-bankrolled officials from doing everything they can to boost the fossil fuel industry that is creating the climate disaster. On the contrary, the flooding occurred less than three months after GOP Gov. Greg Abbott signed a pair of laws designed to prevent local communities and corporations from reducing their carbon footprints.

One new law makes a mockery of politicians’ paeans to “local control,” using state authority to ban communities from using zoning regulations and codes to restrict or ban fossil fuel infrastructure in new construction. The Texas Tribune noted that the bipartisan legislation was a response to a growing number of cities — including Austin — considering mandates requiring new developments be built to all-electric standards. The Texas prohibition on such forward-thinking climate policy is being replicated in other states.

The other bill signed by Abbott is just as extreme: As more and more institutional investors press the companies they own stakes in to reduce their carbon emissions, Texas will now deny government contracts to companies that stop doing business with the fossil fuel industry.

The law applies not only to procurement, but also to the state’s massive market-moving public retirement systems, in an effort to halt the growing success of the divestment movement. Depending on how the Texas law is interpreted, it could mean the state’s pension overseers will be forced to continue investing hundreds of billions of dollars of workers’ retirement savings in corporations that are knowingly exacerbating the same climate crisis now wreaking havoc in Texas.

The Texas laws were produced by a political system that in the last decade alone has been flooded with more than $100 million of oil industry campaign cash. That includes a whopping $25 million to Abbott.

The laws are also a product of a national media ecosystem that still often bakes climate denial into its coverage.

In that ecosystem, there is straight-up climate omission — climate-intensified weather disasters are often covered without any mention of their link to rising carbon in the atmosphere.

But there is also often a lack of climate policy context that might provide voters with an idea of exactly who to hold accountable.

While there are certainly terrific outlets like the Tribune trying to add context to the stories, most disaster coverage typically omits references to the policies and politicians that have been making the climate crisis worse (side note: you can go here and here to see the Texas legislators who voted for the aforementioned  fossil fuel bills).

In part, this lack of context reflects the fact that specific individual disasters are not a singular result of one or another specific policies (i.e. flooding in Austin was not directly caused by legislation passed a few months ago).

Droughts, wildfires, and floods are more nebulously worsened by an entire agenda implemented over decades, and so political context often is avoided for fear of it being labeled climate hysteria — even though that context is so critical. Worse, green policies are sometimes even blamed for the disasters. For instance, after extreme weather this past winter shut down Texas’s ill-prepared energy grid, there was a media-amplified effort to pretend clean energy caused the problem (it didn’t).

If history is any guide, it’s a good bet that after the flooding of the Texas Capitol, there will be little reevaluation of the anti-science policies legislated in that same drenched building — even though the situation should be another enduring symbol warning us that we must change.