Gulf of Mexico
Jim Blackburn Photographer: Brandon Thibodeaux for Bloomberg Green

TX - The Energy Elite Have Started Listening to Their Enemy No. 1 in Houston

Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer, is trying to protect the city from a climate disaster.

Climate change is a touchy topic in Houston, even if hardly anyone doubts the climate is changing. An already damp city is getting wetter, obvious in the muddy sidewalks and the puddles that linger long after a routine rain. The bigger downpours block highways. The really huge storms—and not just 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, which killed at least 94 people—keep arriving with a size and frequency that meteorologists once insisted was impossible. With initial support from Texas’s governor and U.S. senators (all conservative Republicans), the Army Corps of Engineers wants to spend $23 billion to $32 billion on a coastal bulwark against the rising waters.

Say “climate change” too loudly, though, and you’ll get some looks. Many Houstonians still feel like they’re in a standoff with environmentalists who would love to put the Oil and Gas Capital of the World out of business. And anyway the city is booming, with cranes as common as traffic jams on its ever-widening highways. With a population up 11% since 2010, Houston is destined to overtake Chicago as the U.S.’s third-largest city—unless something goes horribly wrong.

Something horrible like the worst environmental disaster in American history, which is just one of the looming catastrophes that Jim Blackburn won’t shut up about. The environmental lawyer and Rice University professor shows up everywhere in Houston—at society events, on the radio, in op-eds and at government hearings—and blurts out what the city’s elite, its oil and gas executives, only whisper in their board rooms: Climate change is an existential threat to Houston, putting in real danger both its physical survival and its economic future.

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