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Causes of Global Warming in Texas

Global warming is one of Texas’ foremost threats – economically, socially and environmentally – of the new century.  Increases in the concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere are expected to result in higher regional temperatures, more frequent intense storms, rising sea levels, and changes in water flows and quality.  There is broad agreement in the scientific community that human activities are contributing to these changes.  This is largely the result of releasing carbon dioxide and other GHGs into the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Ecological Society of America (ESA) conducted the most recent study on global warming and Texas.   In Confronting Climate Change in the Gulf Coast Region, UCS/ESA find that in the next 100 years, summer temperatures in Texas could increase by 3-7ºF and minimum winter temperatures could increase from 3ºF to about 10ºF.  The UCS/ESA study also finds that Texas will experience accelerated sea level rise, lower groundwater availability and intensified weather events like droughts and floods.

Climate models project that the summertime heat index (which combines the effects of heat and humidity into an effective temperature) will increase between 10ºF to 25ºF in Texas.   If the projected rise in heat index were to occur, summertime conditions for Houston could become like those experienced in Panama (115º+).

The root cause of global warming is the growing amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gas emissions in Texas are the highest in the nation.  In fact, if Texas were an independent nation, it would rank seventh in the world in carbon dioxide emissions.

Fortunately, studies have shown that Texas can be a leader in the solutions to global warming.  A Tellus Institute study for the World Wildlife Fund shows that aggressive policies can cut GHGs 34 percent in 10 years compared to business as usual.  These policies will also create a net 84,000 jobs and save the average consumer $200-$700 in annual energy bills (Tellus, 2000).

The Greenhouse Effect

The earth is inhabitable because of the greenhouse effect – the insulating effect of atmospheric gases that keeps the earth some 60ºF warmer than it would be otherwise.  While most GHGs, such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, are present in the atmosphere as a result of natural processes, human activity has increased the emissions of these gases into the atmosphere.  Other GHGs – such as halocarbons do not occur naturally and are purely of human origin.  As a result of increases in all of these emissions, the atmosphericconcentrations of GHGs have increased, enhancing the natural greenhouse effect, and bringing with it more warming.

The gases of greatest concern are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and halocarbons.  Carbon dioxide, which is produced primarily through burning gasoline, natural gas, coal, and oil, is the largest contributor to the greenhouse effect (82 percent nationwide).  Methane, which is over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, accounts for just under 10 percent of US emissions and result from decomposing landfill waste, manure and fermentation from livestock and natural gas systems.

Nitrous oxide emissions are six percent of US GHG emissions and arise from agricultural soil management and combustion engines.  Halocarbons, which include chlorofluorocarbons, hydrochlorofluorocarbons, and perfluorocarbons, are typically produced during industrial processes (US EPA, 2001).

Global Warming Potentials

Global Warming Potential (GWP) is a measure that quantifies the relative climate forcing impacts of various GHGs. It is defined as the cumulative climate forcing over a specified time horizon relative to some reference gas. 

The reference gas used in the chart below is carbon dioxide.  According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) GWPs typically have an uncertainty of + 35 percent.

Greenhouse Gases And Their Sources

Greenhouse Gas


Life Span In Atmosphere

Global Warming Potential

Carbon dioxide (CO2)

Fossil fuels, deforestation, soil destruction

Up to 200 years


Methane (CH4)

Cattle, biomass, rice paddies, gas leaks, mining, termites

14 years


Nitrous oxide (N2O)

Fossil fuels, refineries, soil cultivation, deforestation

114 years


(CFCs 11 and 12)

Refrigeration, air conditioning, aerosols, foam blowing, solvents

45 years


Ozone and other trace gases

Photochemical processes, cars, refineries, power plants

Hours to days in upper troposphere

Difficult to trace

Source: International Panel on Climate Change. 2001.

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