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A Legislative Committee Is Investigating the Panhandle Fires. What, if Anything, Will It Say About Climate?

By José Medina

If you have ever wondered how the Texas Legislature feels about climate change, read this passage from a Texas Tribune story summarizing the legislative body’s actions on climate following its 2023 session:

Texas legislators largely ignored pleas for critical reform from environmental advocates during this year’s legislative session — failing to act on lowering energy use, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and lessening the disproportionate impact of pollution on communities of color.

At the same time, the laws they did approve try to block local attempts to control greenhouse gas emissions, eliminate tax incentives for renewable energy companies and support building more fossil-fuel-fired power plants.

Not good. Not good at all. As the climate crisis gets worse, so does the Texas Legislature’s record in responding to it. That’s why we’ll be very interested in reading an upcoming report by a newly formed investigative committee and what, if anything, it has to say about climate change.

This month, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan appointed five members of the chamber he leads to the Investigative Committee on the Panhandle Wildfires. The committee’s task is to investigate the Smokehouse Creek fires.

First started in late February in the Texas Panhandle (and in Oklahoma), the late winter fires grew to become the worst in Texas history. By the time the fires were under control, they had burned more than 1 million acres.

The fires occurred during an unusually hot and dry winter in the Panhandle and were possibly caused by a downed utility pole. Climate scientists can’t make a direct link between the fires and the worsening climate, as it is difficult to prove that any one event is the result of climate change. However, there is a trend of worsening fires in Texas and the United States, and climate change is making dry and hot conditions more common. Those conditions were present in the Panhandle when that first flame grew into an enormous fire.

Wildfires in Texas destroy land and property on a mass scale, displace people and livestock, and risk our livelihoods and lives. If Texas’ leaders are serious about stopping this, they must examine the relationship between climate change and the severity of wildfires.

We can hope, but it’s unthinkable that the Legislature will suddenly prioritize the climate crisis when it reconvenes in January. However, the state has been at the top for the most billion-dollar climate and weather disasters since 1980. Texas added another disaster to that list in 2024 at a significant cost to the people living in the Panhandle.

It is time for state legislators to do their part in tackling the climate crisis. The alternative is business as usual, sticking their collective heads in fire-scorched sand.

The investigative committee’s report will be out by May 1.

José Medina is the press officer for the Texas office of Public Citizen