United States: Texas ice storm a climate wakeup call

The recent storms caused much of Texas’ electricity grid to fail. Image: Pixabay

The severe Arctic blast and storms that came down the central part of the United States are another example of extreme weather due to global warming.

The event in Texas, in particular, reveals that the country’s basic infrastructure is not up to effectively dealing with the effects of climate change now and into the future, as more extreme weather develops.

Scientists say that particular events cannot be reduced to climate change alone, but portend more extreme weather worldwide.

However, this current event is directly connected to the fact that the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the globe. As global warming reduces the amount of Arctic ice, a vicious spiral has developed, which accelerates Arctic warming.

The ice cap is white, which reflects sunlight back into space during the summer. As the ice cap melts and shrinks due to global warming, it reflects less sunlight and exposes the water of the Arctic Ocean to warming, which contributes to climate change.

The cycle reinforces itself.

Arctic warming weakens the jet stream, which limits the amount of cold air going south. The weakened jet stream has begun to wander more, affecting global weather, and allowing more Arctic air to mix with warmer air to the south.

This sets the stage for more cold air to move south. This occurs annually, so doesn’t fully account for this year’s extreme weather event. However, a sudden stratospheric warming (SSW) event above the ice cap occurred this year. In just a few days in late December, temperatures in the atmosphere high above the North Pole warmed by 56°C, jumping from -79°C to -23°C.

Global warming is increasing the frequency of SSW events.

The result this year was a further weakening of the jet stream that elongated it, allowing cold air to plunge south all the way to the US-Mexico border.

While the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans kept the coasts warmer, the Arctic air reached the south-central plains. Historic records were broken, as the unprecedented cold gripped cities and towns unprepared for the bitter blast.

Then the cold air and storms moved eastward.

Infrastructure collapse

The risks posed by increasingly extreme weather to the country’s aging infrastructure were outlined in the New York Times on February 21: “The continent-spanning winter storms triggered blackouts in Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and several other states. One-third of oil production in the nation was halted. Drinking water systems in Ohio were knocked offline. Road networks nationwide were paralysed and vaccination efforts in 20 states were disrupted.

“The crisis carries a profound warning. As climate change brings more frequent and intense storms, floods, heat waves, wildfires and other extreme events, it is placing growing stress on the foundations of the country’s economy: its network of roads and railways, drinking water systems, power plants, electrical grids, industrial waste sites and even homes.

“Failures in just one sector can set off a domino effect of breakdowns in hard-to-predict ways.

“Much of this infrastructure was built decades ago, under expectation that the environment would remain stable, or at least fluctuate within predictable bounds. Now climate change is upending that assumption.”

Texas

When the storms caused much of Texas’ electricity grid to fail, climate change denier Governor Greg Abbott made this absurd claim: “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.

“Texas is blessed with multiple sources of energy such as natural gas and oil and nuclear, as well as solar and wind. But … our wind and solar got shut down, and they were more than 10% of our power grid. And that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power in a statewide basis.”

Officials in Abbott’s own government then contradicted him, saying the blackout was caused by frozen valves, pipes and other equipment in the state’s natural gas, coal and nuclear power plants.

While Abbott has been forced to walk back his claim a bit, Fox News and others have continued to spread this falsity.

More is involved in the state’s power grid failure. In the 1930s, Texas’ electricity grid was deliberately separated from the two major grids in the east and west of the country, to avoid federal regulation.

So, when the Texas grid was overwhelmed in the storm, it couldn’t draw power from the national grids. This was a result of Texas’ famed “independence”. One city was an exception: El Paso, which is connected to one of the national grids, had no blackout.

In the 1990s, the electricity system was completely deregulated and privatised. Today, many companies compete to supply electricity.

These companies have different formulas for how much to charge per kilowatt hour. Taking advantage of the crisis and the power shortages, power companies are charging skyrocketing prices for supply.

Some consumers, whose bills were less than US$100 before the cold and storms hit, have received bills in the thousands of dollars.

This is all legal. As a result of the outcry this caused, the state is now preventing bills from being sent out. However, it is not controlling prices.

Perhaps the funds the federal government is sending to Texas, now that a state of emergency has been declared, will be used to pay these bills?

What electricity will cost, as warming weather slowly returns the electricity system to “normal”, remains to be seen.

Gas companies also suffered shutdowns from freezing equipment. Most homes are heated by gas. Media reports showed people frantically attempting to stay warm during the freeze. The better off could go to hotels that still had heat. Others were shown chopping up wooden tables, chairs and bookcases to burn, if they had fireplaces.

Now, the gas companies are also price gouging as they come back online and face high demand.

Capitalists who are so situated never fail to make profits off of catastrophes.

The cold also froze water and burst pipes, with the result that many homes were flooded and severely damaged. Many others have no running water at all.

Hospitals have also been hard hit, due to the lack of water and electricity necessary to treat patients, such as those on dialysis. Patients who were being treated at home, but whose water and electricity were cut off, had to rely on the hospitals. Some hospitals were flooded due to burst water pipes.

As has been the case in other extreme events like hurricanes, those hardest hit have been Blacks and Latinos.

Texas Southern University professor Robert Bullard, known as the “father of environmental justice”, told DemocracyNow! that many people of color were “hurting, with no power, no money, no water, no form of transportation to get to the grocery store to get water and food”.

“The impact of this storm is more than power outages and inconveniences for those communities that historically have been impacted by energy insecurity, having to pay a larger portion of household income for energy,” said Bullard.

“This kind of disruption, with this cold spell and with people having to raise the thermostat to keep warm after this power outage has been restored, people are going to have high utility bills, and some won’t be able to pay and will get shutoffs.

“That’s the inequity that’s piled on top of the [usual] inequity. And we see this happening all across the city, as well as the state.”

Tasks ahead

Very little is being done in the US or internationally to curb and eliminate greenhouse gases caused by the burning of fossil fuels. A disaster awaits humanity if not enough is done, and soon, to take on this huge task.

We also face the task of upgrading infrastructure, to mitigate the effects of extreme weather, which will intensify with increasing warming.

More frequent catastrophes due to global warming are a warning to humanity that we must get our heads out of the sand, open our eyes, look around and face reality, or we will see runaway global warming with lethal effects.

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