Can we look at the recent power crisis in Texas through the lens of climate change? Is it a harbinger of problems to come?
In the wake of record freezing temperatures, a deadly blackout left millions without power over several days of subfreezing weather. Many believe that the wicked storm and frigid temperatures which knocked nuclear facilities, coal and gas power stations, and wind turbines all offline, offers a grim cautionary tale of how extreme weather can paralyze vital energy infrastructures and throw vast swaths of the country into darkness and utter chaos.
Many experts seem to think that what happened in Texas is representative of just how poorly prepared states that normally do not face cold temperatures are to deal with wintry weather. And many more of them may be forced to do so in the near future due to global climate change.
“This is a large-scale emergency,” said Julie McNamara, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We’re seeing the consequences of insufficiently considering climate impact on the grid. At the same time, as grid operators underestimated the potential for peak demand … they also insufficiently estimated potential for outages.”
The problems in Texas were caused by the “polar vortex,” an increasingly common weather phenomenon. The polar vortex is a weather pattern that originates in the Arctic, but lately, it is increasingly finding its way down to lower latitudes. Scientists say global warming caused by humans is partly responsible for shifts that bring Arctic weather to more southern areas and keep it around longer, although this research is still hotly contested.
The frigid weather-related problems faced by the nation’s power and water infrastructure are already not unique to Texas. As millions struggled in the Lone Star State, the frigid temperatures and winter storms triggered blackouts in Oklahoma, Mississippi, and several other states as well. According to reporting by the New York Times, one-third of oil production in the nation was halted. Drinking-water systems in Ohio were knocked offline. Road networks nationwide were paralyzed, which impeded the vaccination distribution efforts in 20 states.
Many believe that the crisis in Texas, along with more frequent and intense storms, floods, wildfires, and other climate-triggered extreme events – should serve as a wake-up call for how poorly prepared the nation’s fundamental infrastructure is to handle the challenges brought on by climate change.
“We are colliding with a future of extremes,” said Alice Hill, who oversaw planning for climate risks on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. “We base all our choices about risk management on what’s occurred in the past, and that is no longer a safe guide.”
Even those who deny the impact of climate change understand that the foundations of the country’s economy – our network of roads and railways, drinking-water systems, power plants, and electrical grids – are in a sad state of disrepair. Many scientists and engineers believe that climate change is going to put ever-increasing pressure on an already fragile system.