By Camila Consolmagno & Frederick Thelen, LLB & BA International Relations
Recently, the state of Texas suffered through a historical event already being termed the ‘2021 Texas Power Crisis.’ This, however, fails to convey the scale of the crisis.
Energy in Texas is managed on a state level as it has a power grid independent from the rest of the US. Triggered by two different February winter storms, the crisis led to state-wide power cuts when the energy grid was threatened with complete collapse due to greater demand than could be supplied. The consequential colossal surge in wholesale electricity left at least 70 dead and many unanswered questions.
As a result of the freezing conditions, many wind turbines, coal piles and natural gas wells froze. Gas pipelines also became blocked. Coupled with a rise in demand, this led to a heat and electricity shortage as controlled blackouts were instituted to save the overall energy grid from a complete meltdown.
Facing a 10,000% increase in the price of wholesale electricity, millions of Texans were forced to cut their own power. For those that could afford it, bills surged to $400-500 daily. For many, that meant an erasure of their life savings.
As a consequence of Covid-19, Texans were already facing unprecedented financial difficulties. This unforeseen tragedy has only exacerbated them. The most vulnerable were left out in the cold – the elderly, the poor and the homeless were the most at risk.
This quickly led to the state providing ‘emergency warming centers’ to help residents find shelter, though many struggled meeting Covid-19 safety standards amid the emergency. In Houston, more than 500 people crowded into a single shelter. Many other centers, however, had to be shut due to unaidable power loss.
As with many crises, the devastation served to amplify pre-existing inequalities. Amongst the dead was an 11-year-old boy who died attempting to keep his 3-year-old brother warm. Critical infrastructure was exempt from the long-term blackouts, meaning that residents in denser, more affluent areas with hospitals did not have to scramble for heat or electricity.
Importantly, the ‘Texas Freeze’ exposed the unpreparedness and willful ignorance of decision-makers in the face of exponentially increasing climate risks. Does this come as a surprise? Scientists have been warning for decades that these disasters would occur with the strength and frequency we are now experiencing if nothing was done. Far too many governments have been complacent, negligent and denialist.
Texas itself is an example of this. After a winter storm of similar severity occurred in 2011 and caused widespread blackouts, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas allegedly ignored a report compiled by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that called for the state to prepare the energy grid for instances of extreme cold weather. The fatal consequences of climate change-induced weather were not just apparent but avoidable.
Arguably, no place is a more fitting symbol of climate denialism and its futility in the face of evermore extreme weather events than Texas. It is the seed of the US oil industry, which for so long funded research denying their businesses’ impact on the climate and discrediting science all while actively lobbying against renewable energies in Austin, Washington D.C. and beyond.
It is thus unsurprising that numerous lawmakers – among them Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who saw fit to abandon the emergency his constituents faced in the freezing cold for warmer, more luxurious pastures abroad – used the disaster to back the fossil fuel industry by blaming the event on the failure of renewable energy sources in the extreme cold.
This untrue claim is an attempt to protect the Texas oil industry, the local government’s most prominent backers. The Centre for Responsive Politics reported that Senator Cruz received $1,388,417 in political donations from the Oil & Gas industry from 2015 to 2020 alone.
The fallout and unfolding battle over renewable energy and fossil fuels highlights the need for responsible, science-driven governance that prioritises the wellbeing of the people it serves in the face of mounting challenges and growing inequality.
Amidst the current talk of proofing society against future pandemics, policy-makers would do well to heed the examples of Texas, California and others, and adjust governance to take seriously, prevent and mitigate the unequal consequences of climate change-induced weather patterns. Lives depend on it.
Photo caption: Bank of America amid Dallas snow, 2021. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)