In Texas we are living through a humanitarian crisis. How on earth will we cope with climate change?

The state’s unique politics left residents exposed to record-low temperatures without power. But this will not be the last severe weather event

February 19, 2021
Texas residents have experienced 72-hour power outages in record-low temperatures. Our writer is among them. Photo: Zuma Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
Texas residents have experienced 72-hour power outages in record-low temperatures. Our writer is among them. Photo: Zuma Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

You will have read in the news that it’s been extremely cold in Texas this week. A fierce winter storm brought temperatures of at least minus 16°C outside, with snowfall up to nine inches. Nothing unusual for much of the US in winter, where snow covers the ground for several months and temperatures fall well below freezing. Nor are ice and snow unknown during a Texas winter, although this week has been exceptionally cold. What is most unusual is that, late last Sunday, the Texas power grid collapsed, severely compromised by the cold, leading to long-lasting power outages. Both gas and electricity supplies were acutely affected and millions (including this writer) have been without any power for up to 72 hours at a time. 

President Biden approved a federal declaration of emergency for Texas, requested by state Governor Greg Abbott (the same Abbott who only a couple of weeks earlier issued an executive order rejecting any “federal overreach” in the Texas energy sector). From early Monday, ERCOT (the ironically named Electric Reliability Council of Texas) had decreed “rolling outages” needed to protect the grid. But many rolling outages lasted whole days, and when power did come back on, it was often only for an hour or so. 

Operating by candlelight in sub-freezing conditions is no fun, but for some it became a life-and-death matter. People died of hypothermia, or carbon monoxide poisoning, sitting in their cars to keep warm. A few “warming centers” were opened, but on undriveable roads were often impossible to reach (I have seen no attempt in Dallas at gritting and de-icing). Those who could took refuge in hotels that still had rooms and power. Many grocery stores remain closed and public transport has been cancelled, as well as flights (but not all; apparently Senator Ted Cruz was able to travel to warmer climes in Cancun this week). There have been many burst pipes, and cautions not to drink tap water without boiling it first in many places throughout Texas, as the water supply became compromised. (But how do you boil water without power?) This has been a humanitarian crisis. Only warmer weather, due by Sunday, may bring some relief.

How could such a situation occur in Texas, often seen as the energy capital of America (its largest producer of fossil fuels)—a state able to cope with summer surges (to power air conditioning) when temperatures reach 40°C? Was it not Texas that mocked California for its power outages last summer? 

The immediate source of blame is that the unprecedentedly cold winter storm placed insuperable stress on the grid, freezing up wind turbines, oil and gas plants and generators so they became inoperable. Texas lost a huge amount of power as a result, and so imposed power cuts to limit the strain on the remaining supply. As essential services—hospitals, police, fire fighters—had to maintain power, domestic users suffered the most cuts. The fact that these cuts appeared to fall disproportionately on poorer communities has exacerbated things, as did the comments of a (now former) Texas mayor, who posted on Facebook: “Sink or swim it’s your choice! The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING! I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout.”  

However, the reasons for this catastrophe go much further than unexpected cold, and, as has become usual in the US, they have a political dimension.

The most obvious initial political response was when Governor Abbott, appearing on Fox News, blamed renewable energy for the crisis, citing frozen wind turbines and condemning the “Green New Deal.” Abbott soon walked back these comments, when it became obvious that most Texas power comes from “conventional” sources rendered inoperable by the icy weather—for example, oil pumps in Texas’ Permian basin. In any case, unaffected wind turbines were functioning better than usual due to increased wind flow. And the Green New Deal is not yet law. Renewables are not responsible for this crisis. The real blame lies elsewhere.

There have been frequent calls for secession in Texas, especially when there is a Democrat in the White House. However, as regards power supplies, one might say the state has already “seceded.” Unlike the rest of the US, Texas has operated its own closed grid, thus avoiding federal regulations on the electricity market, operating in a laissez-faire climate. Within this market, energy providers have been able to bet on electricity prices, increasing their profits. But there has been no incentive to adequately maintain and “weatherise” plants and infrastructure for events such as the storm this week. Nor has there been any profit incentive to store gas reserves—far cheaper to operate on a “just-in-time” basis instead. Further, because Texas is not connected to the national grid, it has not been able to obtain power supplies from neighbouring states. Republicans (who control both the state legislature and the governorship) continue to push back against greater energy regulation in Texas.

Texas should not have been unprepared for this storm. Weather forecasting predicted it in advance, enabling Governor Abbott to declare a disaster situation on the 12th. There have been previous severe weather events in Texas, for example in 2011, when a winter storm severely impacted the grid. However, this present storm was quite possibly the result of a polar vortex caused by climate change. This leads to a bigger question. How will Texas cope with 21st-century climate change when so many continue to deride renewable energy, insufficiently maintain its power networks, over-rely on fossil fuels, and indeed deny the fact of climate change itself?