Burning the Furniture and Blaming the Wind
Let's help the people of Texas survive this crisis, then take action to keep it from happening again.
They’re burning fences, furniture, and toddlers’ toys to keep their children from freezing in Texas; heating rocks over fire pits to take inside for warmth; and dying from carbon monoxide fumes after leaving cars running for heat.
It was 2 degrees below zero in Dallas on Tuesday—the coldest day in more than 70 years. Nearly two million Texans went to bed Wednesday shivering in the dark for the fourth night in a row.
And by Thursday, over 375,000 remained without power statewide. Seven million boiled water after treatment facilities failed. And rather than face the threat of hypothermia at home, thousands jammed into makeshift shelters in libraries, gyms, churches, and schools, risking exposure to a pandemic that has killed nearly 42,000 Texans.
Watching from afar the devastating humanitarian and public health crisis unfolding in Texas this week, I’ve been struck by three things.
First, people across Texas are hurting, and they need our help now.
It will be days before we grasp the full extent of this disaster, but we know already that millions have been hanging on for dear life, with seniors and families with infants and young children especially at risk.
And, as we saw when Hurricane Harvey swamped Houston with five feet of rain in 2017, causing flooding that killed 89 people, it’s been low-income communities, Black people, and other people of color who have suffered most, in yet another manifestation of the environmental injustice that inflicts the greatest harm on the most vulnerable of our people.
President Biden has declared a state of emergency, directing the government to rush generators, fuel, food, water, and blankets to the state.
There are ways each of us can help by, for example, supporting organizations like Feed the People Dallas, Mutual Aid Houston, and Austin Mutual Aid. Useful lists of organizations that are helping people most in need are being maintained by CNN, Austin American-Statesman, Houston Chronicle, and Elle magazine.
Second, what’s happening in Texas is part of a larger story about the mounting costs and widening dangers of climate change. It may seem paradoxical, but scientists see a link between the harsh winter temperatures and the warming of the planet.
Typically, frigid air in the Arctic is held in place by the polar jet stream, a narrow band of strong winds in the upper atmosphere that follows the boundaries between cold and hot air.
A growing body of evidence suggests that warming temperatures, rising twice as fast in the Arctic as the global average, are weakening those jet streams and the arctic buffer they provide. That’s allowing arctic air to make its way farther and faster southward than normal, bringing icy temperatures that can make winter storms more devastating.
That’s one more reason the science tells us we’ve got to cut the dangerous carbon pollution from burning oil, coal, and gas in half by 2030, and stop adding more to the atmosphere altogether by 2050, to avert the worst of raging wildfires, floods, storms, and, yes, frigid blasts of arctic air, going forward.
Finally, there’s no sense blaming the future we see coming. Let’s prepare for it instead.
As millions of Texans fought this week’s bitter cold, the state’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, went on Fox television to blame the disaster on growth in Texas wind power.
About 80 percent of the power outages in Texas were caused by systems that rely on gas, coal, or uranium, which provide about three-fourths of the state’s electricity.
Gas contains moisture and, absent insulation, pipes that deliver it froze, as did Permian Basin wellheads where it’s produced. Abbott, in another interview, acknowledged as much.
As temperatures fell, Texas gas demand soared. Homes, hospitals, and other priority customers received service first, and many gas-fired generators were left without fuel. There were failures, also, at some coal facilities and a single nuclear reactor.
Texas gets about a quarter of its electricity from wind turbines. That cuts the state’s carbon footprint and provides needed cash that’s helped rebuild struggling communities and towns while keeping family ranches and farms intact.
Some wind turbines did freeze. Properly equipped, though, they can perform well in cold temperatures, as they do in Canada, Sweden, and, for that matter, Iowa. The answer isn’t to blame clean energy but to outfit wind turbines with the gear necessary to survive the cold.
That’s the larger lesson for the power grid in general.
As my NRDC colleague John Moore writes here, we need to invest in a smarter, more resilient electricity transmission and distribution system, in Texas and across the country, that can withstand the extreme weather fueled by climate change.
That means systems that are built to survive the physical impacts of severe weather—including hurricanes, flooding, and winter storms—and that have the flexibility to deliver additional power when demand spikes due to heat waves and arctic blasts.
“We’re going to have to plan for more of this kind of weather,” Joshua Rhodes, an energy researcher at the University of Texas at Austin told the Associated Press. “People said this would never happen in Texas, and yet it has.”