Sometime last week, cold air escaped from the polar vortex, which usually stays high above the north pole. That icy air then traveled down to wreak havoc across Texas, a state geographically larger than France, bordering Mexico. Its nearly 30 million inhabitants are just starting to realize the scope of the epic infrastructural failure that has led to the entire state being declared a disaster area.
The freezing temperatures have affected power plants, offices, hospitals and homes, killing at least 30 people so far. Major metropolitan cities such as Houston, San Antonio, Dallas/Fort Worth and Austin are literally frozen. Personally, it was indeed unusual to message colleagues in Europe and Britain to cancel meetings, reporting that three inches of snow had caused power outages in a state known for its energy production. Having spent most of my adult life in New York City and Cambridge, Massachusetts, never would I have imagined my home state of Texas crumbling before my eyes from such a minuscule amount of snow.
Texas: The End of Authentic America?
On the ground, people, including myself, have collected and melted snow to flush toilets. Some are resorting to more desperate measures. Those who do have water are being told by local officials to boil before usage. Almost everyone fears their pipes bursting and flooding their homes with freezing water, as has happened to many friends and colleagues. Like others, I have scavenged for wood to burn in our seldom-used fireplace. Fueling stations and grocery shelves have been left empty much like during the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and people are sheltering in place for the second time in a year.
While some pundits have tried to frame this as a “once in a century event,” such claims begin to ring hollow after they become so frequently used. Scientists like Judah Cohen argue this is just the latest disaster from the on-going climate crisis.
The Latest Disaster
While snow is indeed rare in central and south Texas, in the northern, rural panhandle, snow is quite normal. Those small northern cities that are closer to Colorado than Mexico have been operating on one of the two national power grids and thus have largely been unaffected by the crisis. In the rest of energy-rich Texas, public utilities have been privatized over the decades, as state Republicans opted for the rest of Texas to operate its own power grid to avoid federal regulation.
Former Texas governor and US secretary of energy, Rick Perry, claimed on Wednesday that “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” One friend of mine, who coincidently works in the oil and gas industry, had to escape his cold, waterless house at midnight with his wife, toddler, and 13-day-old baby. He would certainly disagree with that callous statement.
On Sunday night, as temperatures dropped to a 30-year record low of -18˚C (0˚F), demand for energy rose, the power grid collapsed because of a lack of weather preparedness, causing widespread outages. These outages caused local water systems to freeze not just because of the cold weather, but due to a lack of electricity to pump the water, leaving nearly half the state without supply. The state then mandated rolling outages to regulate energy — with no clear idea of which communities are being prioritized, how energy is being triaged and when this will end.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott has gone on Fox News to blame renewable energy sources — and to attack the proposed Green New Deal favored by progressives — for a crisis caused primarily by the failure of the state to follow national standards to prepare equipment for dangerous weather events. Falsely, Abbott has claimed: “Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a state-wide basis … It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary.”
This was echoed by right-wing representatives like Dan Crenshaw. In truth, the crisis was mostly caused by a lack of regulations mandating equipment be prepared for extreme weather as federal guidelines suggest. It was further exacerbated by the fact that Republican lawmakers, in power for the past two decades, refused to participate in the national grid, which could have eased the strain on the state’s system — all to pad the profit margins of private energy companies.
Of course, much colder places in the northern United States and Canada rely on renewable solar and wind energy that has been equipped for cold weather. After blowback showing that most of the failures originated with fossil fuel, gas and nuclear power plants that were not equipped for the weather, Abbott blamed the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which is led by Republicans he appointed. Meanwhile, right-wing Texas state Senator Ted Cruz left his constituents to fend for themselves as he headed toward Cancun, in Mexico, using Houston police resources to help him get to the airport.
Tim Boyd, mayor of Colorado City, has resigned after posting on Facebook that “No one owes you [or] your family anything; nor is it the local government’s responsibility to support you during trying times like this! 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.” Boyd’s argument relies on the prominent Texas myth of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. This individualist myth assumed that white settler colonialists did precisely that and survived the wilderness alone at the edge of the American frontier, so you should too. In fact, these settlers often relied upon not just each other but also generations of communal knowledge shared with them by Native Americans.
Ensuring survival during disasters requires a collective approach. This is one of the reasons we humans live in societies — we can do more together than alone. This is something that the current COVID-19 crisis should have taught us. The solution is simple, yet enormous: we must modernize all our systems —health, education and infrastructure. We need to make all utility companies — gas, electric, water, internet, cable, and phones — public. We must not prioritize customers but, rather, people.
Texas is having a rude awakening because of decades of conservative policies that have prioritized private companies and rejected federal regulations that would have made the current crisis more manageable, if not altogether avoidable. Texas, the epitome of right-wing experimentation, has become a failed experiment overnight. Resolving this issue will be complicated because of continued climate change denial and the rejection of facts by right-wing politicians and their cult.
In Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel, “Don Quixote,” the fictional errant knight attacks what he perceives to be giants, despite being warned by his squire, Sancho Panza, that they are simply windmills. After Quixote’s failed attack on the windmills, Cervantes writes that “the knight was unable to move, so great was the shock with which he and [his horse] had hit the ground.” With their own attack on wind turbines, Texas Republicans have begun charging at windmills, blaming a small renewable energy sector instead of the destructive policies that created this deadly disaster.
Hopefully, like Don Quixote, who eventually recognizes his madness, the Republican Party will acknowledge its own delusions. Imagining these windmills as socialist giants coming for individual rights will leave us “very much battered indeed,” as Cervantes describes his delusional character who, too, tilted at windmills.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.