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24 February 2021updated 28 Jul 2021 6:39am

What the Texas storm reveals about climate politics in the US

While energy and the climate crisis remain hyper-politicised fronts of the culture war, urgent action seems improbable.

By Emily Tamkin

A winter storm hit the US on 13 February, leaving millions of homes and businesses in Texas without power and heat. Frozen and burst pipes led to water shortages and people were instructed to boil water before drinking after infrastructure damage affected water treatment. At time of writing, more than 15,000 people still do not have power, and almost a third of the state’s population continues to experience disruptions to their water supply. The recovery could take months.

The storm had such a severe impact because much of Texas is on an independent power grid that is separate from the rest of the country, largely in order to avoid federal regulation. Tucker Carlson, the Fox News TV host, blamed the blackouts on “green energy” and the failure of wind turbines. In reality, very little of Texas runs on wind power; natural gas accounts for far more of the state’s energy supply.

After a similar storm struck in 2011, a report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation warned that energy providers needed to invest in their infrastructure to better prepare for severe winter weather. But the state, obstinately opposed to regulation, let companies decide for themselves whether or not to pay for upgrades; the companies, by and large, declined to do so.

And so Texas’s natural gas infrastructure, which had not been built to withstand such extreme conditions, failed Texans during the latest storm. In the blackouts, Texas’s grid reportedly lost approximately five times as much power form natural gas as from wind, after gas production and pipelines froze. (Coal plants and one nuclear reactor were also put out of action by the frigid temperatures.) The only part of the state that was largely spared the power and heat outage is on the national grid.

What happened in Texas did not just “happen”, and it didn’t have to happen. The failure of the state’s energy infrastructure and the mass, sustained power outages that ensued were not inevitable consequences of a bad storm. The freezing weather had such a devastating impact because Texas legislators deregulated the state’s energy market, because oil and gas companies hold significant sway over Texas politicians, and because companies were allowed to decide to prioritise profit over caution – in spite of warnings and the growing impact of climate change.

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But the problem goes beyond Texas and its fragile, idiosyncratic energy system. The calamity in Texas must also be seen in a national context in which regulation and tackling climate change are seen not as necessary goods that help all of society, but as a hyper-politicised issue – another front in the culture war, in the course of which even a collective disaster becomes an opportunity to polarise.

[See also: Emily Tamkin on the warning of the US storms]

It is possible, of course, that the Texas storm will be a turning point, and politicians on both sides of the aisle will begin to admit that we need to think of climate change and energy infrastructure in a practical, not partisan, way. Signs of a de-escalation along these lines came last week when the Texas Republican senator Ted Cruz, who had made fun of California’s energy policies during blackouts last summer, offered a half-apology, tweeting, “I got no defense.”

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On Sunday, Cruz even tweeted supportively about regulators, saying that he hoped they would intervene to prevent companies from charging consumers exorbitant rates for electricity during the ongoing “energy debacle”. (Cruz flew to Cancun, Mexico with his wife and daughters in the middle of the power crisis, while millions of his constituents were still without electricity, causing outrage; he returned the next day.)

The need to de-politicise the climate crisis – to make the case that tackling climate change is not so much a moral duty or a matter of global altruism, but a practical necessity that is in the US’s national self-interest – is the chief emphasis of Anatol Lieven’s recent book, Climate Change and the Nation State: The Realist Case. Lieven argues that the climate crisis should be presented to voters ideologically disposed to scepticism as a national security issue and so one around which patriots of all political persuasions can unite.

It’s an argument that has made its way into politics and policy, too. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren took the approach of framing climate change as a national security issue in the 2020 Democratic primary. In January the defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, announced that the Pentagon will “include the security implications of climate change in our risk analyses” going forward. “There is little about what the department does to defend the American people that is not affected by climate change,” Austin said. “It is a national security issue, and we must treat it as such.”

This shifting approach at the national level should inform the reaction to the storm in Texas. But the corporate and political forces that created the conditions for the shortages in Texas remain in play. Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, appeared on Fox News on 16 February to claim, absurdly, that the Green New Deal – a stimulus programme that not only aims to combat climate change and overhaul the country’s energy infrastructure, but has also not yet been implemented – was responsible for Texas’s troubles.

Abbott then moved on to blaming the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates Texas’s electrical grid. Rick Perry, a former Texas governor and US energy secretary, said that Texans would be willing to accept blackouts as the price for keeping federal regulations out of the state. The former Texas senator Troy Fraser, a Republican who co-sponsored legislation to deregulate Texas electricity, told a reporter that “being inconvenienced” wasn’t a reason to redesign the market.

Dozens of people died as a result of the storm and the failure to prepare for it. This tragedy should make it clear that energy resilience and climate change are not red-state or blue-state issues, but urgent, practical matters that affect, and should concern, everyone. But in Texas, as in the US, corporate and political interests have trumped that reality. The response so far offers little reason to believe the Texas storm will lead to change. 

[See also: Philippe Sands on why “ecocide” should be a crime]