We Don’t Have Time for This Nonsense

We Don’t Have Time for This Nonsense

We expect slogans and promises from candidates. But once elected, officials must provide solutions to our problems. When they don’t, we suffer.

Texans are learning that lesson the hard way. An extraordinary humanitarian crisis emerged last month as an extreme weather event left millions freezing in the dark due to the collapse of Texas’ energy grid. The cold temperatures burst water pipes and disrupted water treatment plants, requiring the state to warn 44% of its population to boil water before drinking. Hospitals had to harvest rain water and melt ice to hydrate their staff and patients, while struggling to provide dialysis and other essential health services. Many Texans could not find enough to eat as grocery store shelves emptied. Over 80 people were dead as of February 25th.

Amidst this crisis, Texas Governor Greg Abbott explained to his constituents on Fox News that their suffering was caused by wind turbines freezing up, stating that “the Green New Deal will be a deadly deal for America.” Fox personality Tucker Carlson called wind turbines “silly fashion accessories” and blamed Texas’ growing renewable-energy industry for the death of its citizens (a version of the lie repeated by Fox 128 times in two days according to Media Matters).

We are in big climate trouble, and nonsense like this is just making things worse.

If our political leaders can only respond to climate emergencies (and other societal challenges) by engaging in ignorant finger-pointing and stoking rage at others, we are doomed. With our climate problems emerging even faster than scientists predicted, we need to stay focused on devising and implementing solutions. It’s worrying to see this growing inability to even have a reasoned debate about our response to this obvious existential threat.

Having delivered over one hundred public presentations in the last 15 years, I’ve watched people of all stripes becoming more concerned about climate change. My audiences are recognizing that it is possible to support climate action while remaining true to one’s personal values. I have no doubt that we can make great progress implementing popular, non-partisan strategies. So it is particularly disheartening to see elected leaders like Governor Abbott, when facing a painful manifestation of the climate problem, retreat to the Fox News disinformation bubble to monger fear, anger and pointless conflict instead of constructive dialogue.

As a scientist, I feel compelled to challenge — using evidence — the Governor’s inaccurate proclamations, and the lies spread by Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and other outlets (one YouTube stream blaming the power outage on “failures of green energy” has been viewed almost a million times). There is no upside when we let propaganda substitute for news.

Just to be clear, wind turbines did not cause the power failures and concomitant suffering in Texas.

A major winter storm, driven by a weakening jet stream that allowed Arctic air to dip south across North America, brought bitterly cold temperatures to a region totally unprepared for these conditions. The extreme cold affected gas wells and pipelines, gas-fired, coal-fired and nuclear power plants and wind turbines. The operators of the Texas grid note that the main problem was the loss of natural-gas generating capacity during a period when electrical demand skyrocketed. Wind power was also impacted, though turbine performance was still satisfactory, and solar output exceeded expectations. But renewable sources are not counted upon as a large part of the electricity mix in Texas during the winter.

The loss of power was made worse by the fact that Texas has in essence its own power grid, established and maintained to limit federal influence in an expression of deregulatory evangelism. In addition, the goal for grid management has been to keep electricity prices low by forcing intense competition between utilities, but this serves as a disincentive for investments by companies to enhance reliability. After cold snaps in 1989 and 2011, recommendations to upgrade vulnerable equipment were mainly ignored by Texas utilities, and there was no regulatory body to require implementation (wind turbines and other generating equipment can be winterized, just like automobiles). These short-sighted political and economic decisions have left Texans vulnerable, just as in California where we have increased our vulnerability to fire by allowing fuel to accumulate in landscapes that traditionally burned (this has also negatively affected our electrical grid).

And there is a Texas-size piece of evidence that proves this point. The municipal utility in El Paso responded to the 2011 freeze by investing millions of dollars in winterizing equipment. And, due to its extreme westerly location, El Paso is part of the western states electrical grid rather than that of Texas. Not surprisingly, El Paso was spared the devastation suffered by the rest of Texas.

Our climate has already changed — this is a fact that scientists have measured and everyone is now living. Average global temperature has climbed over 1°C in the past 200 years, after staying essentially constant for the previous 10,000. We are out of time to prevent climate change — it is here and will be getting worse in the coming decades. The only decision before us is how bad we let it get.

This enormous problem must be addressed through actual, not performative, governance. Actual governance must be based on facts as determined by science, the courts, journalism and the other evidence-based institutions that remain under attack by the Trumpist Republican party and its media amplifiers. That our electric grids are at risk from novel and extreme weather events is just one example of why major, coordinated action is required (and there are many others). These risks affect Democrats and Republicans alike, and the Green New Deal is the first serious attempt to respond at scale to the problems we face.

If Governor Abbott and his colleagues don’t like this proposal they could put forward their own. But, so far, they’ve got nothing except the political nonsense of “owning the libs” as part of an endless celebration of grievance. This is a reprehensible abdication of leadership responsibility, and it drives our future into a maelstrom of ever more extreme climate-driven disruption.