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Extreme weather will keep putting us in a tailspin if we don’t acknowledge and implement climate solutions fast.
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Southerners have always known that snow and the South don’t mix. And once it all melts away, thanks to a swift shift to 80-degree days, it means busted pipes and potential flood hazards.
Extreme winter weather coldly reveals environmental and climate-related disparities, especially among poor, and often, Black and Brown communities. It’s as obvious as bald tires on a slick road: You can ignore it when the weather is good, but hit one bad patch, and you’ll end up in an uncontrollable tailspin praying to come out okay on the other side.
The frustrating part about the storm that hit Southern states last week is that the tailspin was preventable. Affordable technology and solutions exist, and the state of Texas was aware of them well before the storm. Simply heeding the suggestions to winterize the existing grid could have mitigated damages and strengthened basic infrastructure needs in rural communities. We could have better used home weatherization funding, that was prevalent in the Obama administration, to make homes more efficient and less reliant on fossil fuels. We could have mandated that emitting facilities expose extreme weather/climate risk so that local leaders are prepared to respond in case of an emergency.
Yet, instead of taking the obvious precautionary measures, some Southern state leaders have spent the past 20 years denying the existence of climate science while protecting their donors and friends in the oil and gas industry. In other words, we had the money, the opportunity to buy new tires on sale! But, we decided to ride on the bald ones knowing full well that one day we may get caught out in the ice. What’s worse, now that we’re out here spinning, the drivers have the audacity to lie, leave us on the side of the road, and blame the new brakes and not the tires. Sen. Ted Cruz (“Cancun Cruz”?) has been one of the biggest deniers of the climate crisis, yet when it hit his front door, he escaped to… Mexico. He even left the family dog Snowflake in the cold house! (Seriously, the jokes write themselves.)
While leaders like Cruz tried to lay blame at the feet of the very people who’ve advocated on how to fix the problem, people suffered. There were down powerlines and no electricity. City government buildings and schools shut down because of impassable roads. Waterlines froze and water mains broke due to the weight pressing down on already overburdened and outdated infrastructure systems. Forced burnoffs from emitting facilities put tons of dangerous pollutants in the air.
Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry and its supporters in the state doubled down. In an effort to shift blame to renewables, Fox News and Tucker Carlson promoted inaccurate pictures of frozen windmills in Texas as the cause of outages. (They were actually pictures from Sweden.) While we’ve yet to hear how Cruz plans to support communities post-storm, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made news with her quick and impactful call for donations to hard-hit communities Texas. The smoke and mirrors of it all is no accident: Fossil fuel industry giants know full well that this colossal failure of the Texas energy grid is indicative of a much bigger problem. It puts a huge spotlight on the upcoming fight around renewable energy and electrification infrastructure. While they have argued that electrification is unreliable and a disaster waiting to happen, that’s particularly hard to defend when homes went without power for days.
And there’s no question that communities of color and marginalized people are bearing the brunt of this failure. The “rolling blackouts” were never rolling; in Black and Brown communities they sat and stayed. My friends started posting pictures of the text messages they received from Entergy, asking them to reduce their electric usage in order to protect the grid, and it was like hearing a bad joke. “Are they gonna reduce my bill?” was a common response as people struggled to figure out how they were going to stay warm and eat, let alone decide what appliances were “nonessential.” The very idea of being able to make that decision comes from a place of privilege. It’s not like folks are choosing whether to unplug the Instant Pot or the coffee maker; when you only have the basics, every appliance is essential. And their fears were true: Already, families are beginning to receive bills that are 150 times higher than normal. Can you imagine having a regular bill of $150.00, then seeing that your provider has sent you a bill for over $3,000.00 while you have no power?
The energy dumping makes it all worse: Tons of pollutants were released upon fenceline communities in East Houston, most related to flaring because of facilities losing power or systems failures. An Environmental Defense Fund analysis of the state reported data shows there were at least 177 emissions events that occurred across the state from February 11-16. Thirty-eight of those occurred in the Houston region alone, totaling an estimated 615,574 pounds of excess pollution. The two biggest reported events were at the massive Exxon Mobil complex in Baytown, east of Houston, an area comprising mostly Black and Brown communities.
All of the social, environmental, and infrastructure problems exposed in this winter storm make clear that energy inequity is real and must be addressed in a way that fills the holes created by systemic racism and lack of resources. Climate change directly impacts extreme weather, and it can show up in the form of hurricane, wildfire, fire, and yes, snow and ice. The climate crisis may attack the same geographic area, but the way the people of different demographics and socioeconomic backgrounds experience that attack is widely different. It highlights the reason we absolutely must push for a strong infrastructure plan that directs dollars into the most impacted communities first and fast. We must leverage local community power alongside business and foundation willingness to effect systemic change.
All that considered, I’m hopeful, prepared, and resilient. Due to the spotlights on racial equity and justice in America, there is a window of opportunity open to establish solid, community-based solutions and shore up foundations that have been crumbling for years. We’ve got a shot to not just replace the tires, but buy a new car that runs on clean energy. And I’m ready to drive.
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