The case of the Texas power crisis demonstrates the potential of climate change to expose and exploit the weaknesses of the broken Western economic system.
For most people, the word Texas is synonymous with cacti, cowboys, and conservatism. Poorly aged stereotypes aside, the Lone Star state remains one of the warmest in the United States of America (USA), with average daytime temperatures upwards of 30 degrees Celsius throughout the summer.
However, February 2021 presented a freakish departure from the norm. An unprecedented southwards advance of the Jet Stream brought one winter storm after another, plunging the typically mild winters of the American South into nightmarish cold conditions, of which its residents were neither used to, nor prepared for.
Less than a year after the State of California was ravaged by record breaking forest fires that turned the North-West coast into a scene reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, the USA was once again subjected to the horrors of an increasingly unpredictable and extreme global climate. As a result, millions were left without power, leading to the deaths of at least 82 people.
The ever-growing dangers of Climate Change for American citizens have been recognised for many years now, but the case of the 2021 Texas power crisis underscores a far more sinister dimension to the problem: climate change will expose, intensify, and wreak havoc through the weaknesses of contemporary Western economic systems. The case of the Texas power crisis demonstrates that neo-liberal capitalism is not only wholly inadequate in effectively responding to climate change-induced disasters but works catalytically to make such disasters even more dangerous.
The source of Texas’ woes lies in its power system, which, resulting from a long held desire to avoid federal regulations, runs on its own separate, and almost entirely disconnected energy grid. What this means is that Texas is dependent on its own internal power creation in order to supply heating and electricity to its citizens, and has only a very limited ability to tap into adjacent supplies if and when the need arises. To keep the lights on, the Texan power system must be almost entirely self-sufficient.
This being the case, you would think that the Texan power infrastructure would be one of the most carefully monitored and maintained systems in the world, built to withstand all eventualities. You would be wrong. The Texas power grid is hopelessly under-prepared and poorly fitted for dealing with anything more than minor temperature fluctuations. None of Texas’ various power sources, be they coal powered, wind, nuclear or natural gas, were fitted with the adequate technology needed to protect them from the cold. As a result, the arrival of the storms caused pipes to freeze, blocking the flow of natural gas, as well as water needed for both the power generation process and cooling the power stations themselves. As demand for electricity surged throughout the state, its power network quite literally froze solid, thrusting its residents into a freezing, deadly darkness.
But isn’t Texas supposed to be warm? Surely this is nothing more than a terrible, unforeseen accident? A once-in-a-century tragedy? How was Texas supposed to foresee such a disaster? Quite easily, it would turn out.
As awful as the 2021 Texan power crisis was, it was not the first time the state has suffered from unusually cold temperatures. Just ten years previously in 2011, Texas faced shorter outages, after which the Texan power grid was strongly encouraged to install winter-proof protection to its power grid. A decade on, such recommendations had been all but ignored. In 2014, several Texan power plants were again forced offline as they were unable to cope with unusually cold temperatures. Again, nothing was done.
However hard the conservative talking heads desperately tried to pin the blame on wind turbines (an absurd line of argument given that wind power makes up only 10% of Texas’ power supply at its peak productivity), there is one simple factor that allowed this tragedy to unfold: deregulation.
Rather than heeding the warnings of experts, who advised taking measures to ensure the security of the power grid and the safety of Texans, the Republican controlled Texas state legislature and various regulatory agencies ignored this. They spent a decade waiving proper safety measures and refused to entertain the idea of requiring the companies responsible for running the Texan power grid to address the weaknesses within the system. When faced with the choice between actively ensuring the long-term security of its energy system and the propagation of free-market capitalist values, Texan lawmakers chose the latter.
With no legal requirement to do anything about their hideously under-equipped infrastructure, Texan power companies did what every private, for-profit company does in the face of unchecked, unregulated freedom- they blew caution to the wind and ran for the quickest, cheapest buck available, praying that the inevitable would not happen.
It did. And almost 100 people died.
The aftermath of the crisis exposed the decade-long refusal of both the conservative lawmakers and the Texas power companies to take basic preventative measures that could have saved these people. This was not an unforeseen disaster, nor was it an unavoidable tragedy. The Texas power crisis was nothing short of cold-blooded murder. The safety of working people was given the backseat to accommodate a heartless, unrelenting drive to maximise profits of shareholders.
As climate change continues to grow in prevalence throughout the world, it will continue to expose and exploit the systemic weaknesses of the capitalist economic system; a system that puts short-term profit above the long-term safety of civilian populations. The Texas crisis saw the kind of freak weather event that will become increasingly common and increasingly severe as the planet continues to warm. This will take a devastating toll on people, as the free market capitalist system allowed for private Texas companies to forgo all responsibility besides the drive for profit, and completely disregard the well-being of Texas citizens.
As the case of Texas demonstrates, the continued practice of free market capitalism in the context of climate change threatens our well-being more than ever before. If we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change, this crooked, long-obsolete system of economics must go.
Toby Blewett is a final year student of International Relations with a particular interest in environmental politics, human rights, migration, and the politics of the developing world. He is also the secretary of University of Leicester Plan-it Change Society. You can follow him on Twitter at: @tobyblewett.