Is Texas’ Disaster a Harbinger of America’s Future?
A few days before Texas went dark, Elon Musk appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience to tout the wonders of the Lone Star State. Both Rogan and Musk have recently moved to Austin, part of a wave of privileged migrants who have come to Texas for lax regulation, low taxes, and great tacos. On the podcast, Musk said Austin “is going to be the biggest boomtown that America has seen in 50 years, at least.”
Anyway, that’s what social media posts I’ve seen report Musk said. I had planned to listen to the podcast the other day, but then it started snowing here in Austin, and a car spun out in front of me on an icy highway, nearly sending me into a concrete abutment. Ever since, life has gotten, shall we say, complicated. The power went out at our house Monday at 2 a.m., and since then, my fiancée and I and have been trying to keep ourselves warm and sane and our water pipes flowing during 10-degree nights. We finally fled to a friend’s house which, miraculously, still had power.
The blackout, which has lasted 56 hours so far, has left nearly three million people without electricity (as of this morning). As I write this, a big part of Texas is cold and dark. Businesses are shut down. Streets are empty, other than a few guys sliding around in 4x4s and fire trucks rushing to rescue people who turn their ovens on to keep warm and poison themselves with carbon monoxide. Modern life is a delicate thread made up of flowing electrons, and it is unraveling here among the BBQ pits and hipster bars. Yesterday, the line at our neighborhood grocery store was three blocks long. People walking around with handguns on their hip adds to a sense of lawlessness (Texas is an open-carry state). Homeless people wander the streets, blankets wrapped around their heads.
In parts of Houston and Austin, city officials have issued a boil water notice to residents due to possible contamination from broken pipes and offline water treatment plants. In Galveston, officials called for a refrigerator truck to care for the bodies of 20 people who have died from the cold. Last night on MSNBC, former El Paso city councilman Beto O’Rourke was in high form, saying “we are nearing a failed state in Texas” and all but demanding that Gov. Greg Abbott step down for gross incompetence. (El Paso, by the way, is the only major city in Texas undarkened by this power outage, because it is the only city wise enough to have power connections beyond the Texas grid).
Austin may indeed be a harbinger of America’s future — although perhaps not in the ways that Musk intended. Thanks largely to 200 years of hell-bent consumption of fossil fuels, our world is changing fast. Despite decades of scientific research, we have only a shadowy understanding of what’s coming our way, or how to prepare for it.
And now it is black. As I write these words, at 6 a.m. on Wednesday morning, the power just went out. We had a warm dinner last night and felt lucky. I got up early to write a dispatch. I sat in a chair in the living room and wanted to figure out a way to describe the eerie experience here and the scary way that Texas Republicans are twisting it all to their advantage. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the neighbor with the porch light on, and I thought how weird and wasteful that was, when the rest of the city is dark. Then, at exactly 6:04 a.m., the lights surged on and off three times, then there was a weird orange flash. I presume a transformer nearby blew. Now I can feel the cold seeping in. I am typing on battery time.
This is fucked up. Last night, Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent said that if they couldn’t get the grid under control it could go down for a month. That means no water, no electricity. It’s a short, dark journey from there to food riots, gangs, social breakdown. Is that where this is headed? Or is this just a “rolling blackout” that will bring power back on in 45 minutes. I have no idea. I am stuck in a slow-motion catastrophe.
What’s happening in Texas right now may or may not be linked to the climate crisis. The Arctic is warming three times as fast at the rest of the world, and it’s changing the dynamics of atmospheric circulation. Some studies that say the warming Arctic might be causing a “wavy” jet stream that is pushing Arctic air further south, into places like Texas. But given the chaotic complexity of weather systems, it’s hard to attribute this to climate change with any certainty. As climate scientist Tim Woollings put it: “It’s really not obvious what is going on.”
But here are two things we do know: first, our world is poorly equipped for the changes that come with a rapidly warming climate. What’s going on here in Texas right now is Exhibit A. The gas plants and pipelines that power the grid were not built to withstand cold, because it doesn’t get cold here very often, and nobody imagined it would ever be any different. But climate change fucks with things in dangerous and unpredictable ways: when it gets hot, planes sometimes have to stop flying because the heat changes the density of the air, and planes need longer runways to take off. Train tracks buckle. Bridges crack. Server farms overheat. When it rains two or three times harder than it has ever rained before, drainage systems are overwhelmed and rivers jump their banks. When bigger, more intense hurricanes hit, sea walls are overwhelmed.
As Jesse Jenkins, a systems engineer at Princeton University told the New York Times: “We’re now in a world where, especially with climate change, the past is no longer a good guide to the future. We have to get much better at preparing for the unexpected.”
The second thing we know is that, whatever happens, no matter how much human suffering and misery it causes, Republicans are going to exploit the event as evidence that we need to keep burning fossil fuels. That is just a rule. Here in Texas, it started with the false notion that the power outage had been caused by freezing wind turbines. In fact, the outage was caused by thermal plants — mostly natural gas and coal — and pipelines that froze up in the cold. More than half of the Texas grid’s winter generating capacity, largely powered by natural gas, was offline due to the storm. “Gas is failing in the most spectacular fashion right now,” Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told the Texas Tribune.
But the Texas fossil-fuel mafia was not about to let facts get in the way of trashing clean energy. On Monday morning, just after the power went out, the first thing I saw on my Twitter feed was a picture of a helicopter de-icing a wind turbine blade. The picture — which later went viral — had been tweeted out by a gas and oil industry consultant, with the obvious implication that without fossil-fuel-fired helicopters, wind turbines couldn’t function in the extreme cold. In fact, wind turbines do fine in the winter – Iowa has lots of them, as does Canada and Denmark. Many research outposts in Antarctica, which has the harshest cold-weather climate on Earth, are 100 percent powered by renewables.
Then Rupert Murdoch’s propaganda machine cranked up. On Monday, The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial (“The Deep Green Freeze”) blaming frozen wind turbines for the Texas blackout: “Herein is the paradox of the left’s climate agenda: The less we use fossil fuels, the more we need them.” That night, Fox’s Tucker Carlson aired his version of the “freezing wind turbines” fairy tale, calling wind turbines “silly fashion accessories” and all but blaming them for the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people in Texas. Carlson is not stupid. He knew it was a lie. But he said it anyway, because that’s what the anti-science Trumpers in his audience want to hear. Last night, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who is also not stupid, went on Hannity to twist the lie into a political talking point. “This shows that the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Abbott said.
The levels of cynicism and opportunism here are staggering, especially in the midst of a state-wide emergency that is causing untold suffering and death. If I had power, I’d write about how Texas brought this crisis on themselves by insisting on operating their own power grid that doesn’t connect with others; by failing to do anything to make the grid more resilient despite knowing for years that it was in trouble; and by creating a political system that is controlled by the power and money of an obsolete and dying energy source that worked fine in the Nineteenth century, but is now an engine of destruction and chaos.
But it is now 7 a.m., the house is growing cold, and my battery is running low. Another dark day begins in the biggest boomtown America will see for the next 50 years.
[In 1989, Jeff Goodell began covering crime and politics in New York City for7 Days, a weekly magazine that won a National Magazine Award for General Excellence in 1990. Since 1996 he has been a staff writer at Rolling Stone and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine.
Goodell’s latest book is The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World (Little, Brown, 2017). His reporting took him to 12 countries and many coastal cities in the U.S., as well as to Greenland and to Alaska with President Barack Obama. The Water Will Come was picked as a New York Times Critics’ Top Book of 2017, as well as one of Washington Post’s 50 Notable Works of Nonfiction in 2017.
Goodell was a fellow at New America in 2016 and 2017 and is currently a Senior Fellow at Atlantic Council. As a commentator on energy and environmental issues, he has appeared on NPR, MSNBC, CNN, CNBC, ABC, NBC, Fox and The Oprah Winfrey Show. He was awarded a 2020 Guggenheim Fellowship in General Nonfiction.]