The deep freeze experienced in the United States over the past few days may or may not be an example of that. Climate scientists often talk about “global weirding,” a phrase meant to explain that a warmer world will be manifested in unexpected ways. That might include sudden exceptional cold snaps, which could be a result of changing weather patterns in the Arctic.
What’s clear, though, is Texas’s lack of preparation for the sudden cold, despite years of warnings, is itself a preview of what we can expect in the future. Utilities in the state were prompted to spend money to prepare infrastructure for unusually cold weather and opted not to do so. Now the state and the federal government are spending enormous sums to clean up the mess.
This is generally how the United States works. After Hurricane Sandy ripped up the Northeast, James Surowiecki wrote an essay for the New Yorker noting that the public tends to prefer spending money to fix messes over spending money to prevent the mess in the first place. Surowiecki pointed to a 2009 paper from researchers Andrew Healy and Neil Malhotra which examined the political response to either investing in preventive measures or in disaster response.
The latter bore more political benefits.
“Voters are, in a word, myopic,” Healy and Malhotra wrote. “They are not, as we have shown, myopic in the sense that they respond more to spending just before an election than to spending a year or two earlier; rather, they are myopic in the sense that they are unwilling to spend on natural disasters before the disasters have occurred.
“An ounce of prevention would be far more efficient than a pound of cure, but voters seem interested only in the cure,” the report continues — leading to a dynamic where elected officials are discouraged from preventing the disasters they're cheered for addressing.
This isn't something only revealed in political decision-making. Anyone who owns nearly anything makes similar risk-assessment calculations, often assuming that the low risk of disaster is worth the gamble instead of spending to keep that risk from occurring. The problem arises when those decisions are being made on life-or-death possibilities by actors working (intentionally or not) from incomplete information.
Romany M. Webb is a senior fellow at Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. She is the lead author of a report released in December titled, “Climate Risk in the Electricity Sector.” In a phone interview with The Washington Post, she explained why the decisions made in Texas about possible weather extremes were far from abnormal.
“In the electric sector, for the most part, electric utilities and system operators are not at all prepared to deal with the more frequent and severe extreme weather events that climate change will bring,” Webb said. While many utilities had been pressed to develop robust plans for dealing with more frequent weather extremes, those analyses had often been “completely inadequate,” evaluating risk based on historic weather patterns and not expected ones.
We saw a similar problem emerge in the aftermath of Sandy. The flooding that accompanied that storm was a function of three overlapping issues: high tide, storm surge and higher sea levels that are a manifestation of the warming climate. (Among other links, warmer water occupies more volume.) The storm made clear that the flood maps used by the federal government were woefully out-of-date, meaning areas not expected to flood probably would in the future. A few months after the storm, the Federal Emergency Management Administration unveiled new maps — but those new maps were also backward-looking and didn’t include any consideration of climate change.
If you plan your infrastructural improvements around scenarios which you know are changing, your improvements are going to have flaws. To go back to our previous analogy, a container designed to absorb a hand grenade made in 1920 probably won't fare well against a modern one. Things changed.
“Electric utilities and system operators make investments every day in new facilities, and in a lot of cases they’re making those investments without considering climate impacts that we know are very likely to occur,” Webb explained. “And so in five, 10, 15, 20 years, they will likely have to retrofit or harden those pieces of infrastructure which will, in many cases, end up costing a whole lot more.”
This is an inversion of the famous marshmallow test: Will you hand over one marshmallow now to avoid having to hand over two in 15 minutes? The difference, of course, is in what happens in 15 minutes. It’s not that you have to hand over two marshmallows; it’s that there’s a very small chance you have to hand over 1 million marshmallows. Most people decide it’s simpler just to hang on to the marshmallow they have in their possession and assume the small chance doesn’t arrive. After all, they’ve been playing this game for 100 years, and the million-marshmallow scenario comes up so rarely.
The failures of electrical systems to prepare for such worst cases are multilayered, according to Webb. There's not only a generally incomplete assessment of the risks the utilities themselves face but an additionally incomplete assessment of upstream systems — like the natural gas providers which were frozen in place in Texas, causing a shortage of gas needed for electricity generation.
“Extreme weather events necessarily have some impact on our energy infrastructure and other infrastructure. So getting to zero risk is not possible — really, even if we had unlimited money,” Webb explained. “But we do have to manage the extent of the risk against the investment that we’re making to mitigate that risk.”
This is a familiar conversation to electricity providers. It’s also one that, even when the decision is made to invest against that small threat, means presenting a marshmallow test like the one above to customers and shareholders. The utility deciding to upgrade its systems is one thing. Explaining to a customer why its bill went up is another.
Webb ended our conversation with a warning.
“This is a broader problem than just in Texas,” she said, despite arguments that Texas's isolation from the national grid made its situation worse. “We're going to see these sorts of problems across the country unless we start planning appropriately for climate impacts, which very few system operators and others are doing.”
“Texas’s experience might be unique at this point in time,” she continued, “but in the future, many other people will be experiencing similar situations unless we change our approach pretty fundamentally.”
We know what’s coming, in general. The looming question is what, if anything, we plan to do about it.