In a country already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, the extreme weather served to further heighten the misery and disruption to daily life for millions.
Experts in the insurance industry can’t yet say with certainty how much damage this event caused, but it is possible that it will be among the top tier of costliest natural disasters in the United States, and perhaps even globally, for 2021.
Yet for all that’s been written about this event, the key lesson it vividly demonstrates has not been emphasized enough.
While there may be a climate change connection to this cold outbreak, in the form of the potential tie between a wavier jet stream in the Northern Hemisphere and rapid Arctic warming, what makes the blackout in Texas and other states so baffling and foreboding is that the grid failed during an extreme event that was largely within the boundaries of a “normal” climate.
This was not a cold event unlike any Texas has experienced before. In fact, in some ways it fell short of past records, but broke some new ground by some other measures.
The cold was notable especially for its duration, with Oklahoma City setting a record of 210 hours for the longest straight run of temperatures at or below 20 degrees, beating its previous record set in 1983. Yet relatively few all-time low temperature records were set during the outbreak, as Texas and the central United States tend to experience these influxes of harsh Arctic air every few decades.
In the Lone Star State, there were similar events in 2011, 1989 and 1983. The previous cold snaps, including the one in 2011, were accompanied by problems with the Texas electrical grid, and investigations into them led to recommendations to weatherize the state’s energy infrastructure to prevent a similar situation in the future.
Those recommendations were deemed to be too costly and were largely ignored.
The result is that some of the complex systems our society depends upon for basic necessities and economic growth, such as electricity, are unprepared even for the climate extremes of today, let alone more severe extremes climate scientists warn are coming. The same is true for flood protection, as illustrated by Hurricanes Katrina in New Orleans and Harvey in Houston.
“We’re living in a society that’s not designed for the weather that we’re living with and the weather to come,” said Ernst Rauch, chief climate scientist at the reinsurance company Munich Re, in an interview. He said his firm has documented an increasing trend of instances in which critical infrastructure, such as electrical grids, have failed during extreme weather events.
Climate resilience is not just a mere buzzword in policy and activism circles. It’s a necessity to manage the risks associated with a warming world as well as the weather events we already face, Rauch and other experts say. However, building more resilient infrastructure raises thorny questions about funding, considering that the marketplace often leaves it up to customers to pay for costly improvements, rather than companies themselves.
“It’s up to Texans to decide how much resilience do they want after shivering in the dark for a week,” Rauch said in an interview, pointing out that the costs of weatherizing the electrical grid are likely to be passed to ratepayers because of the way the marketplace is designed.
The likely costs of the Texas blackout demonstrate what economists have been saying for years: It is far cheaper to act now to adapt to climate change and cut greenhouse gas emissions than it is to carry on with business as usual and reap the whirlwind that lies ahead.
“The history books are going to look back at the last week of winter weather as one of the most consequential from a humanitarian perspective that we’ve seen in the United States,” Steve Bowen, head of catastrophe insight at the insurance company Aon, said in an email. “There will undoubtedly be a volume of insurance claims filed that will rival some of the bigger hurricane events seen in Texas, and this will translate to direct economic losses well into the billions of dollars.”
“It’s going to take several weeks of assessments to know how high the tally will go, but unless the rest of the year really goes off the rails, it’s safe to say that this will end up as one of 2021’s costliest U.S. disasters,” he added.
According to Rich Sorkin, founder and chief executive of Jupiter Intelligence, a company that helps governments and companies manage climate change risks, the power industry is not well-prepared for the extremes it faces and therefore has a lot of work to do to be more resilient to what climate change could bring.
The power sector is better prepared for extreme events in parts of Europe, New York, Florida and Hawaii, Sorkin said, “and very, very far behind where it needs to be pretty much everywhere [else].”
“It’s the same dynamic whether we’re talking about fire in California and Spain, heat in Dubai and Phoenix, flooding in Florida and Tokyo, cold, wind and flooding in Texas, etc., etc. The vast majority of these places are livable with sufficient planning and investment for quite some time,” Sorkin said via email.
“Without that planning and investment, a hellscape will be upon us.”