The powerful cold wave that swept over much of North America in February 2021 was a rare but not unprecedented event. In fact, similar cold waves occurred in 1989 and 2011, and the United States’ state of Texas had encountered similar problems then. Still, when the cold wave hit in 2021, it found Texas poorly prepared.
Texas cold wave
A preventable catastrophe?
Texas is the only state of mainland United States that has its own electrical grid, which intentionally does not connect to the country’s other power grids, to avoid federal regulations. This has resulted in the Texas energy supply being both isolated and largely deregulated. During previous winter storms, many generators failed, but in the Texas deregulated, market-based system, energy producers had barely any incentive to invest in cold weather protection; after all, in the average year they are much more affected by heat than by cold. In a state that prides itself on being independent and having freedom of choice, the free market and deregulation were prioritized over more disaster-resilient infrastructure.
As a result, when yet another winter storm hit in 2021, Texas found itself hardly better prepared than before. A number of power facilities went offline due to the freezing temperatures; in fact, at one time 48 per cent of power generation capacity was offline. With record cold temperatures and poorly insulated homes, there was also a surge in demand for electricity. Since the Texas electric grid is isolated from the rest of the country, power could not come from anywhere else other than within Texas. Because demand soon exceeded supply, the electric companies had to rely on rolling blackouts, which effectively cut power for around 3.5 million Texans. Without power to heat their homes, 210 people died, mostly from hypothermia.
Overall, the course of events was largely preventable: had power companies built in more resilience, most of the effects could have been prevented. But on a larger scale this is also a story of supply and demand. As long as Texans continue to demand a system that favours cheap electricity over safety and security, this disaster will be one of many.
The same cold wave events also disrupted the delivery of electricity in Texas in 1989 and 2011, while jet stream disruptions in January/February 2021 caused energy crises in the European Union, China and Japan as Arctic temperatures moved south.
Emerging issues of critical infrastructure being caught unprepared for climate extremes.
In a state that prides itself on being independent and having freedom of choice, the free market and deregulation were prioritized over more disaster-resilient infrastructure.
Cases where maximizing profit is prioritized over other social concerns, increasing risk
Lack of coherent national/global governance, unregulated exploitation of low and middle-income countries, limited governmental capacity
A lack of perception, awareness or preparation in governance relating to risk management and response
Gases released into the atmosphere by human activities contribute to increasing global warming and climate change
Absence or ineffective enforcement of regulations connected to other risk drivers
Increasing temperatures in the ocean or atmosphere, for example from climate change
Infrastructure vulnerable to extreme events, often due to lack of investment, maintenance, inadequate planning or poor construction.
Even those surviving disasters or tipping point impacts when they occur can be at risk of short- and long-term health impacts cascading from pollution, damage of critical infrastructure, livelihood disruption or other consequences of systems being affected
Reduction of people’s ability to support themselves or their family, both temporarily or permanently, is an impact that is interconnected with many others, including health and food security
Water security can be impacted by tipped systems and disasters when sufficient availability or access to water for health and livelihoods is disrupted. Water sources can also get contaminated and make vectors for other risks
Disasters cause fatalities both when they occur and in the aftermath with cascading effects on physical and mental health
Public and private structures and systems can be affected by disasters and risk tipping points impacts, from homes and properties to physical assets critical for providing health services, transport, food, water, communications and more
Just like people, nature also feels the impacts of systems tipping and various hazards resulting in threats to health and physical damage to individuals, populations, communities or entire ecosystems