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Texas's Intense Heatwave Is A Warning To The Rest Of Us, But Not In The Way You Think
From politics to the true nature of climate change, Texas stands as a caution to what we are to expect.
Last week, Texas was sweltering under a prolonged and fierce heatwave. Residents whacked their ACs on full blast, headed for shade and went for a dip in any cool water they could find. Whilst this wasn’t the worst heatwave Texans have experienced, it still claimed lives and crippled its power grid. Sadly, it seems this heatwave, like many that have gripped the Southern state over the past few years, was caused by climate change. This means that Texas will have to brace itself for these extreme weather events to become far more frequent and far more intense. But, the intricate climate systems that caused this heatwave, and the surrounding politics, are a dire warning for the rest of the world. But how?
So, let’s start with what is causing the current heatwave and why this is so important.
Weirdly, it seems that the culprit is the Arctic. The frozen northern tip of the planet is warming at a rate four times that of the rest of the world! As such, even though we have only experienced a small amount of climate change so far, its climate is vastly different than it was only a few decades ago. However, the chilly temperatures of the Arctic are the engine that powers many climate stabilising systems, such as oceanic currents and persistent upper atmospheric winds like the Jet Stream. So, as the poles warm, these weather stabilising systems weaken, and extreme weather happens more often and with greater severity.
Many climate scientists think that heatwaves, like the one that just happened in Texas, are caused by disruptions to the Jet Stream from Arctic heating. The warmer Arctic causes the path of the Jet Stream to dip and bend from its regular track. These kinks can act as a barrier, trapping high-pressure weather systems in one location for an extended period of time. These stationary high-pressure systems cause massive heat waves and, as such, are known as heat domes.
While it is only a theory that these events are caused by Arctic heating, a lot of data and models point to a correlation between the two.
But a wibbly wobbly jet stream doesn’t just cause heat waves. The same process can cause incredibly intense cold snaps and snow storms in the winter. In fact, the mega snowstorm from last year was likely caused by a warm Arctic and a meandering jet stream.
Okay, so why is this so important? Well, because countless built-up areas around the world rely on similar weather-stabilising climate systems to remain habitable, it’s just that Texas’s location means it is one of the first places to feel the effects of these climate systems’ strengths waning. For example, Europe’s weather is tempered by the Gulf Stream ocean current and its leg of the jet stream (which is more stable than the Texan leg, as it isn’t pushed and pulled by two oceans like it is near Texas). Indonesia and much of Asia’s weather is stabilised by an eddy in the same jet stream that flies over Texas. And much of the Southern Hemisphere’s weather is stabilised with its version of the jet stream.
Right now, all of these locations are shielded from the worst of climate change, but as its teeth start to bite, their weather-stabilising climate systems will weaken in much the same way, and they, too, will experience biblically intense extreme weather. In this way, Texas is the Canary in the coal mine, warning us all of what is to come.
We have only experienced 0.86 °Celsius of global warming so far, and it is already causing extensive property damage, billions of dollars of economic damage each year, and, sadly, loss of life in Texas alone. Recent studies suggest we are expected to reach 3 °Celsius of global warming! At this level, the Southern US will become a hellish, post-apocalyptic landscape, and much of the world will not be that far behind.
But technology can make a huge difference here, enabling civilians to survive these challenging conditions. Air conditioning, desalination plants, fridges, heaters and even stoves can help many thrive in prolonged extreme heatwaves and snowstorms by enabling civilians to stay sheltered at home for days, possibly even weeks, at a time. Sadly, this is where Texas is really warning the world. You see, they are not only squandering their chance to protect their citizens from these deadly events but are actively worsening it.
You may already know that Texas is a strongly Republican state. 57% of their House Representatives (who create and vote on federal or countrywide laws) are Republican. This, in of itself, is in no way a bad thing. But, the Republicans recently tried to pass a bill dubbed the “Lower Energy Costs Act”, which only one Republican voted against. This bill would have weakened Texas’s energy grid and driven climate change if enacted. Luckily, it was stopped by the Senate.
Why was the Lower Energy Costs Act so dangerous? Well, let me explain.
Republicans believe that Biden’s climate push is reducing the US’s energy output and increasing energy costs, harming individuals and the economy. This bill aimed to boost the domestic fossil fuel industry and push back against renewable rollout to boost the economy.
What’s more, one of the big reasons for fatalities in Texas during extreme weather events is the energy gird dropping out, and Texan Republicans have been quick to blame this on renewable energy. Texas regularly experiences massive blackouts during both heatwaves and snowstorms. For example, several coal and gas plants last week had to close down due to thermal outages (where components get too hot and trigger a safety shut off), and during the previous cold snap, wind turbines froze solid, taking their power output to zero. During these blackouts, residents can’t heat or cool their homes, and simple tasks like cooking or preserving food and drinks become challenging, which can all lead to severe illness and even death.
Republican politicians, who are almost entirely funded by oil companies, used this to spread propaganda that renewable energy was making Texas’s energy grid less stable, causing these blackouts and threatening lives. As such, they promoted bills like the Lower Energy Costs Act as a safety measure.
But this is all categorically false. The reason Texas repeatedly experiences blackouts during these extreme weather events is because its energy grid has not been built to withstand them. For example, the transformers and circuit breakers that recently failed due to thermal overloading can be built to withstand higher temperatures, but they haven’t. Equally, the wind turbines that froze can be fitted with heating systems that ensure they can operate all through the winter (as such systems are used in places like Scandinavia), but they weren’t.
What’s more, recent studies show that if Texas switched to 100% renewables, its energy grid would be able to survive these heatwaves and snowstorms far better than if it used fossil fuels (even if the fossil fuel plants upgraded to work in extreme temperatures). This is because solar panels and wind turbines can easily survive extreme temperatures and keep working like nothing is happening.
In fact, last week, when Texas had to shut down several fossil fuel and nuclear power plants, solar farms kept the light on and the AC blowing, sparing them another blackout.
If Republicans got their way, then Texas’s energy grid would be held back, relying on outdated fossil fuel technology that pollutes the air, drives climate change and is more susceptible to extreme weather. In turn, this would drive snow storms and heatwaves to be more frequent and more extreme whilst ensuring residents experience more and more blackouts, leading to even more loss of life, property damage and economic damage.
This is Texas’s true warning. We can’t entirely stop climate change; this self-made beast is already far too monstrous to do that. Instead, we need to actively mitigate it. The politicians whose job it is to do this and ensure their citizens are safe and can prosper are instead being driven by a populist mentality and tainted money, and as such, they are leading their people into an apocalyptical situation. Texas is ahead of the curve when it comes to feeling the catastrophic effects of climate change and, therefore, should be a bastion for climate politics. But instead, it’s a shining example of what not to do, and every state and country worldwide should pay attention to the Republican’s failure to protect Texas from these extreme weather events. That’s not to say the world needs to swing more to the left; far from it, you can be a Republican and fight climate change. You just have to be prepared to listen to scientific consensus and data rather than sponsor money or the populist low-hanging fruit.
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