From Snow Angels to a Humanitarian Emergency
Dejusticia March 2, 2021
The episode in Texas additionally illustrates that failing to prepare for extreme weather events costs lives and exacerbates already existing inequalities, even in States with ample resources. | Justin Lane, EFE
The humanitarian emergency occurring in the state of Texas (USA) as a result of winter storm Uri challenges the assumption that the Global North, because of its socioeconomic and geographic conditions, is best positioned to tackle climate change. In this case, Texas failed to prepare for an extreme climate event despite its ample capacity to do so, and the state now finds itself in a humanitarian emergency that is costing lives, most notably those of its vulnerable populations.
The week of February 14th, winter storm Uri arrived in Texas, bringing up to 10 inches of snow and temperatures as low as -1 degree Fahrenheit to a state with light winters – during February, for example, the average low temperatures traditionally oscillate between 26 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold fronts like the one that accompanied Uri are related to climate change and the consequential loss of the Arctic’s capacity to buffer events of natural occurrence, which in turn results in unprecedented climate effects. In this case, a semi-permanent stream of air known as the Polar Vortex interacted with a sudden stratospheric warming. What emerged was a cold front that traveled farther south than ever before, ultimately arriving in Texas.
In a blink of an eye, conditions which initially seemed ideal for making snow angels transitioned into a situation in which the United States government was forced to declare an emergency. More than 4 million homes in Texas lost power, causing millions of people to suffer through extreme cold. To mitigate these conditions, some families utilized their stoves and cars to generate heat, measures which released carbon monoxide in poorly ventilated spaces. More than 300 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning and at least two resulting deaths were reported. Additionally, 14.9 million people – almost half of the state’s population – lost access to potable water during the cold front as pipes burst and purification plants were left without power. Some individuals were forced to wait up to 5 hours in their cars to receive potable water from the State.
During climate emergencies, the most vulnerable populations are the most impacted, and the situation in Texas was no exception. For example, during the storm homes in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods experienced power outages more frequently than those in primarily white neighborhoods. Additionally, many working class families could not access transportation to safely travel to warming shelters, which resulted in many having to remain in poorly insulated homes as they waited for the cold to pass. It is highly likely that these disproportionate impacts on Texans of color will continue even after the storm has ended. Many of these Texans – who additionally have suffered the most from Covid-19 – lost income as they could not work during the storm and likely do not have the resources to repair their damaged homes after frozen pipes burst.
But, how did such a devastating humanitarian emergency occur in a Global North jurisdiction which had the potential to prevent it? The answer lies primarily in the Texas government’s inaction and lack of preparation. Despite the state of Texas being situated among the top 7 in the United States which are most vulnerable to climate change, the government has not prioritized policies to mitigate the phenomenon, nor has it adequately planned to be able to respond to extreme weather events. On the contrary, it has delegated this responsibility to non-State entities, including private corporations, that often do not emphasize the need to adapt to climate change. This transfer of power has resulted in fatal consequences. For example, even after a storm in 2011 revealed the weaknesses in the state’s energy system, the companies which manage energy sources and power distribution did not adapt their infrastructure to withstand extreme winter conditions. The main issue with respect to Uri was that a number of gas, coal, and nuclear energy plants – nonrenewable sources which supply the vast majority of power in the state – could not operate in the unprecedented storm. The system which failed during the winter storm of 2011 likewise could not tolerate severely cold weather 10 years later.
Texas is not the only location that has experienced an extreme and atypical hydroclimatological episode this past year. Floods, storms, high and low extreme temperatures, hurricanes, and other events have marked historic records in magnitude and intensity, and they are becoming the norm in jurisdictions both in the North as well as in the Global South. For example, in the Global North, forest fires have ravaged Australia, Siberia, and the state of California, and extreme storms and cold fronts have occured in Europe. In the Global South, the strongest Atlantic hurricane of the season, Hurricane Iota, damaged the Caribbean, while South Asia suffered impacts from monsoons, and an unusual rainy season in Sudan caused severe flooding.
As these events show, climate change is no longer a surprise. The episode in Texas additionally illustrates that failing to prepare for extreme weather events costs lives and exacerbates already existing inequalities, even in States with ample resources. The Global North must lead climate action not only to protect the human rights of its own populations, but also to support the Global South in climate adaptation, as these jurisdictions often have less capacity to prepare while they also experience more frequent and more severe climate events. If States like Texas with ample means to tackle climate change fail to do so, the world as a whole fails given that the planet loses momentum in the collective effort to become more resilient against this phenomenon. With the return of the United States to the Paris Climate Agreement, it is critical that overcoming internal weaknesses and leading the global response become priorities – the Global North must be prepared so that conditions which previously were ideal for making snow angels do not once again result in a humanitarian emergency.