If the scientific consensus is right, extreme weather like the crippling and deadly snowstorm that left millions shivering without electricity — and some without water — for the past week will become more common.
That is what scientists say is one of the major dangers of climate change: The Earth overall warms, but that increased heat energy makes weather systems more chaotic and more extreme. Hot systems become hotter, cold become colder, wet become wetter and dry become drier.
We’re familiar with this in the Tennessee Valley, which over the past several decades has seen more severe weather as the nation’s center of peak tornado activity has shifted eastward.
We are also familiar with the toll such extreme weather can take not just in terms of lives but on utilities and infrastructure. The April 25, 2011, tornado super outbreak killed 324 people, including 238 in Alabama. It also severely damaged the Tennessee Valley Authority’s electrical grid, not just downing transmission lines, but twisting transmission towers like pretzel dough. The result was thousands of people — especially in Decatur and Huntsville — left without power for nearly a week. Without power to run gasoline pumps, people were forced to drive to areas that did have power, like Athens and the Shoals, to top off their tanks.
Much of Texas is experiencing the same situation, but with the added complication of icy weather and hazardous travel — on top of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Combating global warming is a long-term objective. In the short term, the nation’s infrastructure will have to be made more resilient so as to better withstand extreme weather.
For the past couple of decades, administrations in Washington have said we need to address the nation’s “crumbling infrastructure.” Yet the “crumbling infrastructure” remains, and what gets built or repaired usually has more to do with politics than real need.
Again, this is something with which we in north Alabama are only too familiar, seeing infrastructure spending go to highways in the middle of nowhere in south Alabama, while fast-growing north Alabama has to claw for every bit of funding we can get just so our roads can keep up with demand. This is a situation that has only recently improved.
If former President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats could never reach an agreement on infrastructure, perhaps President Joe Biden and the Democratic Congress can.
Biden has said he wants to spend up to $2 trillion on infrastructure and “clean energy” over the next four years. That includes upgrades to the power grid.
“Building resilient and sustainable infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather and a changing climate will play an integral role” in the administration’s plans, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week.
Infrastructure has been a bipartisan failure. Republican administrations in Texas failed to see to necessary maintenance and upgrades of their state’s power system, just as Democrats in California — where rolling blackouts are a summer norm — have failed to see to theirs.
People are not going to go without power. Lives depend on it, and jobs depend on it. Our leaders have played politics with infrastructure for too long, and as Texas now and Alabama in 2011 show us, the time to start rebuilding the grid has already passed. We’re playing catch-up.