Beginning on February 10, two major winter storms pummeled the American South. The state of Texas was hit especially hard. More than 4 million Texans lost power during the week of February 15, and nearly 12 million experienced disruption to their water supply. Cases of carbon monoxide poisoning spiked as people ran vehicles and used charcoal grills in enclosed spaces to try to stay warm. As of February 18, at least 58 people had died as a result of the storms, including children and senior citizens.
These drastic weather events, the frigid temperatures they brought with them, and the resulting humanitarian crisis are all directly attributable to manmade climate change. In normal conditions, a strong jet stream acts as a “lasso” around the polar vortex above the Arctic. As the poles warm faster than the rest of the planet (temperatures in the atmosphere above the North Pole shot up by 100 degrees Fahrenheit over the course of a few days in late December in early January), the jet stream is weakened and the cold air plunges south.
Immediately, and predictably, certain political figures began to use the power outages as an excuse to rail against renewable energy and the Green New Deal. As his constituents suffered, Governor Greg Abbott went on cable news to blame the outages on frozen wind turbines—a patently false claim, given that only 7 percent of the state’s forecasted winter electrical capacity was expected to come from wind. In truth, Texas is heavily dependent on natural gas, and Abbott himself admitted elsewhere that the main problem was frozen pipelines that had disrupted power delivery.
A deeper structural problem is the way the Texas energy grid is set up and administered. Instead of being tied into the federal grid system, Texas elects to go it alone under the auspices of the Electrical Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). The Texas grid is not subject to federal regulation such as mandatory weatherizing that could have prevented the recent catastrophe. Federal regulators warned Texas that its power plants were insufficiently weatherized in 2011, but since there are no penalties for suppliers who fail to comply with weatherization guidelines, the companies did nothing.
It’s not just about a lack of enforcement. According to Adrian Shelley of the advocacy group Public Citizen, Texas’s deregulated, competition-driven system means that power companies “have little incentive to make investments in winterization they may not recoup.” Shareholder profits are placed above customer service, safety, and affordability. The president and chief financial officer of Comstock Resources Inc., a shale driller that operates in Texas and Louisiana, admitted as much when he told investors that the spike in natural gas prices during the storms “is like hitting the jackpot.” Deregulation was put into place ostensibly to lower utility rates, yet customers in deregulated markets in Texas paid $24 billion more for services than those in regulated markets between 2002 and 2014.
A detrimental side effect of Texas’s independent grid is that, in times of crisis, it cannot tap into neighboring systems on the federal grid for support. Customers are left high and dry for what are, to all appearances, purely ideological reasons: namely, a deep-seated aversion to the federal government and anything that stands in the way of unchecked corporate power. Former Texas governor Rick Perry made this clear when he was quoted on House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s website as saying that “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” Beyond the brashness of claiming to speak for all Texans, the quote was particularly tone deaf in implying that residents without heat or water would be more concerned with the dangers of interstate collaboration than with the restoration of their power supply. (That Perry, Abbott, Representative Dan Crenshaw, and other Texas politicians who immediately defended the fossil fuel industry in the wake of the storm have accepted between them millions of dollars in campaign contributions from oil and gas companies goes a long way in explaining their perspective.)
Another Texas politician, former Colorado City mayor Tim Boyd, was forced to resign after he told his constituents via Facebook that “The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING,” adding, “I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn hand out!” Clearly lost on Boyd was that customers requesting the goods and services they have rightfully paid for be delivered to them is not “looking for a damn hand out” but rather the fulfillment of a simple business transaction. So blinkered was he by the myth of “rugged individualism” that he could not see through it to the reality on the ground: a place where even the most stalwart adherent to the frontier mentality is now subject to systems beyond his control, where self-reliance bumps up against an increasingly interconnected world, where our dependence on fossil fuels ensures that all but the most isolated participate in some way in a global exploitative economy.
A week before the first storm hit, U.S. News & World Report published a story about Nevada governor Steve Sisolak’s plan to launch “Innovation Zones” within his state as a way to attract technology firms. At first blush, the story seems to have little to do with the crisis in Texas. But when we read that the proposed zones “would permit companies with large areas of land to form governments carrying the same authority as counties, including the ability to impose taxes, form school districts and courts and provide government services,” we see how the vacuums left by failed states—such as Texas over the past month—could be filled in the future. As politics becomes more and more of a spectacle, the process of governance becomes less about addressing the material needs of constituents than firing another salvo in the never-ending culture war. Beneath the chimera of this performative politics, infrastructure, health care, and myriad other public entities up to and including our democracy itself are allowed to wither. If we are not careful, and do not demand more from our leaders, an unchecked private sector will step into the hollowed-out shell of the state even more than it already has, reforming society to its whims under the specious guise of “innovation.”
In his new book Let Us Dream, Pope Francis has called for nothing less than a “Copernican revolution” in the way we structure our political and economic life. “For me it is clear,” he writes, “we must redesign the economy, so that it can offer to every person access to a dignified existence while protecting and regenerating the natural world.” In his piece on the book in Commonweal, Austen Ivereigh, Francis’s biographer and collaborator on Let Us Dream, highlights a recurring motif in the Holy Father’s writings and addresses: “Returning again to a medieval rabbi’s interpretation of the Tower of Babel, in which bricks were considered more valuable than slaves, Francis points out that an economy obsessed with growth and consumption is essentially one of human sacrifice.”
To hear it expressed so starkly underscores the moral seriousness of the moment. The situation in Texas is the result of what happens when an atrophied state and a rapacious corporatocracy combine to reduce citizens to consumers and consumers to depersonalized abstractions who are owed nothing. We can either continue on this path or we can, with Francis, begin to reify the dream of a more humane and regenerative way of life. His words in Let Us Dream leave no room for misinterpretation: “People or bricks: it is time to choose.”
Editor, Today’s American Catholic