By ERWIN FREED
A polar vortex shattered daily low temperature records and sustained major freezing throughout much of the South. The extreme cold is ongoing as millions are without power in Texas, with poor Black and Latinx communities particularly hard-hit by so-called “rolling” blackouts.
Anthropocene and “natural” disasters
Capitalist landscape design, productive, and military decisions are fundamentally made to give more and more profits to the big banks and corporations at the expense of the living conditions of working-class and middle-class people and the environment. Continuously pumping fossil fuels into the atmosphere, carrying out massive deforestation, and other means of poisoning the earth to enrich the capitalists have led to a major extinction event and epoch-shaping shifts in weather patterns and geological conditions.
Climate change has a double meaning in an era in which all decisions governing human life are determined by the needs of the “market.” The first and most obvious is the “natural” dimension. There has been an uptick in “freak” or “once in a lifetime” weather events, not just in the United States but all over the world. These include the intensifying spread of deadly wildfires throughout the U.S. West and Australia, more frequent and stronger hurricanes in the Caribbean and South Asia, and vehicle-melting temperatures in the Middle East and U.S. Southwest.
The second and, as Karl Marx might say, hidden dimensions of the anthropocene are the various social responses to these weather, geological, oceanic, and health events. Cost-cutting choices made by regulatory entities, privatizing public infrastructure, and climate-change-driven gentrification only scratch the surface of the avoidable destruction facing working and oppressed people all over the world. A feature of today’s capitalist conjuncture is the complete failure of planning for extreme, and increasingly predictable, weather events.
There is no reason that preparations could not have been made to prepare for mass salting of roads, implementing increased energy capacity, and setting up extensive, heated, and COVID-safe shelters. Scientists were warning of a major Valentine’s Day freeze as early as Feb. 6. Instead, the winter storm was inaugurated with a 133-car pile up outside Fort Worth that killed five and injured dozens.
Millions remained without power throughout Texas four days after the initial snowstorm. To top it all off, Harris County (containing the city of Houston) alone had seen over 300 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning by Wednesday, Feb. 17, as people used everything from their car heaters to lighting BBQ pits indoors in the attempt to stay warm. As of this writing it is unclear what the ultimate death toll will be, but so far at least 30 people, including children, have died from weather-related incidents this week.
Capitalism caused power catastrophe
Texas Governor Greg Abbott told Fox News that the failure of wind turbines and solar panels were to blame for the disaster, and that the crisis demonstrated the need to continue with fossil fuels rather than pursuing policies to combat climate change as outlined in the “Green New Deal.” But that is false. Wind, solar, and other sustainable sources provide 30% of the state’s energy usage; wind alone is the fastest growing energy source in Texas, growing from 11% of the state’s usage to 23% today. However, wind turbines accounted for only 13% of the state’s power shutdowns during the crisis created by the winter storm, according to the Austin American-Statesman. Moreover, it would be possible in the future to provide heat to the turbines to prevent them from freezing.
The Washington Post is surprisingly blunt when it reports: “What has sent Texas reeling is not an engineering problem, nor is it the frozen wind turbines blamed by prominent Republicans. It is a financial structure for power generation that offers no incentives to power plant operators to prepare for winter. In the name of deregulation and free markets, critics say, Texas has created an electric grid that puts an emphasis on cheap prices over reliable service.”
Indeed, the fragility of the Texas grid in the face of cold weather was already shown with devastating consequences twice in the last 25 years. The last time it got this cold in the region was in 1989, when burst pipes caused $25 million in property damage in Dallas alone. While that snap only lasted two days and had a minimal amount of snow, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), reports that Dec. 22, 1989, was one of three times that rolling blackouts were needed in Texas because energy demand overtook production. No lessons were learned from that experience, and blackouts were again necessary to maintain grid operations on Feb. 2, 2011. Those blackouts affected 4 million people and saw 1.3 million simultaneously affected at their peak (Report on outages and curtailments during the Southwest cold weather event page 1).
Energy infrastructure experts, in a report put out by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, made recommendations including “designing all new generating plants and designing modifications to existing plants (unless committed solely for summer peaking purposes) to be able to perform at the lowest recorded ambient temperature for the nearest city for which historical weather data is available, factoring in accelerated heat loss due to wind speed[,]… adequate maintenance and inspection of its freeze protection elements be conducted on a timely and repetitive basis[,]” and more in a long list of preparations for inevitable sub-freezing weather. Also included were suggestions for centralizing control of the Texas energy grid and regulating it through legislation (quotes and suggestions from the last link, “Key Findings and Recommendations”).
The possibility of implementing meaningful weatherization changes in the energy infrastructure was curtailed by the extreme level of privatization, deregulation, and decentralization in Texas’ energy production and distribution. The purpose of ERCOT is effectively to maintain competition within the various “stakeholders” buying and selling energy along the Texas energy grid. Companies’ desire for cost minimization and the state emphasis on market forces over planning created the conditions that led to the February blackouts. Similarly, in an effort to skirt federal regulations, Texan politicians isolated the state’s energy supply from those of the rest of the country. Due to this maneuver, ERCOT affiliates were unable to tap shared energy resources with sections of the country unaffected by the severe weather.
To put salt on a wound, energy companies are surge pricing due to limited supply and high demand. In a moment of undistilled ruling-class reality, the CEO of natural gas company Comstock Resources, Inc, said on a call with investors, “Obviously, this week is like hitting the jackpot with some of these incredible prices. … Frankly, we were able to sell at super premium prices for a material amount of production.” Utility consumers suffered as energy prices skyrocketed. At one point, natural gas was up over 30,000%. On Wednesday, Feb. 18, power prices in Dallas and Fort Worth reached over $8,000 per megawatt-hour (MWh), up from the average of $26 per MWh.
While the specific history of Texas’ energy grid is particularly bald in subordinating public need to private profit, the state is in no way unique. In California, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) has refused to update and modernize its power lines and other energy infrastructure. The company’s aging equipment is both a cause of regular rolling blackouts and forest fires. In Connecticut, hundreds of thousands were without power last August due to Eversource’s cost-benefit analysis prioritizing their bottom line over common-sense procedures like putting electrical lines underground.
The tragedy that has unfolded in the South demonstrates the urgency of combating the climate crisis; it is a grave emergency that is making its effects felt now and is sure to get worse. That requires putting the needs of people and the environment before those of the big energy corporations and their profits. An essential step toward that goal would be to nationalize the energy companies, both suppliers and distributors, put them under the control of the workers and the affected communities, and retool them toward the use of sustainable energy.
Environmental racism and disaster capitalism
The large geographical spread of the storm meant people from different social groups were all affected, but not evenly. The blackouts in Texas were concentrated in poorer, majority non-white areas. Houses in these neighborhoods were also less likely to be insulated, leading to greater risk of freezing and flooding from burst pipes. The situation was summed up well when the Washington Post reported, “A vivid metaphor for the state’s entrenched inequities emerged Monday night: The illuminated Texas skylines of downtown buildings and newly filled luxury hotels cast against the darkened silhouettes of freezing neighborhoods.”
Some liberals are blaming “Texans” for the crisis. Stephen King exemplified this trend on Tuesday when he Tweeted “Hey, Texas! Keep voting for officials who don’t believe in climate change and supported privatization of the power grid! Maybe in 4 years you can vote for Trump again. He believes in the latter but not the former. Perfect.” These attitudes are unadulterated chauvinism that ignore the fact that Black, Brown, and white working people and small farmers in Texas have no control over the state. Capitalist democracy is fundamentally the dictatorship of capital over labor. All politicians whether Democrat or Republcan are carrying out the policies of the big corporations. In Texas, this is expressed especially sharply due to its economy effectively functioning as the country’s largest area for unregulated, untaxed, and non-union investment.
Texan prisons and jails faced horrible conditions during the storm. While only 13% of the population, Black people make up 27% and 33% of people in the states’ jails and prisons respectively. A round-up in The Week described conditions of incarceration throughout Texas: “In one county jail … ‘the water is coming out brown.’ In another, pipes froze, yet inmates were given no bottled water to drink. In Galveston County, on the Gulf Coast, inmates reportedly have been defacating [sic] in buckets and peeing in cups. The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition has reports of a facility with snow indoors … [A] federal medical prison housing about 1,000 women, many of whom are sick, is mostly unheated. ‘We have to go outside to get our meals,’ said one inmate there, ‘and it’s snow and icy everywhere, and we’re freezing.’ In Harris County, which includes Houston, prisoners… were given no dinner on Monday and no extra blankets. ‘Meanwhile,’ HuffPost reported Thursday, ‘the nine toilets in the facility — which are used by dozens of people — have been filled up to the brim with urine and faeces.’ There is not enough water pressure to flush.”
If past disasters are any indication, the fallout from the two storms in the South will be long lasting, extreme, and disproportionately affect marginalized communities. After Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the fact that poor Black and Latinx neighborhoods are concentrated around industrial centers meant that they were subjected to “petrochemical plants and refineries releas[ing] millions of pounds of pollutants, raising health concerns in nearby communities.” Following Harvey, the attack on working and oppressed people’s lived environment continued. As recently as a week before the winter storm, “the state moved to allow oil drillers to apply for permits to use wastewater from oil sites to replenish the state’s aquifers, which are sometimes used for drinking water.”
Disabled people hit hard
Disabled people have been particularly affected by rolling blackouts, inaccessible roads, and property damage. Lack of preparation and funding by government entities at every level exacerbated the situation. Germán Parodi, co-executive directors of the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, commented that there was a “massive” lack of preparation for disabled people by the state and federal governments. He also pointed to the fact that “the FEMA office responsible for the safety of Americans with disabilities has reduced its staff dramatically in the past five years, and local officials have failed to invite people with disabilities to the planning and response process.”
USA Today ran an article on Thursday, Feb. 19, of personal crises affecting disabled and medically compromised people in Texas. These included fears of CPAP machines and electric wheelchairs running out of power, making difficult and dangerous drives to receive dialysis treatment, and potentially being able to refrigerate insulin. The report states that “smaller nursing homes and assisted living facilities are stuck without supplies.” Southern politicians talking about “self-sufficiency’’ in the wake of disaster are calling for the death of these populations.
Safe, sustainable energy means workers power
The anthropocene is already here. While the scientists are still debating the method and degree to which climate change became a factor in this week’s cold snap, given the record of similar occurrences in 1989 and 2011, future moments of extreme cold in the Deep South are guaranteed. Capital has proved itself to be unwilling and unable to either prepare for disasters or even mobilize the necessary resources to keep people safe and healthy when they happen.
A workers’ party could demand immediate nationalization of all energy production and distribution under workers control. These measures would allow for the most marginalized people to lead the efforts to end environmental racism and ableism. The power grid is already in great disrepair. Under the democratic and centralized control of workers and oppressed, not only could production be weatherized so there are no gaps in service, but also converted immediately to 100% renewable energy.
In analyzing the fall-out of the winter storms and other catastrophic events, disparities in housing and land use would become immediately apparent to councils of workers that are planning to make the area actually habitable. Even before that point, a workers’ party would demand nationalization of all land and mass buildout of environmentally sustainable housing using urban design principles to cut out unnecessary sprawl. In this way could historic segregation, environmental racism, and inaccessible city and building structures be actively combated.
The Southern storms show definitively the need for constructing a mass independent workers’ party based in the trade unions and fighting organizations of the oppressed. The only party capable of articulating clearly what is necessary and leading the fight to carry out its proposals to their conclusions is a workers’ party with a revolutionary program. That is the only solution to the ongoing environmental, social, and political crises of capitalism.
Illustration by General Strike Graphics