Texas freeze underscores the extreme weather divide
Like the poor across America and much of the world, poor Texans are getting hammered by climate change.
The state’s prevailing social Darwinism was expressed most succinctly by the mayor of Colorado City, who accused his constituents — trapped in near-subzero temperatures and complaining about lack of heat, electricity and drinkable water — of being the “lazy” products of a “socialist government,” adding that he was “sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout” and predicting “only the strong will survive and the weak will perish.”
Texas has the third-highest number of billionaires in America, most of them oil tycoons. Last week, the laissez-faire state energy market delivered a bonanza to oil and gas producers that managed to keep production going during the freeze. It was “like hitting the jackpot,” boasted Roland Burns, the president of Comstock Resources Inc. on an earnings call. Jerry Jones, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Cowboys, holds a majority of Comstock’s shares.
But most other Texans were marooned. Some did perish.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the flow of electric power, exempted affluent downtowns from outages — leaving the thriving parts of Austin, Dallas and Houston brightly lit while pushing less affluent precincts into the dark and cold.
Many Texans inhabit substandard homes lacking proper insulation. The very poor occupy trailers or tents, or camp out in their cars. Lower-income communities also are located close to refineries and other industrial sites that release added pollutants when they shut down or restart.
In Texas, for-profit energy companies have no incentive to prepare for extreme weather or maintain spare capacity. Even when they’re able to handle surges in demand, prices go through the roof and poorer households are hit hard. If they can’t pay, they’re cut off.
Rich Texans take spikes in energy prices in stride. If the electric grid goes down, private generators kick in. In a pinch — as last week — they check into hotels or leave town. As millions of his constituents remained without power and heat, Sen. Ted Cruz flew to Cancun, Mexico, for a family vacation. Their Houston home was “FREEZING,” as his wife put it.
Climate change, COVID-19 and jobs are together splitting Americans by class more profoundly than Americans are split by politics. The white working class is taking as much of a beating as most Black and Latino people.
Yet the white working class has been seduced by conservative Republicans and Trump cultists, of which Texas has an abundance, into believing that what’s good for Black and Latino people is bad for them, and that whites are, or should be, on the winning side of the social Darwinian contest.
White grievance helps keep Republicans in power, protecting their rich patrons from a majority that might otherwise join together to demand what they need, such heat, water and reliable energy.
Lower-income Texans — white as well as Black and Latino — are taking it on the chin in many other ways. Texas is one of the few states that hasn’t expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, leaving the share of Texans without health insurance twice the national average — the largest uninsured population of any state. Texas has double the national average of children in poverty and a higher rate of unemployment than the nation’s average.
And although Texans have suffered multiple natural disasters stemming from climate change, Texas Republicans are dead set against a Green New Deal that would help reduce the horrific impacts.
Last week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott went on Fox News to proclaim, absurdly, that what happened to his state “shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.” Abbott blamed the power failure on the fact that “wind and solar got shut down.”
Rubbish. The loss of power from frozen coal-fired and natural gas plants was six times larger than the dent caused by frozen wind turbines. Texans froze because deregulation and a profit-driven free market created an electric grid utterly unprepared for climate change.
In Texas, tycoons are the only winners from climate change. Everyone else is losing badly. Adapting to extreme weather is necessary, but it’s no substitute for cutting emissions, which Texas is loath to do. Not even the Lone Star State should protect the freedom to freeze.
Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.