Texas' power disaster is a reminder that extreme weather is leaving no area untouched, even if there's no firm scientific agreement about the nexus between the state's Arctic blast and climate change.
Why it matters: From intense heat to stronger storms to Arctic warming that may push frigid air southward, rising atmospheric carbon levels mean a new world of managing and preparing for global warming-related risks — not escaping them.
The big picture: "What the last year of the pandemic, and the current disaster in Texas should remind us, is that the capacity of public institutions to manage risk is very often the first-order determinant of their severity," said Rutgers University climate scientist Robert Kopp.
- He's among the many authors of a major 2018 federal report that laid out, in detail, the kinds of climate-related health and economic risks facing different parts of the country.
- "So where would I go if I wanted to minimize my risk?" Kopp said in an email exchange. Turns out the answer doesn't rest on geography per se, but instead "somewhere [that] measures well on other indices that correlate with the public capacity to manage risk."
- Citing work of the social science research group Measure of America, he noted that several Atlantic Coast states like Massachusetts and New Jersey, while exposed to rising seas and intense storms, also have been "forward-leaning" on addressing risks.
Threat level: "While scientists are still analyzing whether these polar vortex cold snaps are related to climate change, we do know that climate change increases the frequency of extreme heat waves, droughts, wildfires, rain and coastal flooding," Princeton University energy expert Jesse Jenkins wrote in a New York Times op-ed about hardening the Texas grid.
- "Those extreme events test our systems to the breaking point, as they have in Texas this week," he said.
The intrigue: Different regions will require different adaptation strategies — including power grids more prepared for extreme heat and cold. But the needs go far beyond power systems, experts say.
- "The real question is how you deal with these increases in the risk of weather disasters," said Michael Wehner, an extreme weather expert with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who also worked on the 2018 report.
What they're saying: Wehner offered me some big picture strategies...
- When it comes to extreme heat that's a risk in vast swaths of the country, he said it affects everyone, but low-income people and people who work outdoors are most at risk.
- "Workplace safety guidelines provide the practices to partially ameliorate this risk, but they must be enforced," he said.
- "For hurricanes, this may mean managed retreat in some low lying areas and building code changes in other areas," Wehner notes.
- For western wildfires, forest management is important, but nonetheless "retreat may be inevitable."
The bottom line: As important as adaptation strategies are, climate experts say they're not a replacement for the need to cut emissions.