Three years ago, as temperatures in Sydney, Adelaide and Hobart, Tasmania topped 117º F, Australian roads melted and buckled like cardboard suitcases. Last month, the fragility of America’s electrical grid became apparent when Texas and the Deep South experienced severe winter storms, at least by Dixieland standards. Resulting power outages and water main bursts served notice how, in a light-flicker, industrialized nations, with infrastructures ill-equipped for climate change, turn Stone Age. Because Lone Star utilities failed to use low-viscosity, synthetic lubricants in wind turbines, as troubleshooters do up north, propellers froze. Instruments at nuclear and coal-fired power plants iced over in the extreme cold, shutting them down, and despite Texas’ abundance of methane, natural gas-generated power plants became Zhivago “ice palaces.” Result: two of the most critical requirements for life, heat and water, were gone. Bloated U.S. senators could bolt to Cancun, but predominantly black citizens of Jackson, Mississippi are still without water, unless it’s bottled.
From waterfront communities lost to rising seas to wildfires sparked by high wind damage to electrical grids, America’s infrastructure is in the crosshairs of global warming and anthropogenic climate change. And after decades of inaction, these record-breaking temps, floods, droughts, storms, and forest fires are more manmade disasters than natural. Some earthquakes are even triggered by fracking. Cumulatively, the U.S. has been the biggest carbon polluter in history, still #1 on a per capita basis. Now, after sowing that wind for 120 years, our infrastructure, patched to survive 20th century climate anomalies, can’t withstand 21st century whirlwinds and vagaries to come. The South in particular should harden its electrical grid against the cold. Rising arctic temperatures, where global warming is most pronounced, weaken the jet stream, which used to corral arctic air closer to the pole. Instead, frigid air masses occasionally drift to lower latitudes. At the other extreme, when heat waves heighten electricity demands, as happened in California last summer, sweltering temps forced natural gas generators offline. Compounding Texas’ outages in February were deregulation, limited suppliers and its independent grid. Building energy plants closer to customers, would limit such impacts, as would green energy in general and connecting transmission lines from other regions of the country for emergency backup as fail-safes. During outages, computers and digital technologies could better control conservation measures as well, so nightclubs and office buildings aren’t illuminated while households go dark, improvements warranted nationally.
America’s citizenry and $20 trillion economy rely on vast networks of structurally compromised bridges and dams, roadways and tunnels. Drinking water, wastewater and irrigation systems are injuriously antiquated, reactors exceed shelf-lives, and seaports, railways, and airports are choke points. Electrical grids and internet access are woefully behind Europe and several Asian countries. Our infrastructure’s so dangerously overstretched a funding gap of over $2 trillion is needed by 2025. Delays caused by traffic congestion alone cost the economy $120 billion per year. A U.S. infrastructure investment boost of just 1 percent GDP each year, a fraction of China’s commitment, could generate $320 billion in economic output and millions of jobs. Failing to close the “infrastructure gap,” experts warn, will cost $4 trillion in lost GDP revenues. Working with Mexico, our infrastructure overhaul should also include facilities to ethically house, process and adjudicate the human conveyor of climate refugees and asylum seekers pressed against our southern border.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.