Climate Change Is Revealing a Lack of Infrastructure & Preparedness — & It Isn’t Funny

By Jamie GreysonLast Updated May 20, 2021 1:15:29 AM ET
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To mitigate wildfire risk in the wake of historically high winds in the San Francisco Bay Area, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) preemptively shut off power to roughly 2 million people. Credit: Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto/Getty Images

In May of 2021, President Joe Biden formally announced his desire to revamp the country’s infrastructure in the form of a $2 trillion proposal. Known as the American Jobs Plan, the proposal aims to modernize public transit, bring bus and train service to areas that otherwise wouldn’t have access, and replace gasoline-powered vehicles with electric ones.

Moreover, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) has estimated that the proposed plan would improve "20,000 miles of roads and 10,000 bridges" in addition to funding high-speed rail service and making long-overdue repairs to existing public transportation. If the proposal is undertaken, the DoT feels that we will finally be "addressing the inequities of our past transportation," and, in turn, the country will be "tackling the climate crisis."

The United Nations (U.N.) has called climate change the "defining crisis of our time." And it’s becoming increasingly clear that no country is immune to its impacts. "Rising temperatures are fueling environmental degradation, natural disasters, weather extremes, food and water insecurity, economic disruption, conflict, and terrorism. Sea levels are rising, the Arctic is melting, coral reefs are dying, oceans are acidifying, and forests are burning," the U.N. notes. "It is clear that business as usual is not good enough. As the infinite cost of climate change reaches irreversible highs, now is the time for bold collective action."

From “Crumbling Infrastructure” to Record-Setting Natural Disasters

The transit-related projects folded into the American Jobs Plan are just a few of the examples of what Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has called "our crumbling infrastructure." As Senator Warren points out, there have been decades of underinvestment — and a distinct lack of modernization. Of course, this notion extends to public buildings, private electrical grids and more.

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Snow covered Zilker Park in Austin, Texas, U.S., on Thursday, February 18, 2021. Texas is restricting the flow of natural gas across state lines in an extraordinary move that some are calling a violation of the U.S. Constitution's commerce clause. Credit: Thomas Ryan Allison/Bloomberg/Getty Images

And, frustratingly, every time a state, city or town is hit by a devastating natural disaster or spate of unseasonal (and unexpected) weather, this issue of crumbling infrastructure is brought to the forefront again. When it snows in Texas, folks from winterized parts of the country find it comical that Texans aren’t sure how to prep their homes. If a heatwave hits the San Francisco Bay Area, everyone is quick to joke that San Franciscans just aren’t used to "normal" high temps.

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But increasingly intense weather and seemingly continuous, record-setting natural disasters have revealed that these places simply aren’t built to deal with such things. Some of that unpreparedness stems from infrastructure past its prime, but some of that is certainly tied to climate change. Sure, climate- and weather-related disasters have always happened, but, as things heat up, these extreme events have become more frequent, more intense.

And they aren’t isolated — these destructive heatwaves, droughts, hurricanes and so on are happening all over the world. According to a report compiled by the U.N., "Ninety percent of disasters are now classed as weather- and climate-related, costing the world economy $520 billion each year, while 26 million people are pushed into poverty as a result." All of this said, prepping for disasters doesn’t just mean fortifying our infrastructure; it means taking the necessary steps to solve the climate crisis, too.

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Shifting Weather Patterns Threaten to Displace Americans All Over the Country

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), we need to completely transform the "energy systems that underpin our economies." As a result, world governments have pledged to "reach net-zero emissions" by 2050, which means drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and replacing our worldwide dependence on fossil fuel with other energy sources, for example.

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A deadly winter storm wreaked havoc in the southern and central U.S. Bone-chilling cold left millions without power for days and caused water pipes to burst in Texas. Credit: Thomas Shea/AFP/Getty Images

"Temperatures are rising, snow and rainfall patterns are shifting, and more extreme climate events — like heavy rainstorms and record high temperatures — are already happening," the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns. "Many of these observed changes are linked to the rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, caused by human activities."

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In the United States alone, we’ve seen many examples of what the EPA described over the past year. For instance, Winter Storm Uri brought record-low temps, ice and snow to parts of Texas, and, most troublingly, it overwhelmed the state’s electricity infrastructure, leaving millions without power for days — without electricity, running water or heat. In total, Uri caused at least 57 deaths. So, why were 4.5 million homes and businesses without power at the height of Uri? The Texas Tribune explains that it’s because "nearly half of the total power generation capacity for the main state electricity grid was offline as weather conditions caused failures in every type of power source: natural gas, coal, wind and nuclear."

So, why weren’t Texans given more warning about the potential for these deadly failures? "[P]olicy observers blamed the power system failure on the legislators and state agencies, who they say did not properly heed the warnings of previous storms or account for more extreme weather events warned of by climate scientists," the Tribune notes. "Instead, Texas prioritized the free market."

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Meanwhile, in Northern California, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) pleaded guilty to a staggering 84 counts of manslaughter in the wake of the Camp Fire, which devastated Paradise, California, in 2018. The cause? PG&E’s transmission line. The Camp Fire has been dubbed the deadliest and most destructive fire in California’s history, but, sadly, this isn’t an isolated incident. In fact, PG&E has caused over 1,500 fires in California in the past six years.

Critics suggest that the company has been prioritizing profits over safety for years, neglecting to upgrade power lines or sufficiently trim trees, among other essential maintenance. The Camp Fire didn’t necessarily incentivize that kind of change, though, namely because PG&E has filed for bankruptcy. The cost-effective solution to avoiding fires? Cut power to millions of Californians on dry, windy days — often without notice.

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How Can We Prepare for Future Disasters?

For Californians, choosing between multi-day blackouts and evacuating deadly wildfires isn’t much choice at all, especially for folks who rely on electricity for medical equipment or keeping medicine cold. So, what can be done? On a macro-level, Indigenous tribes in California (and elsewhere) have been re-employing the art of controlled burning.

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Embers burn on a property during the Kincade Fire in Healdsburg, California, in October 2019. The incredibly destructive and deadly wildfire erupted in California's wine country minutes after a PG&E power line went down. Credit: Phil Pacheco/Bloomberg/Getty Images

"Between lightning strikes and [controlled burns created by Indigenous tribes], most landscapes in North America were shaped by fire, and many landscapes need it," The Nature Conservancy explains. "But for most of the 20th century, U.S. federal fire policy was guided by a strategy of fire suppression, designed to protect watersheds, communities and commercial timber supplies." Not to mention, without cultural burning practices, Indigenous people can’t access certain resources for crafting or gathering food, which means other crucial aspects of their cultures are being lost, too.

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With wildfires worsening every year, California officials are realizing what Indigenous people have known for centuries. As a result, state and federal agencies are finally recognizing the importance of controlled burns and landscape maintenance. Meanwhile, in Texas, all of that extreme cold has led the state to invest in better alert systems and protect its energy infrastructure.

Between improving our infrastructure, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and much, much more, it’s clear that both mitigating damage from natural disasters and combating climate change require us to shift our thinking and seriously consider what we want the future to look like.

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