How ‘Climate Migrants’ Are Roiling American Politics

“Kissimmee gained a whopping 10,000 new residents between 2017 and 2020, according to census data. Osceola County, where Kissimmee is located, and neighboring Orange County saw their combined Puerto Rican population jump more than 12 percent. The changes were so profound that González found herself competing with two other Puerto Rican candidates to become Kissimmee’s mayor.

“Hurricane Maria … served as a reintroduction of the Puerto Rican population into Central Florida,” said Fernando Rivera, director of the Puerto Rico Research Hub at the University of Central Florida. Now, “we’re seeing growth in the leadership [of Puerto Ricans].”

The concept of climate migration — population shifts forced by destructive weather changes — has been studied for years. But most Americans still think of it as something that happens elsewhere, or a future doomsday scenario about people flocking to North Dakota to escape extreme weather along the coasts. But experts are saying it’s happening in subtler ways already, forcing people to make moves as dramatic as the influx of Puerto Ricans to central Florida and as mundane as people in tidewater Virginia choosing one county over another to live in to avoid a possible flood plain.

But as evidenced by González’s election, such changes are significant enough to start scrambling the political map, with experts foreseeing a cascading effect of changes to come.”

What’s causing California’s unprecedented wildfires

“There are several key ingredients needed for wildfires. They need favorable weather, namely dry and windy conditions. They need fuel. And they need an ignition source.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said that they are still investigating the origins of most of the blazes underway. But other factors this year stacked the deck in favor of massive conflagrations.

California and much of the western US are in the midst of a years-long drought. With limited moisture, plants dry out and turn into kindling. Ordinarily, vegetation at higher altitudes would still hang onto some moisture and act as a barrier to wildfires in places like the Sierra Nevada. However, the severity of the drought has caused even this greenery to turn yellow and gray.”

“human activity has made wildfires worse at every step. Climate change caused by burning fossil fuels is increasing the aridity of western forests and increasing the frequency and severity of extreme heat events.

People are also building closer to wildland areas. That means that when fires do occur, they cause more damage to homes and businesses. That proximity also means that humans are more likely to spark new infernos. The vast majority of wildfires are ignited by people, up to 84 percent, whether through errant sparks, downed power lines, or arson.

And for hundreds of years, people have suppressed naturally occurring fires. European settlers also halted cultural burning practices from the Indigenous people of the region. Stopping these smaller fires has allowed forests, grasslands, and chaparral to grow much denser than they would otherwise. Paradoxically, that means more fuel is available to burn when fires do occur, causing blazes to spread farther and faster.”

Climate change worsens extreme weather. A revolution in attribution science proved it.

“Bolstered with better data and even clearer trends, they’re no longer reluctant to point the finger back at humanity for worsening these calamities. In the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a team of leading researchers convened by the United Nations presented some of the most robust research that connects the dots. It shows how some greater weather extremes can be traced back to rising average temperatures, which in turn stem from emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly from countries and corporations burning fossil fuels.

“On a case-by-case basis, scientists can now quantify the contribution of human influences to the magnitude and probability of many extreme events,” according to the report.”

Japan’s surging electricity prices are a warning for Asian countries

” Households across Japan are likely to get hit by massive electric bills this month, after the price of wholesale electricity there spiked from about 13 cents per kilowatt-hour in December to an unprecedented peak of more than $1 on Jan. 7. ”

“The spike was partially a pandemic-related anomaly. But it was also an ominous sign of things to come for Asian countries working to curb their carbon footprints.

The immediate cause of the spike was bad weather. Japan was hit by an unseasonable cold spell, sending electricity demand in some regions to 10-year highs as homes and businesses cranked up electric heating systems. That in turn caused a sudden shortage of natural gas, which provides 20% of the country’s power and is entirely imported in liquid form (LNG) on ships. Despite the demand, several of Japan’s biggest utilities were forced to roll back power plant production, as the price of gas more than quadrupled from the beginning of December, hitting levels 1,000% higher than the record lows seen during pandemic lockdowns in May. A similar story played out in China and South Korea, turning the gas crunch into a regional issue.

The timing couldn’t have been worse: LNG was already tight as export facilities in several of the countries that normally supply it to Asia—particularly Australia, Qatar, Malaysia, and Indonesia—had experienced an unusual cluster of concurring outages in the preceding months.”

“as more Asian economies put more of their eggs in the LNG basket, they become increasingly exposed to sudden wild price swings. Supply disruptions in LNG exporting countries appear likely to continue in the near future as the global economy recovers from the pandemic”

“Part of the solution, Tsafos said, is for the Asian LNG market to embrace more steady, long-term contracts rather than the on-demand purchases that are the norm today. Delivering gas by ship on demand, instead of by a fixed pipeline, allows buyers and sellers more flexibility in theory, but becomes a problem when too many buyers are clamoring for the same shipment. Asian countries also need a better network for managing the regional flow of LNG, and will have to continue investing in alternative clean energy systems, including renewables and grid-scale energy storage, he said.
“There’s no real point, if you’re aiming for decarbonization, to go for an expensive, volatile fuel like gas,” Robertson said. “You’re better off looking at alternatives, and that’s the conclusion a lot of these countries will come to.””

Migrants are heading north because Central America never recovered from last year’s hurricanes

“the current wave of migration at the southern border is the result of a humanitarian crisis in Central America that has been years in the making.

Citizens of the “Northern Triangle” region — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — have long suffered from gang-related violence, frequent extortion, government corruption, and high levels of poverty. Over the past few months, though, another factor has added an additional push to make the dangerous journey north: continuing devastation from back-to-back hurricanes.

Hurricanes Eta and Iota, both super-powerful Category 4 hurricanes, made landfall in November 2020 within a two-week span, ripping through Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. The storms brought torrential rain and resulting flash flooding and landslides. They left more than 200 people dead and another 5.3 million people in need of assistance, including more than 1.8 million children, according to Unicef’s estimates. Many families lost their homes, their belongings, and access to water and livelihoods.

The hurricanes delivered yet another shock to a region that already experienced the highest levels of violence and poverty in the world and was facing an economic downturn from the Covid-19 pandemic.”

“In the four months since the hurricanes, recovery has been slow. Most families have left official shelters to return to their communities where rehabilitation work has started but living conditions and access to services and income have heavily deteriorated. More families continue to be pushed into poverty and, absent urgent action, more children are likely to become malnourished and drop out of school. Agricultural communities hit by the storm are also only beginning to see the impacts of last season’s crop failures.

All of this, experts say, is helping push migrants out of their home countries and toward the US.”

Why every state is vulnerable to a Texas-style power crisis

“It’s not yet clear how many Texans died amid the cold, but several people died after they lost power, including an 11-year-old boy. Others died from carbon monoxide poisoning as they burned fuel indoors or ran their cars in desperate attempts to stay warm. Millions lost drinking water for days.

The blackouts cost the state economy upward of $130 billion in damages and losses, and some people who did have power saw their bills spike by thousands of dollars. Grid operators say that the situation could actually have been a lot worse, with the system minutes away from a monthslong blackout.

Texas politicians have not earned much sympathy from the ordeal. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz derided California’s “failed energy policies” when the Golden State suffered blackouts last year. Gov. Greg Abbott went on television to erroneously link the power outages to the Green New Deal. Other Texas politicos blamed iced-up wind turbines for the electricity shortfall when the majority of the power losses were from natural gas.

But this was a disaster that Texas should have seen coming. The state’s power grid has been creaking for years with underinvestment, despite previous winter outages, including one in 1989 and one in 2011 under very similar circumstances. And since 2011, the Texas population has grown by more than 4 million people to nearly 30 million residents, further increasing energy demand.”

“By now, the factors behind the Texas winter blackout are well-established: The coldest temperatures in 30 years triggered a sudden spike in wintertime energy demand, while the chilly weather led to coal piles freezing, a nuclear reactor tripping offline, and wind turbines icing up. Most importantly, the state’s largest source of electricity, natural gas, suffered shortfalls as wellheads froze, icy condensation blocked pipelines, and compressor stations shut down.

Much of the remaining gas was prioritized for heating rather than electricity. In total, about 34,000 megawatts of power generation shut down, more than 40 percent of peak winter demand.

Faced with such huge a mismatch between supply and demand, grid operators initiated blackouts to relieve the grid in the hope of staving off even more outages.”

“The Texas Public Utility Commission did issue guidance for making the state’s power grid more resilient to extreme weather, including severe cold, but the guidelines were voluntary and largely ignored.

Another issue for Texas is that the state’s electricity system is deregulated and almost entirely market-driven, unlike other states that have more specific rules about how the system should be run. In Texas, retail utilities buy electricity from power providers — companies that operate power plants — at fluctuating prices based on supply and demand and then sell them to customers.

The idea was that this would allow the power system to self-regulate and self-optimize while providing lower energy prices than a more regulated market. Periods of high electricity prices would spur generators to put more electrons on the grid and vice versa.

In practice, what this system meant was that when wind and solar power were abundant, they could undercut other power generators in price since wind and solar have no fuel cost and very low operating costs. Coal, nuclear, and gas power plants were then pushed to recoup their operating costs during periods of higher energy demand while also competing with each other, narrowing the windows where they could operate profitably. That left little incentive to build up extra electricity production capacity to deal with unexpected demand spikes or supply shortfalls.

“In fact, the incentives direct you to remove capacity from the market,” Hirs said. “If I add capacity to the market, I’m ensuring lower prices.”

The system worked when energy supply and demand followed predictable patterns. But when it deviated, like it did during Winter Storm Uri, it led to outages. As for customers, they ended up paying more. According to an analysis by the Wall Street Journal, Texas residential electricity customers under deregulated utilities paid $28 billion more than they would have under electricity rates charged by conventional regulated utilities in the state.

So the promise of greater reliability and lower costs did not materialize for millions of Texans under the state’s free-for-all, go-it-alone energy system. “This is a collision of naïve idealism and the real world,” Hirs said. ”

“While the Texas grid is unique in many respects, the problem of underinvestment in energy infrastructure is all too common throughout the US. Much of the power grid was built decades ago. In addition to the wear and tear that comes with age, the power grid is stressed by a growing population and its rising energy demands.”

“The broader problem is that every power system struggles to make the case to spend money on things that may never be used. The costs are upfront but the benefits are far away and theoretical. And that case doesn’t just have to be made to regulators, but to consumers.”

“Just like a blackout isn’t the result of any single point of failure, protecting the grid against them demands more than any single solution.

Faced with the prospect of more outages, there are a number of technical fixes: More energy storage, distributed power generation, interconnections across the major power grids, greater redundancy, microgrids, demand response, increasing energy efficiency, and hardening infrastructure.

But these things all cost money or eat into the margins of existing utilities. Trying to completely avoid all types of blackouts and grid disruptions stands to be prohibitively expensive, so part of the solution will also be managing failures and learning to bounce back after an outage.”

The megadrought parching 77 percent of the Western US, explained

“Over the past year, the drought has been building due to a lack of rain, a weak summer monsoon in the Southwest, and intense summer heat waves. “If I had to pinpoint one thing that really drove the drought to where we are right now, it was the heat of last summer,” said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the University of Nebraska’s National Drought Mitigation Center.

High summer temperatures sucked the moisture out of the soil and evaporated water resources.

The Four Corners, where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado meet, has been the epicenter of this drought, Fuchs said. The dark splotch on the map below shows that those states as well as Nevada have been experiencing the most intense drought.”

“It’s after the storm that’s the hardest part”: 390,000 Texans still don’t have clean water

“At the height of the water crisis on February 19, nearly 15 million people across Texas lost access to clean water, according to Gary Rasp, a spokesperson for TCEQ. This number reflects the problems that occurred in the water system itself, rather than in people’s homes.”

“As the storm hit, the rapidly escalating blackout on February 15 forced water treatment plants offline. At the same time, the freezing temperatures broke water mains and people started to turn on their faucets to prevent their pipes from freezing.

Due to the combination of a drop in supply from treatment plants failing and the increase in water demand from dripping faucets and leaks, the pressure dropped in the system.

A loss in pressure can lead to dangerous bacteria in the water supply, so millions of people were told to boil their water before drinking or cooking with it. Of course, this was an impossibility for those who were also hit by the power outage and lacked electricity to power their stove.

The winter storm didn’t just cause water issues in Texas. From Oklahoma City to Jackson, Mississippi, hundreds of thousands of people also faced water shortages due to dropping water pressure.”

“in some cases, residents have been without water for weeks because of a confluence of failures.”

“Rebecca Sanchez told Vox that many of the residents in her apartment complex, the Hillside Villas, have been left without any running water for two weeks after pipes burst. Repairs have been slow, and Sanchez said the property managers have failed to provide adequate emergency water supplies in the interim.”

““We underinvest in maintenance to such a degree that these disasters tend to be pretty catastrophic,” she said. The failure of infrastructure is still being felt by the 390,000 people boiling their water in Texas today, and the nearly 2,000 people whose utilities were still not delivering water at all as of Friday, according to TCEQ.
“Adapting to extreme events and adapting to climate change is going to make all of this harder, but that’s not the only thing that is a problem,” Grubert said. “What we are really starting to have to face is this kind of combined issue where we have failed to invest in these systems for a very long time, and now we are also playing on hard mode.””

The Texas Blackout Is the Story of a Disaster Foretold

“it wasn’t as if those running the Texas energy system’s various fiefdoms—the grid, the power plants, the natural gas–production facilities—hadn’t been warned about the dangers of severe weather. Hell may not freeze over, but history suggests that Texas’s energy system does—and with some frequency. In 1989, in 2003, and in 2011, the state experienced, to varying degrees, simultaneous shutdowns of power plants and parts of its natural gas–producing infrastructure, as significant swaths of both of those critical systems were incapacitated by arctic temperatures, triggering blackouts.

The frigid weather during the first four days of February 2011 knocked off enough power generation throughout ERCOT—about 29,000 megawatts of capacity—that ERCOT initiated blackouts affecting about 3.2 million customers, according to a voluminous postmortem of the failure produced in August 2011 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. That report suggested the state add teeth to its effort to gird its energy infrastructure for wintry weather. Among its policy recommendations was that in states in the Southwest, including Texas, legislatures require power companies to submit winterization plans and give their public-utility commissions the authority to require senior executives of power companies to sign off on those plans and the authority “to impose penalties for non-compliance.” Magness, the ERCOT chief, said that in the wake of the 2011 report he and others met with Texas power generators to suggest that they better winterize their facilities. He was asking, not telling. “It wasn’t a conversation like, `I’m your regulator and you have to do this,’” he recalled. “It was sharing those best practices.””

“Under the deregulation scheme passed by the Legislature more than two decades ago, Texas has a market design that allows generators to make money only by selling juice—not for investing in equipment that could help produce extra power in the event of an emergency. Critics contend that this approach, part and parcel of Texas’s aversion to regulation, makes the state’s energy system less reliable, even as it boosts profits for some market participants. Based on their biographies on the ERCOT website, at least eleven of the fifteen ERCOT board members have current or prior ties to the energy industry.”

“Texas lawmakers, as they investigate what went wrong this past week, ought to explore weatherization mandates.”

“better weatherizing power infrastructure, like inducing electricity producers to invest in extra generating capacity, likely would raise Texans’s electricity rates. “Is it worth the cost to consumers?” he asked. I asked him if ERCOT had any answer to that question. “I am not aware,” he said, “that we have ever conducted a real cost-benefit analysis on that topic.””

“the electricity blackout and frozen pipes in Texas had significantly curtailed the state’s production of oil and natural gas. IHS estimated that nearly 20 percent of natural-gas production, and perhaps an equal or greater percentage of oil production, in the continental U.S. in the first half of February had been shut in—and that the Permian Basin, the big oil-producing region that sits largely in West Texas, accounted for the biggest share of that production drop.
A couple of hours later, the governor, who earlier in the week had called for top ERCOT leaders to resign, issued an announcement. Years after Texas officials had been advised to do so, Abbott said he would ask the Legislature to mandate the winterization of power plants across the state—and to “ensure the necessary funding” for it.”