With Texas suffering its worst winter storm in years and power blackouts, carbon monoxide poisoning cases have skyrocketed as people struggle to keep warm.
An estimated four million people were without electricity on Tuesday morning in Texas, and public figures are attempting to dissuade residents from using BBQ pits, generators, or even their cars to heat their indoors.
In Harris County, but specifically the county seat of Houston, officials said hundreds of carbon monoxide poisoning cases have been reported to the city’s fire department and its main emergency rooms at Memorial Hermann. Cases have also been reported across the county by other fire departments, hospitals, and medical facilities with a significant amount of them being children.
"This is a public health disaster and a public health emergency," said Dr. Samuel Prater, an emergency room physician at Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center, during a news briefing Tuesday evening.
In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Prater said “With that number of patients going in, it’s turning into a mini mass casualty event."
What likely happened is that winter weather patterns were disrupted by the warming of the Arctic and caused cold air normally contained at the North Pole to spill into the South. Meanwhile, conservatives are wrongly insisting that efforts to avoid climate change, namely the adoption of alternative energy sources, is to blame.
Climate change undoubtedly drives extreme weather events, and that such an event may adversely affect the power grid is something planners have seen coming for a long time. As Ryan Cooper writes in The Week, the fundamental cause behind the blackout seems to be "the neglected, isolated Texas grid."
A long wave of deregulation stretching back to the early 2000s, Cooper writes, has deprived the state's entire electric system without upgrades or repairs like "investing in a backup capacity or a rugged distribution system" because profits were prioritized over foresight. The issue is made worse by the fact that the Texas grid is isolated because the state wanted to avoid federal regulation, meaning it can't easily buy power from neighbors when a freak disaster hits and devastates its ability to provide power to residents.
This is only a preview of the future that lies waiting for us as the effects of climate change become more pronounced—we have already passed 1 degree Celsius of warming and are on track to eclipse 1.5 degrees soon. Cooper points to solutions laid out in climate writer David Roberts' newsletter that envision connecting the whole country (and neighboring ones too) into a modern grid that is overbuilt, resilient, adaptive to bad weather, but also able to rapidly distribute zero-carbon power wherever needed.
This is all technically possible, but at the same time it’s increasingly hard to watch the country struggle with crisis after crisis and think it will rise to the occasion when all the evidence points to the opposite as long as there’s money to be made.