I have spent much of the past week texting with my son, parents, and friends in Austin, watching their infrastructure crumble due to an arctic weather pattern that is wreaking havoc on a city ill-prepared for below-freezing temperatures. It has been painful to watch from afar and not be able to do a thing to help.
My 78-year-old parents were without power (and therefore heat) for four days. They resorted to sleeping in their down sleeping bags at night to stay warm. A friend’s son broke his leg sledding in the rare snow, but now he can’t get a prescription for the pain as all the pharmacies are closed. (So far, Advil is doing the trick; let’s hope that holds up.) Another friend is melting snow on her stove to produce water for the dishes and toilets. For drinking water, they’re using water from the bathtub they hastily filled before the tap stopped flowing, and the few bottles of water she was able to buy in the grocery store after standing in line for several hours. Another friend attempted an outing to rescue her in-laws from a home without heat or water; the roads were icy and they had several close calls, but they were ultimately able to unite their family under one roof.
Normal life in Austin, and other parts of Texas, has ground to a halt this past week. Everyday activities have been swapped with inefficient and sometimes desperate acts to ensure their families’ basic survival. Crazy, right? What a fluke!
Or is it?
All of this feels like the flip side of what we went through this past year in California: Texas’s arctic yin to our fire-, smoke-, and mudslide-filled yang. In the Bay Area, we experienced weeks of apocalypse-hued skies and being trapped inside due to horrible air quality caused by smoke from nearby fires, and extended electrical outages due to the extreme fire risk posed by hot, dry, and windy conditions. Californians in nearby counties were not nearly so lucky, with historic fires and subsequent mudslides traumatizing and destroying the livelihoods of too many—some with deadly consequences.
A few days ago, after the outages in Austin had begun, when the threat of water shortages was just a whisper, a friend started to panic; she contemplated getting in her car and leaving the state. She couldn’t safely drive to the grocery store, but the prospect of running out of water drove her to consider drastic measures. I told her she and her family were welcome in my home.
The sad truth is that none of this is surprising to the scientists who have been studying climate change. For years, they have predicted these exact results: more serious and more frequent extreme weather events, which would cause expensive, disruptive, and deadly results—and produce a new form of refugee: the climate refugee. Like Chicken Little, these scientists have been spreading their message far and wide, but not enough of us listened. Climate change, like too many things, has been tangled up in politics.
Today, it is sunny and above freezing in Austin. Much of Austin already has power. It will take longer for clean water to flow from all taps, but this too will return in time. Once the crisis passes, there will be an overwhelming sense of relief. The lucky ones will go back to life as it was. Those who were less lucky will get to work rebuilding.
Somewhere in the midst of the rebuilding and the relief, we also need to reflect. Is it normal to have floods, hurricanes, fires, artic freezes, mudslides, and tornadoes? Yes, it is. But at the rates we’ve been seeing them? No, it most definitely is not.
We’ve joked that 2020 had it in for us. I have made this joke myself; we have needed comic relief to make it through the stress we have all endured recently. But it’s not 2020 that is doing this to us. We have no one to blame but ourselves. We are causing the extreme weather events by turning a blind eye to the path our climate is on, and by being unwilling to force our leaders and politicians to address this issue sufficiently.
The silver lining is that if we caused it, we can also stop it (although we must act quickly). We need to collectively make the connection between these extreme weather events and our changing climate, and face up to the fact that something major needs to be done to alter the path we are on. Our government is up to the task, but they need the will of the people to empower them. We must shift away from the wrong-headed idea that this is a political issue. The wellbeing of our families has nothing to do with politics. Pure and simple, this is an issue of our collective survival.