When Elon Musk announced that he was quitting California for tax reasons, it was greeted as a vindication of Texas’s low-tax, light-touch regime.
Texas is home to nearly a tenth of the USA‘s population and is a champion of deregulation. Since 2019 it has attracted 80,000 Californians to move to Texas. If they thought they were moving to a warm climate where the cost of living was a fraction of that of California, they were in for a shock in mid-February when an Arctic freeze devastated the state’s infrastructure.
Consequent upon this freeze, four million Texans were left without power and nearly 13 million without drinking water, with families obliged to huddle in ‘warming centres’ that were short of beds and food.
With pipes frozen and toilets backed up, long queues formed for basic food items in sub-zero temperatures. More than 30 people died, one of these unfortunates being an 11-year-old boy who died of hypothermia in a mobile home.
No other state affected by the storm, and hit by the ice and snow, suffered to the same extent as did Texas. After four days of blackouts, officials from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (Ercot) revealed that the grid was only “seconds and minutes” away from a disastrous outage potentially lasting several months. And this in a state that is the biggest energy producer in the US!
While this catastrophe was striking, arch-reactionary Texan senator and Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, who had attempted to jet off with his family to a beachside hotel in Mexico to escape the chill, was forced humiliatingly to scuttle home amid a political firestorm.
Not unexpectedly in a country ruled by free-market fundamentalism, this utter failure to deal with severe weather has turned into just one more front in America’s culture wars. Instead of being an occasion for formulating policy solutions, it has been an occasion for partisan bickering.
As a quarter of the power used in Texas is produced by wind turbines, the opponents of green energy are claiming that the “windmills failed like the silly fashion accessories they are” (Tuker Carlson, the nearest heir to the late Rush Limbaugh). Later on, these champions of fossil fuels were forced to admit that every source of power in the state of Texas has been compromised. Two-fifths of the generating capacity of natural gas, coal and nuclear power stations also went offline in the cold.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the collapse of the grid was caused by “a fundamental law of the freewheeling Texas electricity market”, not by green ‘foolery’.
In the conditions of Texas’s deregulated market, the owners of power stations are not required to prepare for extreme weather by wind-proofing their plants. Instead, they are allowed to adjust their prices according to demand – which can be expected to go up significantly during cold snaps and heatwaves. This is supposed to provide all the financial incentive that owners need to invest in the improvement of their plants to ensure they can cash in on higher prices.
It turns out, however, that the owners find it cheaper to go offline if a rare unforeseen event occurs, with the result that they have spent almost nothing on making sure that wind turbine blades can turn and power stations function during times of extreme cold.
It is, of course, wonderful for the likes of Elon Musk that there is no state tax in Texas, but where is the state when its inhabitants need it most? Years of pursuing a policy of cheap energy have left Texas dangerously exposed to climate change. Of course, wind and solar power alone will not suffice as there are periods when the wind drops or there is no sun. What is required is a scientifically worked-out integrated system driven by the needs of society and not the maximisation of profit.
This problem is by no means confined to Texas. Winter storms have triggered blackouts in several states, with one-third of oil production in the US having come to a halt. The drinking water distribution system in Ohio has been knocked offline; road networks across the country have been paralysed; and vaccination arrangements in 20 states have been disrupted.
With climate change bringing recurring and intense storms, floods, heatwaves, wildfires and other extreme events, severe stress is being placed on the foundations of the country’s economy – from its network of roads and railways to drinking-water systems, power plants, electrical grids, industrial waste sites and even homes.
Much of the US’s infrastructure was built several decades ago, on the expectation that the environment surrounding it would remain stable, or fluctuate within predictable limits. Climate change is now up-ending that assumption. The past is no longer a guide to the future.
Sewer system are overflowing more frequently as forceful storms are exceeding their design capacity. Coastal homes and highways are collapsing as cliffs get eroded by intensified run-off water. Homes once considered beyond the reach of wildfires are burning in blazes that they were not designed to withstand.
All this is a reflection of the inclination of governments to spend as little as possible against disasters they regard as unlikely. Climate change has rendered that logic meaningless.
Building resilient and sustainable infrastructure urgently is an absolute necessity, yet in the richest country on earth, getting the US Congress to sanction hundreds of billions, if not trillions, is likely to prove a Herculean task – the same Congress that has no difficulty in sanctioning nearly two trillion dollars in tax cuts mainly for the rich, or to spend over $750bn a year on the military and armaments, or hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out the banks following the near-meltdown of the imperialist financial edifice in 2008/9.
From the above brief account, it is self-evident that it is not the function of the richest country to provide for the needs of its people. What matters most is the social system of production and which class is in power.
Capitalism, by its inherent laws, is profit driven: what therefore matters most to the ruling monopoly capitalist class in the US and other imperialist countries is the maximisation of profit, in pursuit of which they trample on all norms of human decency, wage ceaseless wars and kill millions.
Unless and until the working class overthrows capitalism and establishes its own rule, it will continue to be exploited, oppressed and subjugated by the robber barons of finance capital.