Facing Extreme Climate Upon Re-Entering the Paris Climate Accords

From the orange region of coastal Northern California, I surveyed the subzero temperatures entering much of the nation at a remove, but with apprehension, almost overwhelmed by concern at the sense of pathos in that deep cobalt midwest expanse. The commitment to monitor–and reduce–carbon emissions demanded a moment of judgement for the national reorientation. After eight years in which Presidential election have included debates about global warming that played out across what were “blue” and “red” state–and purple areas–there was a sense that the weather map, that most non-partisan of media, had somehow ventriloquized a global demand for restoration of balance. The map seemed to remind us that the wobbliness of the polar vortex climate change had wrought was not only rewriting the nation but disrupted the electric grids of much of the southwest and midwest. Across states once reliably “red,” the azure cold provoked by near-polar winds bearing colder temperatures, often more than ten degrees below zero Fahrenheit: at the same time as many residents without heating in Dallas and Austin burned furniture for warmth after their electricity had been cut, much of the nation seemed to be sent back in time to quasi-medieval heating systems, after ignoring climate change debates.

Has the wobbly vortex not cast chill on these debates of alleged political divides? The result is more of a “frozen-core” version of the United States that seem designed to registered the entrance of windblown gelid temperatures to send shivers up the spines of readers even in Miami.

Lowest Temperatures in Coutnry, February 12-16/New York Times, February 18, 2021

The focus of all those maps on blue and red counties were disrupted by the wonderfully airy visualization of wind-driven cold temperature, as the temperatures above freezing temperatures seemed limited to the southwestern states, southern Atlantic states and the state of Florida, the largest continuous stretch of super-freezing temperatures. Based on a  Global Forecast System, of national ground-level temperatures, cerulean fit the atmospheric movement of an arctic weather system dipping into the lower forty-eight to chill the United States in a fitting close to the Trump era, if a painful one: record-low temperatures in Texas and much of the United States, the arctic airs that extended south of the border created meteorological dissonances as southern Texas was at points quite colder than the Aleutian islands, and the outage of electricity over the entire Texas grid–raising questions as to why they ever separated a grid separate from the country, as their two-tongued Governor blamed wind power for endemic suffering, concealing the dismissal of a climate emergency.

Mapped another way, not in terms of lowest temperatures, or even of cold fronts, the symbolism that we have come to naturalize as a result of the diet of meteorology that we are fed by the Weather Channel, making weather maps the best known maps of the nation, next to electoral maps, we might do well to map the historic cold front that spread across the Great Plains not only in terms of lows, or subzero climes, but a cerulean blue that illustrated the extent of sustain weather anomalies that sent snows to the shores of the usually subtropical climate of Galveston, TX, in the Gulf Coast, a site of wildlife refuges, beaches, and known for its vulnerably to storm surges, hurricanes, erosion and coastal flooding, rather than cold air. The arrival of cold air upended expectations of maps of climactic bands, a category confusion that was the casualty of a moment of extreme climate change. If risk assessment of the Gulf Coast was usually understood in terms of oil spills or hurricanes, unpreparedness for arctic air of subzero temperatures broke over 2,400 records of cold temperatures in the state, leaving 5,000 homes–4.3 million of them in Texas–without power, due to a great Arctic blast.

As NOAA summed up the snowfall, as if newly empowered to address the nation with a full range of graphic data vis resources and an enriched color palette for its most effective maps, more cerulean blues abounded across Texas, marking areas of up to six inches collective snowfall, even if most of the northwest felt it in several feet, and the midwest and northeast felt the impact up to a foot, the Lone Star state was the least prepared for the demand for heating from residences that were wired with electric heating, and had fewer options for borrowing energy–so committed were they to a model of energy independence and electrical deregulation, by handing the electrical grid over to a patchwork of private companies and energy retailers, boosted by confidence in a promise of cheap power that the energy industry had long promoted, that created the Energy Reliability Council of Texas to manage the local market.

2. Texas was unprepared as a state. As many Texas residents went without their power–as the weather system pushed southwards by the vortex intersected with part of the nation’s autonomous power grid with disastrous results–they were urged to remain at home, even if the fire had been cut, as we gained a sense of what a real climate emergency might look like, and the sorts of contingencies extreme weather changes could create.

If we are trying to regulate the interstate of energy in a responsible and, increasingly, a more responsive grid, the flow of cold arctic air south disrupted electricity for the residents across much of Texas quite spectacularly, placing in relief problems of an autonomous grid and lack of foresight its management during climate extremes.

Indeed, the opacity of power flows in an energy market dominated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ENCOT) has brokered a map of providing what are best understood as one-way maps of energy flow that the consumers cannot adequately grasp. For the map is removed from pressures of climate change; in the ERCOT control room, the map of energy flow across Texas reveals market flows consumers of electricity are unlikely to grasp either by it vulnerability or the levels of economic risk it commits them–by removing them from a sense of the heightened risks to energy flow that houses tethered to electrical heating are particularly vulnerable.

The prospect of systemic vulnerability in an era of climate emergency rest in large part on the absurd over-confidence in the very territorial claims to the fossils fuels buried in the ground of which Texans have been historically proud.

ERCOT Control Room Map, Updating State-Wide Electric Use Every Five Minutes/
Ralph Barrera, American-Statesman

Texas lies proudly on an autonomous grid–it’s energy independence is something like the last stand at The Alamo, boasting self-sufficiency due to the vaunted abundance of coal-fired plants, oil rigs and refineries, and boosted by nuclear power. But vaunted energy independence of extracting energy from the ground offers little groundplan for the future of energy use in an era of extreme climate; indeed, privileging the autonomy of the grid at a remove from climactic variability–or from the pressures of climate change–opens the prospect of systemic vulnerability. ERCOT is not covering the entire states–the border city of El Paso is on another grid, as is the upper Panhandle and a chunk of East Texas-dropping temperatures provoked the disconnection of power plants form the grid and blackouts for many of 26 million Texans served by the ERCOT grid–leaving many wondering if the promise of Energy Reliability embedded in the ERCOT acronym was reliable. The tethering of many newly built Texas residences to the grid meant that plunging temperatures interrupted power supplies for 4.5 million.

The false ecosystem of energy abundance will only become increasingly slippery as a dynamic in an era of climate change. The free market ethos of the Lone Star state has led to a boom in construction in recent decades of what seemed boom yers, as optimistic unregulated Texans worked to build more homes than any other state in the union, most all built to use electric heating, linking the crisis of the power network to one of housing construction, and extra-urban expansion of population density, that might make a map of the sheer “proportion without power”–a metric of considerable significance, to be sure–not fully able to capture the coincidence of human poor planning with the freezing of gas pipelines, reductions in the generation of nuclear power, and freezing of wind turbines that brought an across the board reductions of power for homes increasingly powered by a maxed out energy grid–

–in a distribution that demands for how it diversely affected businesses and residences. The tethering of residences in many of the fastest-growing cities in Texas–Austin; Austin; Dallas–created an often under-noticed wrinkle to the lack of adequate preparation for the anthropogenic crisis. For such sinking temperatures provoked greater disruption for residents. Faulty foresight Texas residences would be seriously affected by winter temperatures–creating a dramatically increasing demand winterization that electric heating systems simply could not meet.

ERCOT was long designed as separate from interstate commerce in energy, and the affirmation of its energy independence created a new ecosystem for energy consumption that exposed Texans to far greater risk than the rest of the nation from fluctuating temperatures. The apparent bounty of cheap electricity linked more new homes to the grid distorted the accelerated dependence of new buildings that expanded extra-urban growth to than one might have expected. The https:jurisdictional autonomy that ERCOT won from the Federal Power Commission oversight from 2007 led to a boom in optimism which led Texans to build over a million and a half more homes since 2010–a massive construction of new homes whose heat pumps were built with expectations for cheap electricity and warm winters, exposing home-buyers to risks only apparent in cities like Houston, Austin and Dallas–in over 13 million homes tied to. network of far increased risk than they realized the consequences of not being able to assess their readiness to expose themselves to risks of dynamic pricing, as power loss of 28GW of forced electric outages in a dynamically priced power system revealed how closely new homes built in Texas in previous decades used electric heating over-confidently tied to the fortunes of the electric power grid–and how hubristic confidence in the grid as a sufficient source of power left the state unprepared for the cascading consequences of plunging temperatures all but predicted as a consequence of models of global climate change.

Such built-in dependence of an overwhelming expansion of new home construction tied to what seemed cheap electric heating, encouraged by the secession of the Texas power grid, run by ERCOT, beyond jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s regulation of interstate electric transmission. Texas had originally claimed energy independence by tying the fortunes of electricity to the big dams built on the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers, that seemed plentiful power before President Roosevelt even signed the Federal Power Act that supervised interstate electricity sales, later boosted by the apparent bounty of fossil fuels in he Lone Star State.

Did the dominance of electric heating systems that were tied to a single, geographically fixed region set up customers for the risk of a weather disruption that we were seeing in February?

The confidence in the fossil fuels in the region that would be able to fulfill unrealistic unending electric needs for all residents surely did–and the lack of preparation for fluctuating energy needs, even in a state that uses abundant electricity to run near continuous air-conditioning for much of the spring and summer months, way into fall–raising fears that the spiking peaks of summer electricity use in an era where Texas will be hit by global warming will place new stresses on the grid.

Expansion of Homes Built with Electrical Heating in Southwestern States

New Energy Institute/UC Berkeley: New Home Construction Dependent on Electric Heating

The risks of such heightened demand for electricity as a human reaction to anthropogenic climate change creates new problems of monitoring, planning, and providing energy use during increasingly extreme climates. In a moment of climate denial, no doubt in part a prioritization in a political climate hostile to acknowledge climate change and warning–ERCOT has opted to not even use heating trends to make predictions about energy use, in ways that seem to bode an increasingly existential relation to online maps to monitor outages in any heat waves that may occur in months ahead, if no adequate incorporation of climate change is built into predictive models.

Texas' power outages: Why does the state have its own grid?
ERCOT Control Room/Mapping Flow of Energy Power to 26 Million Customers

What we might write off as a dangerous consequence of extreme climate rather than poor planning, as customers would be shocked to realize their futures had been tied to a system bearing high risk as the power went out in a mid-winter storm the likes of which their new homes were hardly prepared, and leaving many Texans suddenly facing exorbitant energy prices as the market for energy sources suddenly contracted, driving up costs astronomically as electric bills from “Griddy” unprecedentedly jumped to heights most weren’t aware they might ever exist–and the tethering of new residences to a single energy source. And as ERCOT tried to manage home heating, ecosystems were devastated, as naturalists rushed to save sea turtles in the thousands, but a minimum of 3.8 million fish–and perhaps nearly 4 million–were killed by the freezing temperatures, in a massive die-off, as temperatures dropped by some forth degrees in Galveston Bay, although we focussed more on the failure of providing electrical heating to customers.

While ERCOT stems from a liberty of access to energy–a sort of freedom to extract energy from the ground that was promoted by then-Governor George W. Bush, he of the oil business family who had cultivated and spent petrodollars to enter government, and promote the American sport of baseball, before politics, as a ticket to voters’ hearts–the liberty to expend energy that drove to the foundation of ERCOT was a manipulation that “freed” the state from government monitoring, or, to give in a negative spin, surveillance and control. But the importance of using local emergencies of what was presented as an abnormal descent in temperatures, without precedent and hence unplanned by the optimistically named Energy Reliability Council of Texas, ERCOT. The handy acronym that oddly gives full status to a preposition to make it sound euphonious. But it might be better understood as a way to leap to the mismanagement of the global. Despite Governor Abbott’s feigning of indignation and moral outrage, as a “moral economy of energy” was readying the state to sue the Biden administration over environmental regulations he scoffed at as “regulatory overreach.”

For Abbot imagined that freezing oil and gas leasing on federal land over the objections of the petroleum industry became a primary duty to protect, rather than the public good. With disarming dishonest, Abbot diligently blamed the freezing of wind turbines for the failure in electric providers–in the odor of Obama’s stimulus program–although the gas pipelines that freeze in subzero temperatures are even more sensitive to what promise to be increasingly fluctuating temperatures of climate change. For Abbot imagined the pipelines might exist independently from the environment, in timeless and spaceless from, in a situation of permanence rather than as subject to the shifting temperatures of global climate change.

The need to pivot from the local disaster to a larger scale map might begin from a larger map of the nation or the west. Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and states of the “Gulf south” will be hit hard by climate change catastrophes, many of the very states where the poorest Americans dwell: the dire scenarios of climate change situation that is projected by RCPM 8.5 across the “Gulf South” suggest sustained economic damage across the Gulf states, from Texas to Florida, and portends complex questions of environmental justice in years to come, not limited by any means to the polar vortex or the climate imbalances that it portends–assuming we conduct business as usual. But the maps that have been made multiple times of such scenarios were being denied by Abbott, immersed in the rhetoric of “freedoms” rather than prudence–“freedoms” that might have roots traced to the freedom to expand plantations and slavery into Texas, and the go-it-alone ideology of the Lone Star State, but were enshrined by corporate greed to keep the federal government outside of the Texas energy market, and free from regulations.

Yet there is no doubt that the very scenarios of global warming that have left that darn polar vortex so wobbly–more wobbly than in 2014, when the first anomalous displacement of cold air first shocked Accuweather charts, providing what was the “most upsetting” data visualization of 2014, an early shocked gloss of a meteorological chart of the sort we can only be expected to see more.

The figurative migration of arctic air currents to sub-arctic latitudes was something that was hard to narrativize, and the tendency to indicate human failure overlooks the extent of a collective failure to control the impact anthropogenic processes as a collective failure to control the human contribution to falling temperatures. As we watched the wobbly vortex in past years, the drop of arctic air was hard to map in terms of human agency, as we blamed government failure or a rapacious energy industry that sent rates skyrocketing for many Texans.

Historical climate change familiar from Impact Lab sketches a different picture from 1981-2010, of course, with heating up temps across the southlands that one associates with global warming–and a warming up of the northern climes–

Impact Lab, Historical Climate Change 1981-2010

–that, to use the current color ramp, suggests a parched mid-century across much of the southwestern states, with temperature shifting just three degrees above the historical levels, but absolute levels in Texas and Arizona consistently in the eighties in the coming years, rising by mid-century to high eighties.

This wasn’t supposed to be what we were expecting–but the polar jet stream that once held arctic air in the poles has wrecked havoc as its meander grows, allowing sudden southern migration of cold air no longer penned in the poles; arctic has warming created a far less clearcut atmospheric river of the jet stream leads the polar vortex to wobble, sending snow flurries into the very regions forecast to reach average temperatures in the high eighties.

But the longue durée that we might do better to pay attention was less rooted in freedoms, than in the cascading changes of climate change, which suggested a rather disturbing shift toward warming temperatures across most of Texas, bringing with them a rise in electric energy for air conditioning that the current energy market was not at al poised to meet or confront only twenty years from now, according to current projections based on even moderate scenarios of climate change.

The very cerulean colors on those weather maps alarmingly showed an incursion of “arctic air” streamed across the nation imagined that such weather had little do with local energy management, increased carbon emissions, or the absence of environmental regulations that had allowed the projections for climate change to grow so dire.

3. The chemical paints that caused a boom in the use of striking shades of cerulean was once marketed to painters to provide: if cerulean skies are barely seen in the smoke-filled cavern of the hulking train station Claude Monet explored, examining the concealment or disappearance of the blue skies he would have seen in the country retreat at Argenteuil in a series of rather haunting portraits devoted to the massive Gare Saint-Lazare, then the busiest of Parisian train stations, especially of its interior overwhelmed by the steam from coal-burning trains.

The colors filtered out of the sound of engine whistles, panting of pistons, and soot that hung in the air but focussed on the new altar of industry as effect and by-product of inhuman “Haussmannization” by which streets welcomed increased traffic, but emphasized the radial network of trains that converged in the central stations of the capitol, connecting the country and the city with unprecedented rapidity that shifted ideas of space with the introduction of roads in the 1860s that transformed the clear break between the city and its faubourgs into a spatial network organized by the rail way tracks prominently included in an 1884 pocket guide to the city below, profoundly altering the relation of the city to its environment and to paved space.

Atlas du Canton de Paris, 1773: Fauxbourgs et ses grands chemins pavez et autres des hauteurs, bois, vignes, terres

Environs de Paris, 1:100,000 (1883) Hachette Pocket Guide/Rumsey Collections

The monumentality of the change of the relation of Paris to its surroundings seems to be captured and condensed in Monet’s sequence of paintings not only in the sooty interior, but how the vivid cerulean blues of the open skies were almost obscured by the billowing pillars smokes that filled the station: clouds of steam vapor fill the cavern which three trains enter to obscure all but spots of cerulean blue, seen through the screen of a lattice of wires over the tracks of the switchyard, as if capturing consciousness of new levels of air pollution that expanded so rapidly in Paris from the mid-nineteenth century. The American Henry David Thoreau was skeptical of the benefits of the increased speed its rail line promised, cautioning with poetic playfulness of triumphal inversion that we do not “ride” the railroad, but that “the railroad rides us” on August 9, 1854, in his Journals, disdaining if intrigued by the telegraph and rail as environmental invasions that changed our sense of place and time, and a product of ill-considered desire for speed a collective delusion of the mid-nineteenth century marketplace: “Men have an indistinct notion that if they keep up this activity of joint stocks and spades long enough all will at length ride somewhere in next to no time and for nothing, but though a crowd rushes to the depot and the conductor shouts “All aboard!” when the smoke is blown away and the vapor condensed, it will be perceived that a few are riding, but the rest are run over—” The deep fear of the consequences of what lay under the tracks, and what relation to nature was compromised, extended a fear of sonic invasion of the railroad’s anthropogenic sounds amidst the bullfrogs and birdsong “by its smoke and steam and hissing” that interrupt the sweet “natural” melodies of church-bells whose “vibratory hum” he so readily called a “natural melody” as the “vibration of a universal lyre.”

Thoreau felt invaded by the proximity of the rail’s anthropogenic sounds to the cabin he dwelled on the scalloped retreat of the Deep Cove of Walden Pond he went to live “in the woods,” seeing the recent extension of the Fitchburg line as an invasion of his personal bond to nature. Where he “lived alone, in the wood” on the borders of civilized and uncivilized life, as much as an auditory but an ecological intrusion, the intrusion of the railroad was not only noisy, but evidence of the imposition of a new relation to space and time by 1854: if punctuality might have been improved as a result of the railroad, and travel increased, he argued the cult of the speed of the “iron beast” infected our very language in the term of doing things “‘railroad fashion'” by being educated to space in new ways with huge consequence: the demand“to make the railroad around the world available to all mankind is equivalent to grading the whole surface of the planet” and doing violence to local variations of topography. The death of the unfortunate would-be passengers caught in smoke-filled depot as the crowd rushed in response to the conductor’s cry to seat their seats before the smoke blows away and steam condensed would be called “’a melancholy accident,’” devaluing our relation to the environment and individual life, and threatening to sever the individual from the environment. “In the railroad car we are inclined to spend more on luxury than on safety and convenience, and it threatens without attaining these to become no better than a modern drawing room” that would effeminize us in its luxury as much as remove from out of doors.

The railroad seems a pernicious affair for Thoreau that might endanger environment and liberty, if he only saw the half of an increasing remove from the travel by “threading the valleys, or crossing the plains, or climbing the mountain-tops” as a romantic sojourner–and an elevation of one class at he cost of another, who he called the “degraded rich,” ignorant and unconscious of the “silent poor” who are degraded by the omnipresence of “shanties which everywhere border our railroads, that last improvement in civilization” but is itself evidence of how much “squalidness can consist with civilization” as in the plantations of “Southern States.” Thoreau only deplored enticement of an ever-expanding market for travel, for its own ends, as a mania, driving demand for seats on the rail, sacrificing the loss of liberty for fares to meet desires for travel will be fed by “spending of the best part of one’s life earning money . . . enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it,” without knowledge of the labor by which they were constructed.

Did the railroad threaten to compromise not only the idyllic forest around Walden where Thoreau sought tranquility in a woodlot? By Thoreau’s time, the railroad was not only bordering the idyllic Walden Pond; spoked radial networks of railroads in France long brought increased traffic into the city, spreading across the agrarian countryside as a network of travel and collective hurry. They created the spectacle of a rushing throng as the vapor of train engines dissipates, a daily spectacle of the urban spectacle of industrial emissions that proved a new motif of modern life from different perspectives, trying to capture the cerulean blues seen through the industrial interior that were almost obscured by the vapors that filled the station as rail service multiplied.

The increased constriction of cerulean skies by the railroad was something like a tipping point, we sense, of the industrialization not only of Paris, but of all France. The growth of railroad tracks were a shift in spaced that akin to the “Hausmannization” of city streets that realized a program of street-broadening and repaving to permit cars to navigate with ease in the 1860s, and indeed circumscribing the possibility of wandering by undermining the spaces for pedestrian walking of the old city; critics of modernity in Berlin or Paris argued the grand boulevards might rewrite the individual’s relation to public space, with the premium they place on driving, more than walking, and on speed, built across the agrarian environments they often now provide a romanticized way of viewing. The railroad tracks leave an imprint of their traces on the expanded metropole whose expanse contrasts sharply to the 1716 map David Rumsey Historical Map Collections digitized and reprojected over a current built urban expanse in its own copious geogarage.

Haussmanization left the city dominated by street traffic, but where coal-burning trains brought increasing numbers across the nation into the busiest train station of the city, its new transit hub, whose denizens were not only grey due to lack of light, but the sooty air that permeated the new space and structure of modern life, introducing a griminess more common for coal workers who moved under the earth in search of veins of copper or bronze than the midst of inhabited space, flanked by multi-story residences that abut the train station and one can see in the background of Monet’s easel painting, in almost a visual pun on the notion of plein air painting, as he reflected on the interior he had literally left the countryside to leave near and observe.

The change seem to be captured in Monet’s sequence of paintings not only in the sooty interior in a spectacle of industrial emissions that proved a new motif of modern life from different perspectives.

Claude Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare Station (1877)/Musée d’Orsay

As Monet set up his easel in St.-Lazare, in 1877, the arrival of trains was accelerated form the Parisian periphery and the nation, spewing forth a level of soot and smoke as a moving industry, that the stations could not in themselves contain, creating a spectacle of the diffusion of the emissions of modern life from their coal-fired engines as they pulled into steel and glass halls. Was the vitrine-ceilinged station was something of a site of experiment to observe how bilious clouds of train engines fill the room to obscure the sky as a sort of spectacle in itself, outside normal, where mechanical actors filled the space and transformed station masters to grey figurines?

CHnaging Rail Network in France, in 1850, 1860, 1870 and 1890

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Filed under anthropogenic change, Climate Change, data visualization, global warming, weather maps

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