Climate Change Goes Biblical As Privatized Energy Weakens Response

Climate change may not have triggered the recent Fort Lauderdale storm, (24 inches of rain in 24 hours) but it amplified the floods to biblical proportions.

Between April 12 and 13 Fort Lauderdale in Florida suffered from the greatest 24-hour precipitation total recorded in the state’s history — more than two feet of rain fell.

Flooding closed roads, the airport, swamped people’s homes, forced evacuations, and cut power supplies.

Most of the rain fell during an eight-hour period on the 12th. In one intense ten-minute period some 1.5 inches of rain fell, which is close to the United States’ all-time record for rain in that short period of time.

Ironically, April is considered to be a “dry” month in Florida — most rain happens between June and September.

It was not associated with a hurricane landfall, but with two slow-moving storms. The heavy rain was caused by a slow-moving weather system, combined with a low pressure system in the Gulf of Mexico. The storms built upon themselves. It was described as a 1-in-1,000 year event.

Those frequencies may need to be adjusted as climate change alters the odds.

What happened in Fort Lauderdale will happen more often as the world gets warmer.

For every degree Celsius the temperature rises, the atmosphere can hold 7% more water. On average, the United States is seeing 6% more precipitation now than it did 100 years ago. The 10 warmest years on record have all happened since 2010.

As these events crowd onto us faster and faster, the resiliency of our electrical infrastructure is getting weaker. As The Insider reports: “A system that was once largely controlled by localized public entities has been handed over to layers of regional authorities and private companies whose goal is maximizing profits — not reliability.”

Consequently, our electrical system is suffering from decreasing reliability and rising costs. A classic example is the Texas storm in the winter of 2021, which shut down power for 11 million people and caused 700 deaths. The Texas power system is privately owned.

Cities are facing these events in an accelerating pattern. W​orld Weather Attribution, an international panel of scientists, says climate change played a role in five extreme, deadly rainfall events around the world in 2022.

Ocean warming and higher atmospheric temperatures that cause ocean water to expand and glaciers and ice sheets to melt have contributed to a rise in the sea level.

The warmer the planet gets, the more major cities will be impacted by a rise in sea levels driven by climate change. A temperature rise of 4°C would see the Chinese city of Shanghai wiped almost entirely from the map, displacing more than 20 million people.

It was Florida’s bad luck that it was the fastest-growing state in the U.S. last year, with more structures being built in areas that used to provide a natural buffer against flooding.

What was once wetlands and swamp in Florida is now urban development. Fort Lauderdale has more than 165 miles of inland waterways that run through the city. The city is now in the midst of a 5-year, $200 million effort to raise seawalls, improve flood control systems.

Some 40% of Americans lived in a county affected by extreme weather, many of them in communities of colour.

In other parts of the U.S., some of California’s most productive farmland is also underwater. Snowmelt has washed away miles of roads and crops across the state. At the same time, the Colorado River System is collapsing due to an absence of rain, with dire consequences for the West’s major cities, farmers and Native tribes. The river provides water and electricity to more than 40 million people in seven states.

Mass blackouts are starting to become a more regular feature of modern American life. Power outages have increased 64% from the early 2000s, and weather-related outages — many driven by the worsening climate crisis — have increased 78%. But it’s not just nature making our grid shakier: A system that was once largely controlled by localized public entities has been handed over to layers of regional authorities and private companies whose goal is maximizing profits — not reliability.

As a result, our electrical system has been plagued by decreasing reliability, lagging maintenance, and soaring costs. All this has left America’s energy system unprepared to handle a climate-warming future.

During the lifetimes of the Millennials, 100 coal and oil producing companies have been responsible for over 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the primacy of their role, private funding accounts for less than 20 percent of climate finance.

Yet some 60% of S&P 500 companies have one or more assets exposed to direct risk from extreme weather events.

You would think that the private sector would be more willing to step up and help halt the acceleration of emission-delivered global warming, with so much at stake.

Thus far private companies have been pushing back, trying to keep the profits while avoiding the consequences. Advocates for privatizing and deregulating the grid argue that competition increases efficiency, spurs technological innovation, and lowers prices. But instead of lowering costs or improving the grid, these policies caused energy prices in many areas to spike and led to artificial power shortages. Statewide spending on power in California went from $7 billion in 1999 to $28 billion in 2000 and led to the 2000–01 California electricity crisis.

At the same time, the link between the activities of the private companies and climate change grows. A report found that the Pacific Northwest heat wave was 43 times more likely due to human influence on the climate. Looking ahead, a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that the number of days that reached temperatures over 90 degrees in Ohio would likely triple to 30 to 70 days a year by mid-century.

Surges in energy demand will accelerate as climate change worsens. During a heat wave more and more people turn on their air conditioning; during a cold snap more will turn up their thermostats. At the same time, during a climate-induced event, power equipment takes a beating from cold, wind and water.

In the old days, local power utilities controlled all parts of the system. Their simple goal was to deliver power to everyone without consideration of a profit edge.

But that passed in 1992 when Congress passed the federal Energy Policy Act. It allowed new entities to enter into competition with the existing local utilities. The government encouraged competition for the new market by incentivizing private utility companies while tilting the table against existing utilities.

instead of lowering costs or improving the grid, these policies caused energyprices in many areas to spike and led to artificial power shortages. In the 2000–01 California electricity crisis, for example, the energy company Enroncreated an artificial energy shortage to jack up prices.

The deregulation led to poorer maintenance, as companies tried to increase their profit margins. The length of outages in 2020 was double what it was in 2013. In 2012, the power company Pacific Gas and Electric Co. was found to have diverted $100 million that was supposed to be for gas-safety operations to bonuses for executives and stockholders.

A solution to this distressful situation will require a total revamp of energy policy in America, to align it both with the needs of the users and with the goal of climate change through “green energy”. The recent Inflation Reduction Act may be a start, as it directs billions in funding to new clean energy deployment. But substantial and ongoing change will only be possible if the question is addressed of whether the private sector should be in charge of a public utility.

As the waters recede in Fort Lauderdale, we can reference the findings of a study of Florida Public Utilities v.s. Investor-Owned Utilities. The Investor-Owned Utilities provided lower rates for big companies and businesses. The Public Utilities provided lower rates for citizens and small businesses.

We can control the shape of our future. If we deliberately choose to let wealthy individuals own the utility industry, we will get higher consumer prices, lower maintenance, and increasing environmental damage.

Public utilities may not be perfect, but they seem to offer a chance at alleviation of climate-induced violence to the systems while giving people the best service rates possible.

Something to think about while you’re paddling your canoe through Fort Lauderdale…


Click the link for an interactive sea level rise viewer from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) helps provide actionable information for civic planning.

This article was written by Barry Gander, who is solely responsible for all its contents. 

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