'Climate change is real': Biden administration says Texas power crisis shows U.S. unprepared for extreme weather
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s administration said Thursday the "full support of the federal government" remains extended to Texas, still paralyzed by a winter storm that left millions without power in dangerous conditions.
The White House also blamed climate change for the Arctic-like temperatures and heavy snow in Texas and other parts of the U.S., arguing it shows why infrastructure in the U.S. is in need of sweeping upgrades.
Liz Sherwood-Randall, Homeland Security advisor in the White House, said more than 1 million people in the U.S. still lack power but that numbers are “declining significantly." That includes around 600,000 Texans experiencing power outages, down from nearly 4.5 million earlier in the week.
“It’s important to set expectations, however, that due to the nature of this storm citizens will continue to experience rolling power outages in some communities,” she said in a White House phone briefing with reporters.
Biden has approved federal emergency declarations for Texas, Oklahoma and is processing a request from Louisiana.
Infrastructure inadequate for climate change, White House says
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided 60 generators and fuel to support water treatment plants, hospitals, and nursing homes in Texas as well as 729,000 liters of water, 10,000 wool blankets, 50,000 cotton blankets, 225,000 meals, and other supplies as requested by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Beyond the immediate needs, Sherwood-Randall said the “extreme weather” events demonstrate the urgency to address the country’s infrastructure, which she characterized as ill-equipped to handle the effects of climate change long-term.
“Climate change is real and it’s happening now, and we’re not adequately prepared for it,” Sherwood-Randall said. “And in particular, power grids across our country, particularly in Texas, are overloaded by the demands that are placed on them under these circumstances. And the infrastructure is not built to withstand these extreme conditions.”
Why some scientists blame climate change for the extreme cold
She said the Biden administration will be "leading an effort to strengthen and harden our critical infrastructure" to prepare for the "full spectrum of challenges that we're likely to face in the future."
"We know that we can't just react to extreme weather events," Sherwood-Randall said, "we actually need to plan for them and prepare for them."
Biden has said he wants to include significant infrastructure spending in an upcoming "Build Back Better" jobs proposal but hasn't laid out a timeline for its introduction.
Some scientists, but not all, say there could be a connection between global warming and the wandering polar vortex that explains the unseasonably low temperatures in the South this week.
The polar vortex is a gigantic circular upper-air weather pattern in the Arctic that tends to keep the coldest weather bottled up near the North Pole. But at times, some of the vortex can break off or move south, bringing extremely cold weather down into the U.S., Europe, and Asia.
The theory: weird warmth invades the Arctic, some of the cold that's supposed to stay up there – including the vortex – sloshes southward.
“There is evidence that climate change can weaken the polar vortex, which allows more chances for frigid Arctic air to ooze into the Lower 48,” University of Georgia meteorology professor Marshall Shepherd told USA TODAY.
No plans yet for Biden to visit Texas
Sherwood-Randall said the White House spoke to leaders of FEMA, the Department of Energy and energy companies on Thursday morning “to explore whether there is anything more we can do to provide support for our citizens.”
However, she said it is not “physically feasible at this time” for the federal government to connect the national electric grid to the grid controlled by Texas, which operates its own separately.
The country is divided into three grids: one covers the eastern U.S., another the western states and there is the Texas grid, which covers nearly the entire state.
Psaki said there are currently no plans for Biden to visit Texas or other states affected by the winter storm. Biden spoke to Abbott Thursday night.
She said Biden is receiving regular updates on the situation in Texas but pointed to the expansive “footprint” and resources required of a presidential trip.
“He is focused on has directed his team to make rapid decisions and to be responsive to the specific needs of the states as they come up during this difficult time,” Psaki said.
Psaki said the weather has slowed down the government's efforts to ship COVID-19 vaccines to some states and that the administration has worked to reschedule deliveries.
"Our goal is to ensure vaccine distribution across all jurisdictions is as stable and equitable as possible," she said.
Staff reporters Doyle Rice and Ryan Miller contributed to this report.