The smoke from wildfires in Canada that has drifted down to the United States, choking New York City and Philadelphia with their worst air quality in history and blanketing much of the East Coast and the Midwest, may be a harbinger for a long, hot, difficult summer across the nation.
It could easily be the summer when the environmental crisis, so easily dismissed as a preoccupation of woke greens and the Biden administration, moves to center stage. It could be when America, in a sense, takes fright. When we realize that global warming is not a will-or-won’t-it-happen issue like Y2K at the turn of the century.
Instead, it is here and now, and it will almost immediately start dictating living and working patterns.
In an extraordinary move, Arizona has limited the growth in some subdivisions in Phoenix. The problem: not enough water. Not just now but going forward. The floods and the refreshing of surface impoundments like Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the nation’s largest reservoirs, haven’t solved the crisis.
All along the flow of the Colorado River, aquifers remain seriously depleted. One good, rainy season, one good snowpack may recharge a dam, but it doesn’t replenish the aquifers, which hydrologists say have been systematically depleting for years.
An aquifer isn’t just an underground river that runs generally after rainfall. It takes years to recharge these great groundwater systems. These have been paying the price of overuse for years; across Texas and all the way to the Imperial Valley in California, unseen damage has been done.
It isn’t just water that looms as a crisis for much of the nation, there is also the sheer unpredictability of the weather.
I talk regularly with electric and gas utility company executives. When I asked them what keeps them awake at night, they used to respond, “Cybersecurity.” Recently, they have said, “The weather.”
This year, we are entering the storm season with unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Atlantic and the Pacific. The sad conclusion is that these will signal exaggerated and very damaging weather activity across the country.
The utilities have been hardening their systems, but electricity is uniquely affected by the weather. The dangers for the electricity industry are multiple and all affect their customers. Too much heat and the air conditioning load gets too high. Too much wind and power lines come down. Too much rain and substations flood, poles snap and there is a crisis from a neighborhood to a region.
In the electricity world, the words of John Donne, the 16th-century English metaphysical poet, apply, “No man is an island entire of itself.”
There is another threat the electric supply system will face this summer if the weather is chaotic: overzealous politics and regulation.
The electric utilities are most identified in the public mind with climate change. The public discounts the myriad industrial processes as well as the cars, trucks, bulldozers, trains and ships that lead to the discharge of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Instead, it is utilities that have a target pinned to them.
A bad summer will lead to bad regulatory and bad political decisions regarding utilities.
Foremost are likely to be new attacks on natural gas and its supply chain, from the well, through the pipes, into the compressed storage, and ultimately to combustion turbines.
At this time, natural gas — about 60 percent cleaner than coal — is vital to keeping the lights on and the nation running when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun has set or is obscured.
The energy crisis that broke out in the fall of 1973 and lasted to the mid-1980s was characterized by silly overreactions. First among these was the Fuel Use Act of 1978, which removed pilot lights on gas stoves and even threatened the eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery.
It also accelerated the flight to coal because, extraordinarily, that was the time of the greatest opposition to nuclear power — from the environmental communities.
This summer may be a wakeup for climate change and how we husband our resources. But wild overreaction won’t quiet the weather.