Dr. Zachary Tabb and Dr. Timothy Singer
The electrical grid failure in Texas and its continuing fallout once again highlight the urgent threat that climate change and extreme weather pose for the most vulnerable everywhere: children.
After a sweeping energy breakdown during a storm in February, Texans now face the daunting task of reforming the power grid, and, as pediatricians, we appeal to policymakers and energy leaders to consider building climate-resilient infrastructure.
For years, energy regulators warned the state’s electric-grid operators that they were not prepared for an unprecedented winter storm. Nothing was done, and more than 100 people died in the storm, most from hypothermia.
Action must be taken now before another brutal storm hits the state. Children are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of extreme weather. They have smaller body surface area-to-volume ratios, meaning they lose heat faster, risking death from hypothermia. Babies are at the highest risk. Children’s higher resting metabolism means they breathe at a faster rate than adults, making them more vulnerable to environmental toxins, such as carbon monoxide.
It was devastating learning about these carbon monoxide poisonings and other deaths as parents desperately tried to keep their children warm in Texas. In one particularly tragic case, a family of four sought refuge from the freezing temperatures in their car in order to use its heater. The slow build-up of carbon monoxide in their garage from the running car resulted in the death of the mother and her 8-year-old daughter.
Children with complex medical needs also have special concerns during weather disasters. Devices such as feeding tube pumps, supplemental oxygen and home ventilators require electricity. Many medications must be refrigerated. While families are often prepared for brief outages, a prolonged power failure can be devastating for those with complex health conditions.
Children who endure natural disasters suffer more than just physical effects. Their mental health suffers, and long-term studies have shown learning difficulties and detrimental effects on school performance. An entire generation of Texan children is growing up all too familiar with trauma from extreme weather events. Such disruptions always hit the most vulnerable families hardest, compounding health disparities in the midst of a global pandemic. Taking action now will benefit the health of everyone for generations to come.
The storm has also uncovered the vulnerability of our health system. Providers struggled to get to work to deliver care, clinics closed their doors, prescriptions went unfilled. Hospitals lost running water and heat, and essential supplies ran low.
Clearly, a climate-resilient health care system depends upon a climate-resilient energy infrastructure. So, what needs to change to protect children from the threat of weather disasters and long-term climate change?
The 87th Texas Legislature must enact serious energy reform. As Luke Metzger, the executive director of Environment Texas, recently stated, state policy should focus on diversification of the power supply, transportation reform, widespread efforts to fortify infrastructure and large-scale efforts to promote disaster readiness. The Texas House and Senate are working on legislation that would overhaul the state’s electricity industry and infrastructure, but some experts say the legislation doesn’t go far enough to prepare for risks posed by climate change.
Investing upfront in climate-resilience measures stands to save trillions over time. Already there are encouraging signs from energy industry leaders, such as BP, Exxon, and Shell, of an understanding that renewable energy sources are the future as they plan their investment strategies, and the Texas Legislature would be wise to follow suit.
But the power failure that left millions in the dark and without safe drinking water for days – and even longer for some – also highlighted the weaknesses in the power grid in other parts of the country. Electric grid regulators say the nation will have to secure huge supplies of power storage, such as giant batteries, that rely on emerging technologies.
We should lead now in Texas.
As pediatricians, the most frustrating illnesses we see in children are those that could have been prevented. Whether it is scorching heat, flooding, or winter chill, extremes in our climate will continue to pose a threat to children across the country. A climate-resilient energy system will create an environment that allows children to grow up safe and healthy and to thrive.
Dr. Zachary Tabb and Dr. Timothy Singer are pediatricians in Houston who focus on under-resourced populations and how access to care affects child health.