The Leaders' Dilemma


In most countries, governments and their leaders are facing a worsening dilemma that could, if unresolved, devastate national economies, perhaps for decades.

We're all familiar with the metaphor about the straw that broke the camel's back, the feather that broke the horse's back, the last drop that makes the cup run over but now it's become more than a literary device. Look no further than Texas.

Last week's deep freeze revealed the breaking point of the Lone Star state's inadequate infrastructure. Wind farms, never properly winterized, failed. So too did natural gas generating plants. The electrical grid failed. Hundreds of thousands of Texans suffered from power outages, an inability to heat their homes, frozen and ruptured pipes. 

According to The New York Times, Texas became the poster child for a coast-to-coast crisis waiting to happen.

As climate change brings more frequent and intense storms, floods, heat waves, wildfires and other extreme events, it is placing growing stress on the foundations of the country’s economy: Its network of roads and railways, drinking-water systems, power plants, electrical grids, industrial waste sites and even homes. Failures in just one sector can set off a domino effect of breakdowns in hard-to-predict ways.

Much of this infrastructure was built decades ago, under the expectation that the environment around it would remain stable, or at least fluctuate within predictable bounds. Now climate change is upending that assumption.

We are colliding with a future of extremes,” said Alice Hill, who oversaw planning for climate risks on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. “We base all our choices about risk management on what’s occurred in the past, and that is no longer a safe guide."

...Problems like these often reflect an inclination of governments to spend as little money as possible, said Shalini Vajjhala, a former Obama administration official who now advises cities on meeting climate threats. She said it’s hard to persuade taxpayers to spend extra money to guard against disasters that seem unlikely.

But climate change flips that logic, making inaction far costlier. “The argument I would make is, we can’t afford not to, because we’re absorbing the costs” later, Ms. Vajjhala said, after disasters strike. “We’re spending poorly.”

...If the Texas blackouts exposed one state’s poor planning, they also provide a warning for the nation: Climate change threatens virtually every aspect of electricity grids that aren’t always designed to handle increasingly severe weather. The vulnerabilities show up in power lines, natural-gas plants, nuclear reactors and myriad other systems.

Higher storm surges can knock out coastal power infrastructure. Deeper droughts can reduce water supplies for hydroelectric dams. Severe heat waves can reduce the efficiency of fossil-fuel generators, transmission lines and even solar panels at precisely the moment that demand soars because everyone cranks up their air-conditioners.

Climate hazards can also combine in new and unforeseen ways.

In California recently, Pacific Gas & Electric has had to shut off electricity to thousands of people during exceptionally dangerous fire seasons. The reason: Downed power lines can spark huge wildfires in dry vegetation. Then, during a record-hot August last year, several of the state’s natural gas plants malfunctioned in the heat, just as demand was spiking, contributing to blackouts.

In Canada, as in the United States and elsewhere, the very arteries of our economies - roads, bridges, highways, railbeds - are at risk of failing. This is vital infrastructure without which we face economic collapse.

A lot of our infrastructure systems have a tipping point. And when you hit the tipping point, that’s when a failure occurs,” Dr. Jennifer Jacobs, University of New Hampshire said. 

The mess we're in today is the result of decades of "kick the can down the road" politics. To exaggerate our sense of prosperity and ease, our political leadership chose "everyday low taxes" over maintaining, replacing and upgrading our essential infrastructure. They were stealing from future generations that will be left to foot the bill. They're still doing it.

After the 2007-2008 Great Recession, governments rediscovered the notion of "prudence" when they subjected banks and other financial institutions to stress tests that would gauge their strength and resilience. It's past time we conducted a national infrastructure stress test to measure our vulnerabilities, what is needed in the way of remediation and what that will cost. Then we have to figure out where we're going to find the money.

As Churchill said, sometimes it is not enough that we do our best. Sometimes we must do what is required. One of those times is now upon us. We must do what is required.


  1. Doing what's necessary doesn't help the bottom line for the day traders that we pick to lead us.

    Churchill was talking to my granddaddy's generation when he said that. I don't have the training for the job that they had. Even when I try to kick the can I usually miss it. Keypad skills and endless paper-piddling aren't going to get us out of this one.

  2. John, if you're right, we're screwed. There are steps we can take, some major and some relatively minor. There's no magic wand and some of the impacts are already unstoppable. But there are two vital issues here.

    The first is that hope is not lost, not yet. Our plane may be going down but, if we're really smart and determined, we can achieve a survivable, belly landing. We don't have to auger in. The worst scenario is a choice. If we go that route and punch a crater in the ground it will be of our own choosing.

    Canada is one of a handful of countries that is latitudinally blessed. That can be a huge advantage - if we appreciate it and see it as a rare opportunity. Those closer to the equator will be the hardest hit. We need to understand our relatively good fortune and do what we can so that it doesn't slip through our fingers. We need to grasp "what is required."

    The second point is that we have to get beyond ourselves, something we've avoided for the last four decades. We are making or avoiding decisions today that will indelibly write the future for the next couple of generations. Their fate is in our hands.

    For us to ignore their peril, even worsen it, is an abomination. There is only so much we can do to give them a survivable environment but there's no end of what we can do to make it hellish - and that's what we're doing. That has to stop.

    You can't pretend you're all for zero emissions when you keep building infrastructure to flood world markets with low-value, high-carbon coal and bitumen. Do you remember when we outlawed the use of asbestos in Canada after it was proven to be a powerful carcinogen. That didn't stop us from exporting asbestos to Third World countries with weak regulatory regimes, did it? What did that say about us? We don't deserve the benefit of the doubt.

    So, yes, I want to preserve and maximize the advantages our position on this orb provides us while, at the same time, doing as much as we possibly can for the next generations. Lets give them a soft landing.

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