The massive power outages and resulting disruptions (and deaths) in Texas after a period of extreme cold in mid-February have significant implications for the nation as a whole. The high-profile catastrophe could also affect U.S. public opinion on several key issues.
Reconsider the Move to Alternative Energy Sources?
The Texas disaster quickly led to discussions of "green" energy and the implications of shifts from traditional fuel sources to alternatives such as wind and solar. Most reviews show that a loss of wind power due to the extreme cold in Texas was no more significant than the loss of power from traditional sources that furnish the vast majority of power in the state. But several Texas officials used the occasion to deflect blame for the crisis to the state's use of alternative energy sources. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said at one point during the crisis, "This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America. Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10% of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis. ... It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary." And this week The Wall Street Journal editorialized, "More Green Blackouts Ahead."
Prior to the Texas outages, Americans were quite positive about alternative energy sources. As I pointed out in a recent review, "Americans are concerned about the quality of the environment and are sensitive to the environmental harm done by various energy sources. Given this, the significant majority of Americans appear amenable to the idea of de-emphasizing fossil fuels, whether through laws that beef up fuel efficiency standards or by discouraging the production of heavy polluters like coal." And my colleague Justin McCarthy noted in his 2019 review of Gallup data that "most Americans support the general idea of dramatically reducing the country's use of fossil fuels over the next two decades as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change."
Could these attitudes be changed if Americans read or hear about hypotheses that increased reliance on alternative energy made Texas more vulnerable to power outages (whatever the reality)? Forthcoming research, particularly Gallup's March Environment survey, will help answer that question.
It's also possible that the image of the nation's oil and gas industry, already in the bottom half of the 25 industries measured in Gallup's annual update, will suffer further as a result of the Texas crisis.
More Concern About Climate Change?
The extreme weather conditions in Texas, last year's wildfires in California and 2012's Hurricane Sandy have all been portrayed as examples of the impact of climate change on our weather. As The Washington Post recently pointed out, "Some of the complex systems our society depends upon for basic necessities and economic growth, such as electricity, are unprepared even for the climate extremes of today, let alone more severe extremes climate scientists warn are coming." The question here is whether the Texas situation will help drive this realization home, and thus increase Americans' worry about climate change and its impact on earth's human societies.
Before the Texas situation, climate change was a relatively low-salience issue for Americans. Despite climate change being labeled an "existential threat" by politicians and others, very few Americans name it (or any aspect of the environment, for that matter) as the most important problem facing the nation (3% in Gallup's February update). Still, there is some evident concern when Americans are reminded about climate change in survey questions. Gallup's Lydia Saad reported last year on a segmentation of the public based on their views toward global warming, and concluded, "The largest group, describing 51% of Americans today, are what can be termed 'Concerned Believers.' They attribute global warming to human actions and take the threat seriously." And Pew Research in 2020 reported that a majority of Americans think the government is not doing enough to deal with climate change.
Additionally, a 2019 CBS News poll found that large majorities of Americans believed climate change contributed "a great deal" or "some" to a list of weather extremes. A Pew Research poll in 2019 similarly found that significant majorities of Americans at that point already said that extreme weather events were examples of the ways in which climate change was affecting their local community. Gallup asked Americans in 2019 if the temperatures in their local area had been colder or warmer than usual, and those who said yes were then asked if those temperatures were the result of climate change or normal variations. About a third of all Americans both said that the temperatures were either warmer or colder than usual and believed those changes were due to climate change.
The Texas situation is one in a long list of weather extremes in recent years, including floods, tornadoes, droughts, severe thunderstorms, winter storms, wildfires and extreme temperatures. At some point, all of these types of weather events may begin to increase Americans' recognition that climate change is affecting their daily lives.
Lose Faith in State Governments?
Another consequence of the Texas situation could be a diminution of the public's faith in state governments. Americans' trust in their state government has traditionally ranked higher than their trust in the legislative and executive branches of the federal government. This is a long-standing manifestation of the public opinion verity that things closer to home are viewed more positively than things further away. Indeed, it was Texas officials' antipathy toward the federal government that resulted in the decision decades ago to create the state's own power grid system, independent of federal regulation. This "go it alone" approach to power distribution obviously did not work well in the recent crisis.
A majority of Americans (54%) in Gallup's September Governance poll said that the federal government should do more to address the nation's problems. This is the highest such percentage since Gallup began asking the question in 1992 (this measure came in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which may have affected the responses). These data suggest the public may be more likely now than in the past to agree that the federal government has a legitimate role to play in providing for the public's basic infrastructure needs. The power grid situation and its regulation are thus playing out as the latest chapter in the historical conflict over exactly what role the federal government should have in Americans' lives, one of the critical issues we have faced as a nation since it was founded. The whole situation also raises questions about competence and the ability of government at any level to maintain the basic systems the nation needs to continue operating. If states lose credibility in the eyes of the public, the federal government may increasingly be seen as the entity best situated to address pressing energy concerns.
Impact on the 2024 Presidential Race?
One potential consequence of the Texas power situation is a possible ripple effect on the national political scene. The politician most in the spotlight is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 and by most accounts will be running again in 2024. Cruz got massive media attention when he left Texas for a vacation in Cancun in the middle of February's power outages, leaving his fellow Texans suffering back at home. Cruz quickly returned to Houston, did the usual mea culpas and attempted to atone for his sins by passing out bottled water at Houston-area aid stations. How all of this will affect his 2024 presidential bid is a major unknown. Clearly, if nothing else, this latest incident has helped raise Cruz's name identification nationwide and among the Republican base he needs to win the party nomination. (It used to be said that all publicity is good publicity as long as they spell the name right.) At this point, national horse race polls among Republicans put Cruz nowhere near front-runner status for the 2024 GOP nomination. But that means little; Jimmy Carter in 1973 and Barack Obama in 2005 were also nowhere near front-runner status for their party's nomination. Cruz's behavior in February 2021 at the least will likely provide his Republican opponents with campaign fodder as the national presidential campaign heats up in 2023.
Prior to the Texas crisis, energy was not a top-of-mind concern for Americans. Few mentioned it as the nation's top priority, and only 28% of Americans in our latest update said they worried a great deal about the availability and affordability of energy, much lower than at previous times over the past two decades. It is likely respondents were thinking about gas for their cars rather than electricity in their homes in answering that question, but the Texas crisis may accelerate a focus on the nation's power grid when Americans contemplate the nation's energy situation. This will be particularly true if electric cars displace gas-powered autos in ever-increasing numbers, further increasing reliance on the power grid for basic transportation.