Opinion: When the power goes out, the chaos of climate change gets real
It felt like the early stage of a death foretold. The power outage at our house in Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco, lasted five days, and shook us from any lingering hope that we would be exempt from climate change’s burgeoning depredations.
We got plenty of warning. Pacific Gas & Electric, our disgraced, bankrupt but newly earnest regional utility, planned the outage to reduce the risk of fire spreading from its equipment during expected high winds. In robocalls, emails and text messages, PG&E and local government agencies informed us again and again that the service break was coming — and perplexingly continued sending the alerts long after the outage started. Electricity ceased at our house last Saturday at 5:23 p.m., and as the sunlight dwindled, our house turned into a well-furnished cave.
We built the house just three years ago, intending it to be a model of sound environmental design. I worried that because our property is only 26 feet above sea level, San Francisco Bay water would inundate the roads that lead to it in the not-too-distant future, but I overlooked the more immediate threat of wildfire. Our solar panels, hooked to PG&E’s system, provided no electricity, and our sleek electric stove might as well have been a countertop. The taps produced only cold water — and we felt grateful for that. Even our gas-powered radiant-heat system, triggered by electricity, no longer worked, and the house got colder and colder. We cooked outdoors on a wobbly propane burner that seemed to have only two settings: high and off. After dark, we wore battery-powered headlamps and maneuvered through the house like miners underground.
Of course, we were lucky, something my wife and I told each other over and over. Our house wasn’t engulfed in flames or even threatened by them, and our dislocation was minor compared with the tens of thousands of Californians evacuated from fire zones, at risk of losing everything.
We were particularly lucky in our next-door neighbors, who’d had the foresight and the funds to add a battery to their solar array. They still had electricity. They extended a power strip outside their front door so that we could recharge our phones, and they pointed their Wi-Fi signal our way. If we installed ourselves at the far end of our dining room and held up our phones, we could collect our email. One night they graciously invited us for dinner, and I set foot in their house for the first time: The outage made us closer neighbors.
That spirit extended throughout the community. Drivers displayed uncharacteristic courtesy at the many intersections where traffic lights stopped working. Mill Valley Market, the locally owned grocery store, stayed open thanks to its newly installed generator and offset the closing of the town’s java joints by offering free morning coffee to all comers.
The one exception to the general magnanimity was the widespread outrage expressed toward PG&E: Why wasn’t it telling us when the outage would end? Why hadn’t it buried its electricity lines to keep them from starting fires? Why was corporate behavior so clearly hazardous allowed to go on and on?
The simple answer to the last two questions is that responsible behavior can be expensive. To bury PG&E’s electricity lines, for example, would cost around $3 million a mile. And blame for not taking that step — if, indeed, blame is warranted — must extend beyond PG&E to regulators and consumers whose chief focus in past decades was keeping utility rates down.
The deeper, distressing truth is that climate change is almost certainly bigger than our capacity for remediation.
San Francisco, the one Bay Area county where the power remained on during the days of extreme fire hazard, seemed like another country. We drove into the city for dinner one night and felt as if we’d entered a twilight zone whose inhabitants were eerily oblivious to the distress everywhere else. Our waitress said she hadn’t even heard about the outage. San Francisco’s normalcy was abnormal.
It’s a dead certainty that climate change will grow worse: Temperatures and sea levels will continue to rise, and fires will proliferate. I spent much of the outage reading “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” an exquisite, harrowing novel about the war in the Russian republic of Chechnya, where, it seemed, every city was bombed and every building was destroyed. As the week and the outage went on, I understood what we were enduring lessened the vast gap between Chechnya’s disarray and our own.
We faced no war, no imminent danger, and when electricity returned on Wednesday afternoon, we cheered. But what remains is an unrelenting whisper inside our heads that says we’re on a path that ends in chaos.
Jacques Leslie is a contributing writer to Opinion.
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