Extreme weather is a climate change inevitability; our responses shouldn’t worsen the problem

Texas residents try to stay warm using grill on porch
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Losing power, especially in times of emergency or crisis, can be deadly. During the February winter storm in Texas, at least 11 people died and 1,400 sought treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning after using cars, outdoor grills, and similar equipment in an attempt to stay warm when the power went out during record low overnight temperatures. It’s no wonder, then, that many Texans have since rushed to buy back-up generators, leading to near half-year waitlists. Power outages associated with wildfires in California have similarly led to an uptick in back-up generator purchases. Demand for back-up generators also skyrocketed in Louisiana during and after Hurricane Ida — to the point that many were unable to find fuel to power them.

Increasing reliance on back-up generators is concerning for a host of reasons. Not only are those generators less reliable than many expect, many use diesel or other fossil fuels and emit the very climate pollutants that are fueling more severe extreme weather.

Backup generation is often not only an individual choice, but proffered as a policy solution as well. Many states have enacted programs that subsidize, incentivize, or mandate backup generation in response to natural disasters. These policies are designed to address the life-threatening harms posed by power outages but present their own public health risks.

The exhaust from diesel generators contains black carbon, which is thought to be the second largest contributor to climate change (after carbon dioxide). Diesel exhaust also contains over 40 other substances that are classed as hazardous air pollutants or air toxics. At least 21 of those substances are known carcinogens or reproductive toxins. According to one study, if the approximately 11,300 large diesel back-up generators in California ran for an average of just 25 hours per year, their emissions would cause at least 20 additional deaths.

So, while intended to protect against the impacts of climate change, investing in back-up generation may actually worsen that and other environmental problems. Political scientists use the term “maladaptation” to refer to this negative feedback loop. It describes a category of activity where measures designed to address a symptom make the underlying problem worse — in turn contributing to a worsening of symptoms over time.

Here, backup diesel generators contribute to climate change, which in turn amplifies extreme weather. There are more climate-friendly alternatives that are just as — or more — reliable, like fuel cells and systems that combine solar with battery storage. But they’re often overlooked by both individual purchasers and state policymakers. It’s time they got more attention.

Extreme weather events already affect one in three Americans. In coming decades, climate change will only increase the severity and frequency of extreme events, putting added strain on our electric system, as well as other infrastructure and the economy more broadly.

Politicians increasingly recognize the urgent reality of the climate crisis. The most recent reconciliation bill, published last week, sets aside billions in funding to enhance the climate resilience of affordable housing, rural buildings, and rural electric systems. There is, however, nothing in the bill that requires resilience investments to be climate-friendly. As such, the money set aside for enhancing climate resilience could, at least in theory, be used to fund maladaptive activities, like more diesel generators, that would increase greenhouse gas emissions.

This is not to suggest that investment in climate resilience is unnecessary. But all too often government programs make no attempt to link climate risk reduction solutions with emissions reduction strategies. 

Divorcing cause and effect can create a vicious circle, where resilience strategies contribute to climate change, which in turn necessitates only more — and costlier — resilience investments. To avoid that, resilience strategies need to be designed with climate change mitigation in mind. In practice, this means that all policy, regulatory, and legislative proposals for climate resilience should be evaluated taking into account the greenhouse gas emissions they create.

The New York City Climate Change Hazard Plan Bill, which was unanimously approved by the City Council, offers one model for doing that. The landmark bill requires the New York City Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability to develop a climate adaptation plan that identifies climate hazards impacting the city and evaluates measures to reduce or avoid those hazards. The bill emphasizes a “non-structural risk reduction approach,” with a particular focus on natural measures, such as wetland restoration and expansion, which both mitigate climate change and protect against its impacts. This could result in better alignment of climate mitigation and resilience strategies. After all, a resilience measure cannot be said to reduce climate-related risks if it, itself, contributes to a worsening of climate change.

Action to manage the mounting harms presented by climate change is urgently needed, but solutions need to be crafted with care. Preventing climate-damaging outcomes should be a key consideration guiding decisions.

Michael Panfil is the director of Federal Energy Policy at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Romany Webb is a senior fellow and associate research scholar at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.

Tags back-up generator Black carbon Climate change policy Climate change policy of the United States diesel exhaust extreme weather

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