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Failures in just one sector can set off a domino effect of breakdowns in hard-to-predict ways.
As the southern U.S. state of Texas struggled to restore electricity and water over the past week, signs of the risks posed by increasingly extreme weather to America's aging infrastructure were cropping up across the country, reported The New York Times on Sunday.
The week's continent-spanning winter storms triggered blackouts in Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and several other states. One-third of oil production in the nation was halted. Drinking-water systems in Ohio were knocked offline. Road networks nationwide were paralyzed and vaccination efforts in 20 states were disrupted, said the report.
The crisis carries a profound warning. 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, according to the report.
"Failures in just one sector can set off a domino effect of breakdowns in hard-to-predict ways," it said.
"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," it added.
While it's not always possible to say precisely how global warming influenced any one particular storm, scientists said, an overall rise in extreme weather creates sweeping new risks.
Sewer systems are overflowing more often as powerful rainstorms exceed their design capacity. Coastal homes and highways are collapsing as intensified runoff erodes cliffs. Coal ash, the toxic residue produced by coal-burning plants, is spilling into rivers as floods overwhelm barriers meant to hold it back. Homes once beyond the reach of wildfires are burning in blazes they were never designed to withstand.
Problems like these often reflect an inclination of governments to spend as little money as possible, Shalini Vajjhala, a former Obama administration official who now advises cities on meeting climate threats, was quoted as saying. 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, said Vajjhala. "We're spending poorly."
After an extended winter storm brought low temperatures, snow and rolling blackouts to Texas, local residents are tackling food and water shortages and price spikes, as temperatures are rising and road conditions improving.
Across Texas, deaths related to the winter storm continued to increase. While dozens of deaths have been reported, experts believed the death toll is likely far larger, and it could be weeks or months before the true magnitude is known. Nationwide, this season's adverse weather has killed at least 70 lives.