Feb 4, 2019
Last week saw the worst cold snap in decades descend on the northern U.S., as a wobbly polar vortex swept arctic temperatures into the upper Midwest.
Temperatures plummeted Wednesday and Thursday, falling well below zero in Minneapolis, Chicago and Detroit, while wind chills reached as low as negative 60 degrees. By Friday, these temperatures were moving into the Northeastern states. Seventy-five percent of the country was below freezing.
The onslaught of extreme cold was expected days in advance. Given the advance warning and the extreme danger of such weather, you would think steps would be taken to protect life and limb. But that is not what we saw. Instead, we saw the population’s exposure to harm by a social system incapable and unwilling to address such an emergency.
A lot of sound and fury was made – much noise that amounted to warning people to stay indoors if they were at all able.
But most people have jobs that demand they come to work no matter what the temperature or road conditions. And so, to guarantee their bosses continue making profits, most workers risked life and limb to show up at work those two days.
Some workplaces offered employees the option of staying home – but did not offer to pay those workers who did stay home. So, the option was, be safe, or get paid. Most people saw no choice whatsoever – and went to work. Because of this, hospitals across the region reported huge spikes in emergency room patients reporting injuries from frostbite and other cold-related injuries. Thousands were stranded in their cars and in danger of freezing to death; the Illinois State Police assisted more than 1,300 drivers on Wednesday, more than 10 times the normal number. At least 21 people were reported to have died of exposure across the region, though the true number is surely much higher.
Right there, we can see what the true priority in this society is – to force people to produce profit, regardless of the danger.
In addition, we saw infrastructure failures across the region. Water mains broke. Freeways were flooded and closed when they froze over. Power plants failed. And in Michigan, a fire and explosion took place at a Consumers Power compression station, endangering the ability of millions of families to heat their homes. Only the extraordinary measure of asking everyone in the state to turn their thermostats down below 65 degrees stopped many people across Michigan from losing heat completely. No explanation has been given as to what caused this fire and explosion – but it is clear that the current system could not handle the demand for fuel.
Many people found themselves without furnace heat entirely and were forced to use dangerous space heaters or open fires to keep warm. One family in Wheeling, Illinois used a charcoal grill to heat their home; all nine, including a 2-month-old infant, were hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning.
These polar vortex cold snaps are happening more frequently and have been more extreme. Scientists are concluding that the cause of this is in fact global warming – the melting of the polar ice caps changes the flow of air currents and dislodges the vortex. The increase in incidents of this extreme cold is another consequence of climate change, along with more extreme storms and hurricanes, more coastal flooding, more drought, and more extreme wildfires.
Capitalism is incapable of addressing these changes, because to do so would mean massively shifting the economy, the production of power and the use of technology across the world to curtail warming effects and to protect the population. The rulers of this society will never agree to give up their profits to do this. We can fully expect that under capitalism, these extreme weather events will become more frequent and more extreme; and this society will be increasingly incapable of dealing with them.
Something CAN be done, but it would mean taking control out of the hands of the capitalist class – and using their accumulated wealth to make that change.
We have the power to do this. If we are to see any kind of future at all, we absolutely must do this. And we must do it quickly!