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How massive power cuts are heating up Argentina’s climate change conversation
This year’s outages came during a mercury-busting heatwave, sparking questions on the relationship between global warming, inequality and development
“Come on, let’s block another lane!” said my neighbour, her eyes twinkling with mischief as she edged further into the traffic. The noise on the avenue was cacophonous: a growing tailback of drivers was honking in frustration and occasional support. My neighbours and I were spread over five lanes of traffic, banging on pots and pans. We were blocking a major traffic thoroughfare in Buenos Aires until the power company restored our electricity connection.
It was 2019, in the middle of Buenos Aires’s oppressively hot, muggy summer, and our building had no power. For the first two days, we charmed baristas into letting us charge devices, worked over precarious wireless hotspots and used up the rapidly-thawing food in the freezer. On the third, the water tank - dependent on the building’s electric pump - finally ran out, leaving us to beg buckets of water from the greengrocer to flush the toilet. That’s when we blocked the road.
Power cuts have been a problem in Argentina for years, its doddering grid collapsing under the strain of peak loads. In summer, when residents turn on the air conditioning, outages are so common that major news websites maintain live maps of them. But the problem has hit international headlines this year following a crippling heat wave, underscoring the massive disruption caused by climate change.
In early January, Argentina was briefly the hottest place on Earth, with the thermometer reaching 40°C (104°F) or more in some areas, and the associated power cuts hit over 700,000 people at a time. While the largest outages were reportedly solved within a few hours, some went without electricity for several days.
Extended power cuts can have lethal consequences. In 2018, power was cut to the home of five-year-old Valentino Ladislao. Massive tariff hikes, a result of then-president Macri rolling back utility subsidies, had left his mother unable to pay her bill. Valentino depended on electrically-powered medical devices following an accident that had left him disabled, meaning the power company was legally required to guarantee service. Staff said they had no record of his needs. His family tried to take him to hospital, but he died on the way.
Extreme heat can also kill in more direct ways, via problems such as heat stroke and the exacerbation of heart, brain, and respiratory diseases. The very old, the very young, and the sick are most vulnerable. Both Buenos Aires’ second- and third-hottest days on record were recorded this January, and its battle to keep the lights on is emblematic of how countries will be affected as climate change progresses.
During leftist Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s administration which ended in 2015, power companies said that their funding structure, based around state subsidies and frozen consumer tariffs, left them unable to make the investment required to shore up the grid. Mauricio Macri, the centre-right president that followed her, rolled back utilities subsidies with a view to balancing the books. Although power prices rose by 562% (compared with 72% rises for private sector salaries due to chronic inflation) in the first two years of Macri’s mandate, the outages continued. In June 2019, a massive power cut took out electricity to almost all of Argentina and Uruguay, plus some of Paraguay.
The recent heatwave is threatening the economy, too. In the countryside, a La Niña-induced drought has damaged the corn and soy harvests, prompting grains exchanges in Rosario and Buenos Aires to revise their production forecasts downwards. These major export crops are a key source of dollars, which Argentina will need to keep up payments to the International Monetary Fund. It also increases the risk of deadly wildfires.
In the cities, the prolonged outages mean that many small businesses simply can’t open their doors: one cafe seven blocks from my home spent eight days without power over the New Year period.
The situation is bringing the intersection of climate crisis, economic disaster and inequality into a national climate debate that often falls back on blaming the US and China or Big Oil. A major producer of beef, Argentina was among the countries revealed by leaked documents to have lobbied the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to change its climate report, saying it disagreed with the evidence that reducing meat consumption is a significant way to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
At the COP26 summit, president Alberto Fernández proposed that Argentina be offered debt relief in exchange for taking action on climate change, a nod to the widespread regional concern that there’s a trade-off between development and emissions reduction.
The police eventually showed up at our roadblock. My neighbour, a lawyer who had showed up with a bucket of dedicated power-cut kazoos, went to cut a deal. Eventually, the power company trundled along with a generator. But we had another three-day outage the following year, and shorter outages since. I’ve often wondered how the pans we inherited with the flat got so dented and it strikes me that this might be why.
For now, we’re left with the inexorable sense that until we’ve slain the twin giants of climate crisis and debt, many of us will be living in the dark.
Stories we’re watching:
This week Honduras swore in the nation’s first female president, Xiomara Castro. Her election was relatively smooth despite fears of violence ahead of the vote, but maneuvering for control before her inauguration has been fraught with drama. Fulfilling a campaign promise, Castro nominated a member of a different party to lead Congress. Members of her own leftist party, Libre, defected and joined with the opposition to put a congressman from Libre in the top spot. The two sides brawled on the floor of congress and have split into two, each claiming they represent the legislative body.
Argentine president Alberto Fernández today announced that he had reached a deal with the IMF to restructure a $44 billion loan taken by his predecessor, Mauricio Macri. In a video announcement, he promised the deal would avoid swingeing cuts to pensions, welfare and universities - but many of his critics won’t believe him. More on that in Amy’s Twitter thread and our mid-December newsletter.
What we’re reading:
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Spanish words of the week:
la tregua (f): A truce or lull. The name of a famous epistolary novel by Mario Benedetti. “No dar tregua” - to give no quarter.
chigüirear (verb): Joshua’s eyes lit up when a displaced indigenous community in Arauca, Colombia, told him of a nearby lake full of capybaras. They then explained that due to food insecurity they had been "chigüireandoles", hunting them for food, which made him tear up a little, but was also understandable given the circumstances