PennFuture Blog

Our Perspectives on the Latest Issues

The Urgency of Climate Change + Opportunities to Take Action

PennFuture marks September as Climate Month, along with communities around the state, nation, and world. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will provide you with blogs, events and a webinar that focus on and explore all aspects of climate change and its impact on Pennsylvania. On one hand, it’s a somber moment as we watch the modest policy progress made over the last decade evaporate at the national level and Pennsylvania welcome natural gas, coal, and petrochemicals with open arms. On the other hand, it’s a moment of clarity as we recognize that the time for incremental changes, multi-decade solutions, and tinkering around the edges, if there ever was one, is over. 

As climate writer Dave Roberts puts it, the scale and speed at which we need to address climate change is nothing less than a “war-time mobilization.” Our country’s most esteemed scientists, many of whom teach and live in Pennsylvania, have been ringing the alarm for decades that human activity is fundamentally changing the chemistry of the atmosphere. In our own communities and families, we have undoubtedly seen a heartbreaking increase in the frequency of Lyme disease, occurrences of asthma, and destruction caused by climate-fueled weather events. As Pennsylvania’s scientists note, none of this can be explained away by anything other than the fact nature around us is changing…rapidly.  

I recently met with several of PennFuture’s most steadfast friends, who suggested that a climate equivalent of Pearl Harbor was needed to wake people up to the climate crisis. We simply cannot wait for another focusing moment to occur, as if Hurricane Florence, Superstorm Sandy, California wildfires, Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Irma, Midwest flooding and severe weather outbreaks, and western drought aren’t enough. We are in the midst of such peril—as I sometimes like to put it, we are “fiddling while Rome burns.”

In Washington, D.C., the Obama administration’s response to the climate crisis—the Paris Climate Accord, the Clean Power Plan and vehicle efficiency standards—has been replaced by the Trump administration’s plan to rollback vehicle emission standards, boost the use of coal, and expand drilling in our oceans and forest lands. It’s a coordinated attack on our wellbeing by corporate right unraveling our air, water, and climate protections to squeeze out another ounce of profit on the backs of our public health.   

The policy situation here in Pennsylvania isn’t much better.  We’ve rolled out a red carpet for Shell Global’s cracker plant in western Pennsylvania with a $1.62 billion subsidy from tax payers. Our economic development officials continue to tout Pennsylvania as the next big boom for the petrochemical and plastics industry. We’ve lent a helping subsidy to coal by reopening mines in the anthracite region, and they celebrate the opening of new metallurgic mines in the southwest part of the state. Like I said: fiddling while Rome burns. 

That’s not to say Pennsylvania isn’t doing anything positive in the realm of creating solutions to the climate crisis. I’m supportive of the $2,000 rebate program for alternative fuel vehicles just announced by the PA Department of Environmental Protection. The state recently implemented its first ever methane controls on new oil and gas infrastructure. The state is beginning to force bad actors to plug abandoned and leaking gas wells. We just passed Commercial PACE legislation that opens new opportunities for commercial building owners to lower their energy consumption and bills. And Governor Wolf is staunchly condemning Trump’s abandonment of clean car standards. All of these policy choices matter, but with the scale of the climate problem we face, it’s simply not enough.

We have a political problem here in Pennsylvania, as we do nationally. Climate change is running well out ahead of us and we are losing our chance to act decisively and significantly. We are dragging our feet on the policy decisions that will actually make a dent in the problem: state methane regulations for existing oil and gas infrastructure, eliminating subsidies for oil, coal, and natural gas, investing significantly in next-generation renewable energy technologies, aggressively updating Pennsylvania’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, and implementing carbon pricing.  

This shortsightedness—especially the blindness of our policy officials to the economic opportunity of investing in renewable energy—will not only dig us a climate hole we may not be able to escape from, but also put the Commonwealth at an economic disadvantage for decades to come while saddling our citizens with the health and environmental impacts of these misguided investments in gas and coal. 

Nonetheless, the fight must go on and there is important work being done to overcome the stranglehold the fossil fuel industry has over the Commonwealth’s climate and energy policy and implement the type of wartime mobilization we need. I am proud of a new program being developed by PennFuture called Clean Energy Communities. Being piloted in Pittsburgh, the program is working with communities and their elected officials to take ownership of their climate future and advance renewable energy in their municipalities and reduce their carbon footprint. Our expectation is to expand this program around the state as there are hundreds of local communities that have overwhelmingly expressed their determination to meet carbon reduction goals, with or without state or federal action.

PennFuture is also working with the PA DEP and over 500 stakeholders on the Finding PA’s Solar Future project. The goal of the project is to model scenarios for increasing solar energy deployment in Pennsylvania and to discuss the best pathways for doing so. PennFuture has convened stakeholder meetings, engaged with thought leaders, and is helping organize a statewide report on the potential for solar energy moving forward.  

Lastly, there is tremendous energy around this election cycle—I feel it everywhere. More and more citizens are tired of getting their health, clean water, and air quality thrown under the proverbial bus through the guise of “smaller government” or “cutting red tape.” Through PennFuture’s civic engagement program, we’re elevating the public debate on environmental issues around the Commonwealth and engaging in nonpartisan voter education ahead of November 6th. I am so proud of the work being done by our partner organization, Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, as they shine a spotlight how well or not our elected officials are doing on environmental legislation and votes. They recently published its 2017 – 18 legislative scorecard and you should take a look.

Without a doubt, more needs to be done and PennFuture will continue to build out its climate programming to continue matching the monumental task ahead. We hope that you—our supporters, readers, and the general public—will join in the discussion on how best to do this in Pennsylvania. During climate month, PennFuture is hosting a number of events around the Commonwealth to advance climate protections. I hope you’ll be able to join us. Click here to visit our events page to get involved.

In closing, I believe that Climate Month is no longer a time to raise general awareness on climate or calling for simply any action. Rather, it’s now a moment to note what we realistically have to do, no matter how much of an uphill battle it may seem from the outset. We’ve moved past the need for small policy changes and into an era where immediate and urgent mobilization is all we have left to meet this challenge. I want to personally thank all of those who are trying every day in the public’s service to overcome this climate challenge. I’m sure there have been many moments in the last couple of years where it seems hopeless, but we can’t relent. Together, let’s keep going. 

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