May 5, 2021

State forecast paints grim, hotter portrait for Pennsylvania in 2050

State forecast paints grim, hotter portrait for Pennsylvania in 2050

The latest midcentury climate forecast for Pennsylvania released by the Wolf administration paints a grim picture for the commonwealth, with major impacts due to global warming, including a nearly 6 degree jump in average temperature and more heat waves and extreme rain.

The commonwealth releases its Pennsylvania Climate Impacts Assessment every three years, and the 2021 forecast was similar to the 2018 report but slightly higher, hotter and wetter than the one released six years ago at the start of the Wolf administration. It said that unless greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, there will be life-changing impacts to people, businesses, economy and the wildlife and agriculture in Pennsylvania.

That includes 37 days a year with temperatures over 90 degrees, compared to five a year on average between 1971 and 2000. The report calls for 3 inches more rain a year on average by 2050, coming mostly from more frequent and more devastating rainfalls when they do occur. Heavy rainfall and flooding has played havoc on the state’s economy and infrastructure while high temperatures can be very unhealthy for construction and agricultural workers who work outside, as well as the people — particularly in environmental justice communities — who may not have air conditioning or a way to access it during heat waves.

“No one can expect Pennsylvanians' lives to stay the way they are now,” said Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell during a news conference Wednesday afternoon. In fact, said DEP environmental justice advisory board member Rafiyqa Muhammad, the impacts of climate change are being felt now.

“We’re living this now, living this every day in environmental justice cities and communities,” Muhammad said. “We need to take action immediately.”

McDonnell pointed to the DEP’s climate action plan in priorities, which include not just fossil fuel production but also transportation, industrial sources and power generation, which he said were close to each other in greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s not one thing, it’s a lot of things that we’ll need to address as we move forward,” McDonnell said.

One major approach that is coming to a head in the coming months: Pennsylvania’s intention to join the carbon cap and trade program called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a move that is being resisted by the GOP-controlled General Assembly. McDonnell said that Pennsylvania’s participation in RGGI would not only be driving down its greenhouse gas emissions due to the capping program — which would primarily impact fossil fuel generators of power generation — but also the estimated $300 million a year that the state would have to promote energy efficiency and also help communities impacted by the energy transition.

“It’s about how do we drive down emissions but also how do we prepare for what’s coming, environmentally in the climate, and economically,” McDonnell said.

But the report’s starting point — a so-called “business as usual” approach going forward where nothing is done to alleviate greenhouse gas emissions by industry, transportation or any other source — received criticism from an official from the state’s business community. Kevin Sunday, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, said that the chamber shared the goal of reducing emissions but that the potential impacts were overstated. 

Sunday pointed to the RCP8.5 scenario that the DEP and other planners use in forecasts, and said it doesn’t take into account what’s actually happening.

“The scenario makes a host of unlikely assumptions about rampant population growth and no further changes to environmental policy or technological innovation,” Sunday said. “Further, as climate researchers have noted, even if all of the population, energy and policy assumptions within RCP8.5 are correct, we are already seeing global emissions trend beneath the rate the scenario projects.”

In the news conference, DEP’s McDonnell acknowledged the business as usual approach and not looking at the strides that have been made to reduce emissions or that would be put into place.

“Because we are relying on business as usual, the reality is that that gives us the opportunity to really have an impact … so by pursuing policies, by pursuing ways of further reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we can have a meaningful impact, not just on greenhouse gas emissions in Pennsylvania but also adapting to those impacts that we know are coming,” McDonnell said.

But Sunday told the Business Times that a worst-case scenario may be useful as an academic exercise but questioned its use here.

“We are better served if climate policy is centered on the more likely outcomes that reflect real-world conditions,” Sunday said.

But environmental groups, including PennFuture, said the potential damage from climate change requires urgent action.

“Higher temperatures, more frequent heavy rains, flooding, and other effects will harm important industries such as agriculture and tourism, but the risks to public health are even more dire. This is a particularly serious threat to our environmental justice communities that have already suffered disproportionately for generations from the impacts of pollution,” said Rob Altenburg, PennFuture senior director of energy and climate.

And environmental nonprofit EarthWorks said further reductions in greenhouse gas emissions won’t happen unless fossil fuel limits are increased.

“State plans to rein in climate pollution largely ignore a significant source: oil and gas wells and processing facilities,” said Earthworks Senior Policy Analyst Nadia Steinzor. “Gov. Wolf won’t meet his climate commitments unless he limits new oil and gas permits and phases out fossil fuel production.