Heavy rain pounded parts of Pennsylvania over the summer of 2018.
Some flash floods turned deadly. Many took a toll on property, roads and bridges. Water rushed through Chanceford Township, York County so fast, pavement floated up and away like pieces of paper, said Township Supervisor David Warner.
One man ran out to get pizza and returned to find his house destroyed. “Luckily nobody died,” Warner said. Two years later, Warner said, six bridges are still closed, causing a headache for ambulance crews and farmers moving equipment.
As devastating as the floods were, the damage was concentrated and didn’t rise to the level of a federal emergency disaster. Chanceford Township and others across the state had to rely on Small Business Administration loans and their own resources to handle the cleanup.
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Scientists say climate change can’t be blamed for a single weather event. But Pennsylvania’s Climate Action Plan says in the coming decades, the state is expected to experience higher temperatures, changes in precipitation, and more frequent extreme events — like flash floods — because of climate change.
Climate Change Ignored
However, like some of those flooded roads in Chanceford Township, climate change isn’t getting much attention in the state capitol. That’s even though nearly 70 percent of Pennsylvanians in polls say they’re seeing the effects of climate change now, and about the same percentage say they want lawmakers to do more about it.
“I think the citizens have a very different set of views than elected officials at the moment in the state legislature,” said Berwood Yost of Franklin & Marshall College’s Center for Opinion Research. “If it were different, we would see different behaviors in the legislature.”
“The three steps are: You have to have energy, you have to have an economy, and then you can afford to worry about the environment.”
The scientific consensus is that human activity is driving climate change. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns of dire consequences for our way of life if emissions aren’t cut significantly in the next decade.
Democratic Governor Tom Wolf has taken executive actions. He’s calling for an 80 percent reduction in the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, compared to 2005 levels, and is trying to join 10 other states in an effort to curb carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
But he’s also supported fossil fuel and petrochemical industries that contribute to those very emissions and make Pennsylvania the fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled legislature has challenged Wolf’s authority to take executive actions. And instead of addressing climate change, it has supported fossil fuel development.
At a June hearing of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee on the merits of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), committee chair Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming) summarized his priorities for the state.
“The three steps are: You have to have energy, you have to have an economy, and then you can afford to worry about the environment,” he said. “Frankly, if you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from, you probably don’t care too much about the environment.”
Climate activists argue the reverse: Without a livable environment, there won’t be a functioning economy. The IPCC report points out that the environment includes not just ecosystems of plant and animal life, but the entire world we live in. It says higher temperatures will lead to more sickness and death, increase poverty, and have a negative impact on economic growth.
Legislators Against Cap-and-Trade
Yaw and 17 other Republican senators signed a letter in April asking Wolf to rescind his executive order to join RGGI. The cap-and-trade program is designed to limit carbon emissions from power plants in 10 participating states. Lawmakers who support joining say it would be the biggest step Pennsylvania has taken to fight climate change in years. RGGI says member states have cut average annual carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector by 45 percent from 2006-08 levels.
Yaw has sponsored a resolution urging the DEP to stop its work on RGGI.
In a statement to StateImpact, Yaw said, “The debate over climate change and global warming is the most significant environmental public policy debate taking place today in our state, across the nation and around the globe.”
But, he said, the discussion is being driven by “climate alarmists” who imply the earth will end after the next decade.
Climate scientists say that’s not the message.
“The 2030 date got tossed around a lot,” said Sean Sublette, a meteorologist at Climate Central. But, he said, the 2018 IPCC report did not say the world will end in 2031.
Sublette said if we hope to avoid the worst effects of climate change, major action is needed by 2030, according to the report. After that, the effects will be much harder, and more expensive, to manage.
The report called for limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius for the best outcomes. But a recently released study found if carbon dioxide is allowed to double in the atmosphere, the earth is more likely to see warming between 2.3 and 4.5 degrees Celsius. The effort, sponsored by the World Climate Research Program, was conducted over four years by 25 researchers around the world.
“The short version is: The longer we wait, the worse it’s going to be,” Sublette said.
Yaw’s statement questioned if alternative energies are, in fact, “clean.”
“What is needed to build a nuclear plant?” he said. “What is needed to build a solar panel, a windmill, a hydro-electric dam? Fossil fuels are used to make components for the ‘renewable’ sector, yet nobody talks about that. Where do the materials come from?
“Bottom line — Our goal should be to develop an approach to address climate change, which takes all of these issues into account.”
He didn’t offer any ideas for that approach. His spokesman Nick Troutman said in an email that Yaw wants to talk about it.
“We have always planned to have a robust discussion, whether through hearings or informational meetings,” Troutman said.
Yaw and other Republican leaders responding to requests for this story said any policy on climate change should be weighed against the impact to the economy and energy costs.
Penn State geosciences professor Klaus Keller, who has studied the economic “regrets of procrastination” when it comes to climate policy, said the argument to prioritize the economy neglects the fact that problems often need to be tackled together.
“If you fail to do timely investment into mitigation, adaptation, you leave money on the table,” he said. “You’re wasting money. You’re economically inefficient.”
Studies estimate the cost of business-as-usual on climate change policy will be staggering — in terms of increased health issues from heat, productivity loss, and infrastructure damage.
Republicans argue Pennsylvania has already reduced emissions.
“Pennsylvania’s net greenhouse gas emissions dropped nearly 19% from 2005 to 2016, according to inventory prepared by the state Department of Environmental Protection,” Yaw said.
Those reductions have been driven largely by the switch from coal to cheaper natural gas for electric generation. Republican lawmakers have been hugely supportive of the natural gas industry, but state environmental officials note that heavier reliance on natural gas alone will not help the state reach Wolf’s climate goals.
“Emissions from natural gas are increasing as well, though not as much as coal has dropped,” said DEP spokesman Neil Shader. “If that trend continues, we will soon stop seeing emissions drop, and will even see them start to creep up again.”
More Concerned with Power
David Hess, secretary of environmental protection under Republican governors Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker, keeps tabs on environmental news coming out of Harrisburg in a daily blog. He said the legislature has done “bits and pieces” on climate change in the past decade, but nothing comprehensive.
He said the last major action on the issue was the 2008 Pennsylvania Climate Change Act — passed under Democratic Governor Ed Rendell — which provides for a periodic Climate Action Plan. The plan offers nonbinding recommendations, which have mainly been taken up by the executive branch.
“The Republican Party has largely abandoned environmental issues — to its great detriment politically.”
“It’s very clear that most of the Republicans that run the General Assembly today in Pennsylvania don’t really care that much about climate change. It’s very obvious,” Hess said.
Climate change doesn’t warrant a mention in the state Republican Party’s platform. While Democrats list climate change as a policy priority, and have a framework for legislation, they also lack a comprehensive plan.
Hess said Republicans are most concerned with power.
“I think the big issue right now is that Republicans and the Wolf Administration are talking past each other,” he said. “For the Republicans it’s an issue of who’s in charge, who’s going to make the decisions; and the issue of climate and jobs and everything else is basically secondary.”
Hess’ former boss publicly shamed his party as out-of-touch on the issue of climate change in an op-ed published in The Atlantic on Earth Day this year.
“The Republican Party has largely abandoned environmental issues — to its great detriment politically,” Ridge wrote.
In a May interview with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, Ridge expanded on the critique, saying climate change will have drastic implications for the economy and national defense.
The former Homeland Security Secretary said the defense community looks at climate change as a threat multiplier because it aggravates conditions that create instability, like poverty and famine.
“It’s also a moral imperative. We have a responsibility to future generations, and shame on us if we don’t accept it,” he said.
GOP Voters Lack Concern on Climate
Asked if the legislature has a responsibility to address climate change, Mike Straub, spokesman for House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster), said “The legislature has a responsibility to always be the elected voice of constituents.“
That helps explain why GOP lawmakers don’t tackle climate change, said Chris Borick, who directs the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College. He said an enormous partisan divide over climate change still exists in Pennsylvania.
Polls show only about 40 percent of Republicans say more should be done on climate change, compared to nearly 70 percent of all voters. Meanwhile, Republicans hold a strong majority in the state House and Senate.
Yost, at Franklin & Marshall College, said the way lawmakers represent citizens helps shape their priorities.
“They’re not representing the entire state, they’re representing one constituency,” Yost said. “They’re just responding to incentives.”
No debate and Inaction
Democratic leaders in Pennsylvania say action is unlikely while Republicans are in control.
“They either do not believe climate change is real or do not want to enact programs that may hurt the fossil fuels industry,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny).
Representative Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler), the Chair of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, has invited climate science deniers to testify at hearings as recently as last year. Metcalfe did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Senator Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks), the minority chair of the Senate energy committee, said he believes some measures could win bipartisan support. One that he sponsors is updating Pennsylvania’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards to require energy suppliers to purchase more from renewable sources.
The problem, he said, is that the bill won’t even be called up for a debate.
That’s in part because the natural gas industry holds a lot of power in the state capitol. It’s spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions over the past decade. While gas burns cleaner than coal, it still produces emissions scientists say must be limited.
Just this summer the legislature passed a tax credit for manufacturers who use natural gas — incentivizing the use of fossil fuels until 2050. Supporters touted its potential to boost the economy.
Sara Innamorato (D-Allegheny), a first-term representative who spoke against the tax credit on the House floor, argues lawmakers should have more comprehensive debates on such proposals.
She said issues in the legislature tend to fall into silos. She noted climate change is not leading the discussion, even in the Democratic Party.
“Oftentimes, I think that climate change and the environment gets lumped into its own thing when really it should be part of the conversation in everything that we are talking about and advocating for,” she said.
Innamorato points to other issues, such as healthcare and infrastructure, that are exacerbated by a changing climate.
“It has a multiplier effect on all the struggles we’re facing as a society,” she said.
Is It Urgent? Polls Say No
While polling shows most Pennsylvanians accept climate change and want the legislature to do more to address it, the issue typically ranks behind other issues like the economy and education.
Yost said it’s unusual for the share of people ranking the environment as their top issue to clear 5 percent in F&M’s polls.
“We move glacially on almost every area, Pennsylvania is rarely the trendsetter.”
Borick, who has been measuring attitudes about global warming for about 15 years at Muhlenberg, said there have been ebbs and flows in opinion on climate change over time. They usually move in the opposite direction of the U.S. president’s policies.
In 2008, at the end of the George W. Bush Administration, 74 percent of Pennsylvanians polled by Muhlenberg said there was solid evidence that the average temperature on Earth has been getting warmer over the past four decades.
That started to fall during Barack Obama’s tenure, reaching a low of 61 percent in 2015. And it’s been rising again during the Trump Administration, which has worked to roll back Obama-era environmental and climate programs. Last year, 72 percent of people polled said there was solid evidence of global warming.
Borick said over the last two years, more than half of people polled said they believe climate change is a major risk to public health in the commonwealth.
He doesn’t expect the change in public opinion to lead to quick action.
“We move glacially on almost every area,” Borick said. “Pennsylvania is rarely the trendsetter.
Top photo: Old Forge Road in Chanceford Township, York County is seen here on July 21, 2020– nearly two years after flash floods carried away part of the road. Photo: Rachel McDevitt / WITF
This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.