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Prepare to become hotter, wetter

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The roads in Pennsylvania are a mess this spring. Part of that probably has to do with the record-breaking weather events the state suffered last summer and winter. The summer produced the most rainfall for the season ever recorded in the state and the state’s infrastructure took a beating. The mild winter was then interrupted by a three-week polar vortex, which sent temperatures to record lows. Both the heavy rain and the frigid cold are linked to climate change.

There’s little appetite to address issues at the federal level because the current president thinks climate change is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese “in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” as he once said in a tweet. In 2017, President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on climate change and the U.S. is now the only country on the planet that has not signed on.

At the state level, many officials are working to counter Trump’s shortsightedness. Gov. Tom Wolf announced on April 29 that Pennsylvania is joining the U.S. Climate Alliance. In an address to mark the occasion, Wolf said it is “bipartisan coalition of 24 governors, representing over half of the U.S. population to work to implement policies that uphold the commitments our nation made in the Paris Agreement.” Like the efforts in just about all states, it comes much later than it should have, but at least the state is now moving in the right direction.

Gov. Wolf took additional steps this year. In January 2019, he signed an executive order to set Pennsylvania’s first statewide climate goals, aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2025 and 80% by 2050, compared with 2005 levels. The executive order also established the Green Government Council, aiming to push sustainability throughout governmental departments across the state.

Other state officials are also addressing climate change. Eugene Pasquale, the state’s auditor general, is preparing a report due this summer regarding “how Pennsylvania is responding to climate change in light of a failure by national leaders to recognize and act on the issue,” according to a press release from Pasquale’s office,

 “Beyond the obvious public safety concerns related to flooding and infrastructure damage, a changing climate will impact health, transportation, agriculture, forestry, tourism—from farms to cities, [there will be] a whole host of issues,” DePasquale said. “These factors all have the potential to create new burdens on taxpayers and disrupt our economy.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Conservation has also been studying the issue of climate change since 2008, with the passage of the Pennsylvania Climate Change Act. Some of the findings of the DEP reports since then have measured the rate of climate change in fairly precise terms. The reports say that from 1958 through 2010, in the Northeast U.S. there has been a 70% increase in precipitation during heavy events.

“Over the past century, temperatures in Pennsylvania have undergone a long-term warming of more than 1 °C (1.8°F).” And the change is expected to increase over time. “[It] is projected that, by the middle of the 21st century, Pennsylvania will be about 3°C (5.4°F) warmer than it was at the end of the 20th century. The corresponding annual precipitation increase is expected to be 8%, with a winter increase of 14%. The likelihood for meteorological drought is expected to decrease while months with above-normal precipitation are expected to increase.”

So, the good news for Pennsylvania and the rest of the Northeast is that there will be a reduced likelihood of drought, but the bad news is there will be increased likelihood of flooding and severe storms of the sort seen in the recent past. In the meantime, the impacts of climate change are already being felt. As of September 2018, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation estimated that the record-breaking rainfall last summer had resulted in $105 million in damages to the state’s roads and bridges.

By comparison, according to PennDot, damage from Hurricane Irene in August 2011 totaled less than $19 million.

An entry on the PennDot website says, “Historically, flooding and landslide costs have been accounted for through our maintenance or construction-project process except for emergencies or other significant events. The nature of flooding and emergencies this year has been such that they are beyond our typical practices in responding to flooding/landslides so we have had more events warranting emergency assistance.”

It would seem it’s time to build climate change costs into the PennDot budget, but it’s not clear if that’s even possible. In any case, it’s beyond time that governments at all levels ramp up efforts to address climate change.

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