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Pennsylvania to See Increase in Extreme Weather Events

The Fifth National Climate Assessment, released this week, says Pennsylvania is poised to experience more severe rainstorms, flooding and extreme heat due to climate change, as are other Northeastern states.

Hugh McPherson, photographed here, is a York County farmer who has been feeling the impact of climate change on his farm. He stands in shorts and a t-shirt next to a corn field
The Fifth National Climate Assessment report released this week by the Biden Administration outlines the urgency of climate change by region. Pennsylvania, for instance, is poised to see an increase in extreme weather events including intense rainstorms, as well as climate-driven changes such as floods and extreme heat. Hugh McPherson, photographed here, is a York County farmer who has been feeling the impact of climate change on his farm. Mark Pynes | Mark Pynes |
Mark Pynes |
(TNS) — Pennsylvania is poised to see an increase in extreme weather events including intense rainstorms, as well as climate-driven changes such as floods and extreme heat.

That is according to the Fifth National Climate Assessment report released this week by the Biden Administration, which outlines the increasing harmful impacts of climate change across the country and underscores the urgency in addressing the issue.

In a breakdown of states by region, the report notes of Pennsylvania (Northeast region): “This region is experiencing increases in the frequency of extreme weather events and other climate-driven changes, including intense rainstorms, warmer ocean temperatures, and rapid sea level rise. For example, the amount of rain that falls during the heaviest downpours has increased by approximately 60% in the Northeast since the 1950s — the largest increase in the United States.

"Many regional climate impacts, including extreme heat and flooding, disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color.”

For climate scientist Erica Smithwick the report is yet another confirmation of the scientific findings sounding alarms about climate change.

“In many ways this report does not change what we already knew but further emphasizes some of the largest effects we are likely to see,” said Smithwick, a geography professor at Penn State.

“We now have more observations. Our models are getting increasingly precise. We are able to have more and more confidence in the changes that are likely to come.”

Smithwick said Pennsylvania will see over a month of days over 90 degrees each year.

“There is heterogeneity in the state but in urban areas there might be more than that,” she said. “That will stress these cities to keep their people cool. It will affect the vulnerable, the elderly and kids, and those who work outside, and also it will affect infrastructure.”

Smithwick said Pennsylvania, which has already seen a number of historic floods in recent years, is bound to see more flooding.

“That is one of the biggest things we are likely to see in the entire northeast but especially Pennsylvania,” she said. “Those flood events are going to cause a lot of destruction.”

This week’s report aligns with other recent reports, including the Pennsylvania Climate Impacts Assessment report of 2021, which found the statewide average temperature has risen nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900.

The commonwealth is on course to get significantly hotter, with projections putting temperatures by the middle decades of this century at an average of 5.9 degrees Fahrenheit hotter, with warmer, wetter winters, according to the 2021 state report.

The report said the Northeast region is responding with innovative climate action plans such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — a market-based program aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Pennsylvania, however, is not a part of that plan.

Earlier this month, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court struck down the state’s enrollment in the plan, known commonly as RGGI, through executive order by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2021.

RGGI is considered by experts as an environmental and economic success for the states that have implemented the plan, including Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia. A 2019 study found that these state had cut their carbon emissions from electric generation by 47%.

“[The Commonwealth Court ruling] is a huge blow to, one, fighting climate change, but two, getting Pennsylvania to a place where they are removing carbon from coal-fired power plants and other energy producing facilities,” said Ted Evgeniadis, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper.

Pennsylvania, he notes, has one of the largest natural gas extracting rates in the country and a high rate of power production by large coal-powered plants.

“We have a lot of political power by massive corporations that essentially control the narrative in our state,” Evgeniadis. “There’s a huge force behind stopping us from doing the things that are going to take us away from extracting more fossil fuels.”

A key takeaway from this week’s report is the projection that increased weather events, along with their intensity, will put demands on local infrastructure beyond their capacity.

Evgeniadis said that, in addition to fast tracking carbon and methane reduction efforts, Pennsylvania needs to address the shortcomings in its infrastructure.

“Nobody, not one municipality, not one city thought 20 or 30 years ago maybe we should start infrastructure projects that allow for more frequent intense storm events, weather events,” he said.

“What we have right now in the entire state is infrastructure that’s lacking that supports the kind of weather we are receiving.”

Evgeniadis points to recent bridge collapses in Pennsylvania, but notes that Harrisburg is a prime example of jurisdictions with inadequate infrastructure.

“We have failing wastewater industries like in the state capital,” Evgeniadis said. “Harrisburg dumps raw sewage into the Susquehanna River because its infrastructure sucks. If we don’t have good plumbing and good piping in place and good mechanisms that are going to be able to handle and treat huge volumes of wastewater in addition to stormwater, the water quality will suffer. Public health will suffer and the overall quality of life will go into the toilet, no pun intended.”

The report had some bright spots, including the finding that the annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell 12% between 2005 and 2019. The trend was largely driven by changes in electricity generation: coal use has declined, while the use of natural gas and renewable technologies has increased, leading to a 40% drop in emissions from the electricity sector.

The downside, though: Without deeper cuts in global net greenhouse gas emissions and accelerated adaptation efforts, severe climate risks in the United States will continue to grow, the report noted.

Current efforts are largely insufficient to reduce today’s climate-related risks and keep pace with future changes in the climate, the report concluded.

That goes for Pennsylvania as well.

“If you look at our work, clearly we don’t think that Pennsylvania is doing enough,” said Davitt Woodell, president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. “There’s a lot more to do to get to the reasonable goals for 2030 or 2050, just overall decarbonizing in Pennsylvania.

Woodell admits that RGGI may not be the ultimate answer, but says it’s a start, particularly in getting funding for efforts to reduce carbon emissions such as Pennsylvania’s role as a center for planned hydrogen hubs that will produce clean hydrogen fuel.

“Hydrogen hubs are not silver bullets,” Woodell said. “There is not a silver bullet in this but there are lot of different things that need to be done by the General Assembly, by industry, by individuals, by markets by municipalities reduce emissions as well as to be prepared for changes.”

Pennsylvania is in line to receive $7 billion in federal grants for the two hydrogen hub projects. The plan, a key carbon reduction strategy of the Biden Administration, is set to produce 50 million metric tons of clean hydrogen fuel by 2050.

Woodell gives kudos to Gov. Josh Shapiro administration’s effort to take advantage of federal funding for climate change initiatives, including monies from the infrastructure plan and the inflation reduction act.

“How can we get most of that for Pennsylvania that not only helps economically but also sets the stage for a lot of decarbonization,” he said. “There is a lot going on but there is still definitely a lot more than can be done.”

Woodell says with the Commonwealth Court striking down the regional gas emissions plan, it is up to the General Assembly to address the challenge.

“The General Assembly has the ability to really grab this issue and make compelling changes but I think the General Assembly is lagging behind the public and markets in looking at these actions,” he said. “You see industries across the board, iron and steel and cement, and natural gas production taking steps to decarbonize and being serious about it, but the ones sitting on the sidelines in Harrisburg in the General Assembly are not addressing this issue. There is a disconnect.”

Smithwick is confident the tide of public opinion on climate change and the urgency it warrants has shifted.

“I think we are a tipping point socially, in terms of people’s recognition that climate change is real and it’s happening and that it affects them,” she said. “There will always be people that will not believe, but there is increasing evidence that even those people will be taking some mitigation adaptation strategies whether we call them climate change or not.”

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