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How climate change is affecting Philly and what to do: ‘More than change your lightbulbs, change your politicians’

You may not have noticed while you’ve been sweating on the streets of Philly this summer, but the city has experienced a cool season by modern standards. Since May, temperatures have crept past 90 degrees only 22 times, according to Accuweather and U.S. Climate data. Another 10 times, temperatures have reached 88 or 89 degrees.

Philadelphia, temperature-wise this summer, has been partying like it’s 1959, the good old days. The city’s average number of 90-degree-plus days has hovered around 40 from 2003-2012 after decades of being around 20.

In other words, don’t get used to this cooler summer. It marks an anomaly in an era where climate change is already affecting Philadelphia.

The temperatures are just part of the changes. Philadelphia has experienced its wettest and snowiest seasons ever in the last few years, a sign of intensifying storm systems. The Delaware’s water levels are rising at about a 50 percent higher rate than the global average. And paradoxically, all that water might be worse for drinking in the future because of salt water infiltrating the supply. Considering these factors and others, two of America’s foremost climatologists recently rated Philadelphia No. 10 of American cities most affected by climate change.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Philadelphia has already started adapting to climate change and is fighting to prevent it. Ray Najjar, a Penn State meteorology professor who has researched climate change in Philly and the mid-Atlantic, says the city is a leader in adapting to and dealing with climate change. Philadelphians also just voted to make the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability a permanent fixture.  

“In some cities in the United States you can’t say the term climate change,” says Katherine Gajewski, director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. “That’s not true in Philalelphia. …But I think it’s going to be really important for us to talk about what it means to the economy, the environment, quality of life etc. and have a more specific road map.”

Flooding, undrinkable tap water, scorching summers

Extreme temperatures mean more than discomfort. For starters, people who can’t afford air conditioning (there are many in Philadelphia, which has the highest rate of poverty of America’s 10 biggest cities) and senior citizens are at risk for heat-related illness or death. The other part is how people with means react.

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EPA

 

When it gets hotter, residents and businesses crank up the air conditioning to the point where you can walk through Center City and feel the breeze coming out of department stores. Gajewski says 64 percent of Philadelphia’s greenhouse gas emissions stem from buildings, which use large levels of heat and A/C.  

“The extreme weather is driving more heating and more cooling,” she says, “which is driving more energy use, which is driving more greenhouse gas emissions. You’re in this cycle here.”

If these emissions aren’t cut back significantly, Philadelphia could be experiencing 60 days of 90-degree-plus heat every year starting about 30 years from now.  

Extremes have become normal. Since 2010, according to the EPA, Philadelphia has had its snowiest winter ever, its two warmest summers ever, the most days over 90 degrees ever, the wettest month ever and a hurricane.

The extra rainfall is part of what’s been pushing our rivers to rise at a rate of .11 inches per year from 1990 to 2006, putting Philadelphia at risk of flood and stormwater pollution throughout the city.

“When there’s a combined sewage system and draining system and when it rains hard and floods you see sewage in the city’s waterways,” Najjar says. “That’s not only unpleasant but also unhealthy and harmful to the ecology of rivers.”

The rising sea levels all around presents another problem in northern parts of the Delaware where the river becomes tidal. Najjar says this area, from where Philly draws some of its drinking water, could see an increase in salt seawater. That’s an ingredient we don’t want to be drinking.

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Phila.gov

 

To help ward off some of these potential problems, you could count your carbon emissions, be sure to turn off your lights, go easy on the air conditioning or any number of things. But Najjar’s main advice for regular citizens is to vote for leaders who care about climate change.

“More than change your light bulbs,” he says, “change your politicians.”

What the city has been doing

In regards to supporting climate science on a civic level, Philadelphia is doing something right. Last November, voters overwhelmingly said yes to making permanent the Office of Sustainability, which had been created under the Nutter administration. The office has been working the last several years on ways to adapt to and mitigate climate change. Some of its efforts have included fostering partnerships with the Health Department and Parks and Recreation Department to offer cool places for needy citizens during heat waves and setting in motion Green City, Clean Waters.

Through Green City, Clean Waters, the Water Department has added new green infrastructure to roofs, sidewalks, schools, parks and more to better collect stormwater runoff, preventing some of the stormwater pollution the city is prone to given higher rainfall totals. Since 2011, more than 1,100 pieces of green infrastructure have been added, according to the Water Department. The city expects to reduce stormwater pollution by 85 percent when the project is complete.   

Gajewski says Philadelphia, like many U.S. and global cities, is working to reduce its greenhouse emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Since 2006, energy consumption by city government and overall buildings has increased by 6 percent and 19 percent, respectively. The Office had goals of reducing consumption levels for both by this point.  She says the city is still in planning phases with regards to decarbonizing the economy to reach the 80 percent reduction of greenhouse emissions by 2050 goal, but cleaning and overhauling the city’s electrical grid will be a major priority. This fall, the Office of Sustainability plans to release a report to various city departments that lays out the science behind the climate change affecting Philadelphia and what the departments can do to best help the city adapt and prevent it.     

Najjar says the state as a whole hasn’t been as productive in dealing with climate change. He faulted the Tom Corbett administration for not properly maintaining a program started under Ed Rendell called the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard that required 18 percent of all electricity sold in the state to be from a clean and renewable source. 

“Hopefully the new governor will take a more progressive approach,” Najjar says.      

The Office of Sustainability also has plans to better educate Philadelphia residents and businesses about what is already happening in the city with regards to climate change and what could happen in the future. Some of that means making sure people know about alternate transportation options, like the new Indego bike share program. Federally-funded CUSP (Climate and Urban Systems Partnership), which is working with the city, has started going into neighborhoods and offering advice and solutions to city-level issues.   

Gajewski admits climate change can seem like an abstract topic. She wants to help people realize it’s real.

“That’s the conversation we need to have in the next couple of years,” Gajewski says. “What kind of city do we want to become given this one element of risk that we know we face?”

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