The Philadelphia International Airport has had its eye on expansion for years, but what if the new area ends up partially underwater?
That’s the kind of question that bothers David Masur, the executive director of advocacy firm PennEnvironment. According to a 2016 Climate Central report, the airport “appears to be protected at water levels up to four feet above the local high tide line, but not at higher levels.” Extreme flooding could cross that barrier by 2040, the report noted. Then there’s sea-level rise. A century from now, without policy interventions, land near the riverbanks of South and Southwest Philadelphia could be submerged.
But of course, that’s only one of the problems that could arise. By 2050, Philadelphia weather could be like what Richmond, Virginia’s is now. By 2100, the weather here could resemble the current weather in Harlingen, Texas, a town near Brownsville, close to the Mexican border. This transformation, combined with unmitigated pollution, would present challenges for sufferers of respiratory illnesses like asthma and could forever change the city’s ecology.
“The sad part is that it’s going to affect every aspect of our lives, so the worst aspect probably depends on what you care most about,” said Masur, who mentioned that multi-million dollar construction costs to prevent flooding near the airport would likely come from taxpayer dollars.
“I think it’s great that Earth Day gives this a laser focus, but climate change is a profound issue. It’s going to take not one day of action, but 365 days of action.”
Mary Flannery, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia International Airport, said the airport has conducted its own vulnerability assessment in light of potential climate impacts. “We’re certainly aware of our proximity to the Delaware River,” she said.
“We’re making sure that we have backup systems in place so that we can keep operating,” she explained. “We’re designing appropriate utility redundancies, like for instance, we’re looking to raise generators above the floodplain… There’s other [options] that are being evaluated right now, but I can’t be more specific.” Flannery noted that intense storms are a key concern.
Philadelphia has seen a 360 percent spike in heavy downpours since 1950, the third highest increase for an American city. The city can expect to see more of the weather events that it’s already experiencing — which already pose a disproportionate risk to the city’s elderly and low-income residents, whether through health or cost impacts.
Sarah Wu, deputy director at the city’s Office of Sustainability, said approaching climate issues “are really similar to the biggest challenges that Philly faces in general.” A family of means might be able to “just turn [their] air conditioning on, but in a city where there’s a 26 percent poverty rate, we have to work with vulnerable populations to ensure their adaptive capacity.” (Adaptive capacity refers to one’s ability to adjust and endure when the environment shifts.)
“That’s true of a lot of issues,” said Wu, referencing the city’s demographics. “I don’t think that’s unique to climate, but climate kind of brings that to a head.”
The Office of Sustainability is currently devising a new Energy Master Plan that would seek to cut the city’s carbon output by 80 percent by 2050. Thirty-seven percent of locals already take low-carbon commutes, like biking or SEPTA — and that figure is from 2014, before the launch of the bikeshare system Indego, which is perhaps the most high-profile city program that encourages environmentally-friendly transportation.
Masur admires the Office of Sustainability’s efforts, but sees the recent moratorium on electric vehicle parking permits as a sign that the city lawmakers might not be as plugged into the office’s goals as they could be. Although notably, Kenney did not sign the bill after it passed in Council.
Wu said the parking permits are a matter that needs more time. “We always knew that that parking solution was not scalable. We knew we’d have to pivot if we wanted to encourage electric vehicles,” she said. “No city with as many garage-free residences has figured it out… This is an opportunity for us to lead there.”
Masur also sees opportunity in climate issues. Coming down to brass tacks, he believes that there needs to be a public vigilance that tips political will. He identified two silver linings. One, since climate change will affect everyone, it’s a chance for Philadelphians to band together. And two, it’s not like strides haven’t been made with clean energy in recent decades.
“If we look at the challenge in front of us on climate change, we’re fortunate that we don’t have to say, ‘We don’t know how to solve it.’ We do know how to solve it,” said Masur. “If you’re trying to make lemonade out of the lemons, it’s not like there’s no way out. There’s a pretty clear path, and we’re either going to choose that or not.”