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Here’s what Pennsylvania is doing to address climate change — and why politics is making it difficult

For the first time, the state has a goal for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but critics say it hasn’t been accompanied by enough action.

The Delaware River along the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. Climate change is projected to increase the risk of severe flooding and have other destructive effects in Pennsylvania without global action to reduce carbon emissions.
The Delaware River along the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. Climate change is projected to increase the risk of severe flooding and have other destructive effects in Pennsylvania without global action to reduce carbon emissions.Read moreFrank Wiese / File Photograph

As the federal government under President Donald Trump has worked to roll back environmental protections and individual states have taken dramatic steps to combat climate change, Pennsylvania this year unveiled a sweeping plan to reduce the state’s carbon footprint.

For the first time, the state has a goal for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and 2050. The plan the Department of Environmental Protection proposed in April recommends policies and initiatives touching nearly every sector, from energy to transportation to agriculture and beyond. Gov. Tom Wolf says Pennsylvania is making progress.

But what’s missing, advocates say, is action. Only a handful of policies have been implemented, and most of the recommendations remain just that.

“It is undoubtedly a dire situation, which our legislature and governor are not reacting to with sufficient urgency,” said Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware), the minority chair of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

Thanks to the energy production industry, carbon emissions from the Keystone State make up about one half of 1% of all carbon emitted globally — more than the vast majority of places on earth, said Tom Richard, director of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment at Pennsylvania State University. That’s even after emissions fell in recent years, and the state projects they will not fall much further without aggressive action.

New Jersey, New York, California, and Washington are among the states that have enacted major policy to bring carbon emissions down, working in line with international goals. But Pennsylvania — with a politically divided state government that has passed fewer and fewer new laws in recent years — has straggled behind that club of fastest-advancing states.

» READ MORE: Pa. state lawmakers among the highest paid in U.S., but they’re doing less and less actual lawmaking

“Right now, the truth is, Pennsylvania’s a lagger. It’s not a leader,” said John Hanger, the DEP secretary during Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration who later served as Wolf’s policy director. “Could it be a leader? Yes. Should it be a leader? Yes. But what would be required to move from lagger to leader? Cooperation between the governor and the legislature, and some bipartisanship.”

‘Turning the aircraft carrier’

The planet is experiencing a rapid warming caused by high levels of greenhouse gases spewing into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels, like coal and oil, to generate energy. The warming — Pennsylvania itself has already warmed 1 degree Celsius, according to scientific research — has set off dire environmental consequences.

Scientists predict food shortages, wildfires, coastline destruction, intensified droughts, and worsening poverty as soon as 2040 unless global emissions are reduced. Pennsylvania has already seen more rainfall, higher flood risk, and warmer winters, said Richard.

Wolf and his officials say the state has made gains on issues including solar power, energy efficiency, and electric vehicles. On Tuesday, Wolf pledged by the end of the year to move forward tighter regulations of methane emissions from gas wells.

Orchestrating a statewide response to climate change is like “turning the aircraft carrier,” but the state is moving in the right direction, said current DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell.

“Gov. Wolf has noted repeatedly that climate change is the most significant environmental threat facing the world, and we are taking steps across state government commensurate with that level of urgency,” said J.J. Abbott, a spokesperson for the governor.

In January, Wolf issued an executive order setting climate goals and establishing a council for improving the state government’s carbon footprint. The state estimates that many strategies in its Climate Action Plan would save money while others require “significant" spending but would have long-term benefits. Reducing emissions could also create 40,000 jobs and grow the state’s economy by $4 billion, according to the state’s report.

But with a Republican-majority legislature, a Democratic governor, and a lack of bipartisan agreement, the plan is far from reality.

The DEP’s Climate Action Plan “does lay out some paths forward, but I don’t know that it gets us anywhere near where we need to be,” said Joe Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group. “We’re not seeing the type of action that I think we would want to see from the governor.”

State action on climate change is critical not only because the federal government has abandoned the issue but because state and local governments have authority over public utilities, land use, transit, and more, said Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center, which works with states on climate policy.

“Where the rubber hits the road is once you’ve made these commitments, how do you actually take the steps to reduce your emissions in line with those commitments?” Arroyo said.

New Jersey endured a similar partisan stalemate on climate-change policies between the Democratic-led legislature and Republican Gov. Chris Christie during his tenure. Since the election of Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, the state has moved to rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and has passed legislation moving toward its 2050 reduction goal. Maryland passed a renewable energy bill with a Democratic legislature and Republican governor. But in Oregon, the Democratic governor’s attempt at passing a climate-change bill in June was stymied by Republican lawmakers fleeing the state to prevent a vote.

New York’s legislature this year passed one of the most aggressive plans in the world. And California has been a national pioneer in climate-change policy, meeting its 2020 emissions goals four years early. The state has also regularly sparred with Trump; on Wednesday, the president said he was revoking the authority that has allowed California to have stricter auto-pollution regulations.

‘Existential threat’

Nine of Pennsylvania’s Northeastern neighbors are cutting greenhouse gas emissions through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Wolf believes it would be “ideal” for Pennsylvania to join RGGI, but is waiting to hear whether the legislature wants to collaborate before examining other options, his spokesperson said,

Democrats said the chance of passing climate-related bills in Pennsylvania before the two-year legislature term ends in late 2020 is slight. “There’s no sign that Republican leaders have any interest,” said House Democratic caucus spokesperson Bill Patton.

A spokesperson for the House Republican caucus said majority lawmakers are focused on a package of bills, dubbed Energize PA, that aim to expand natural gas infrastructure, which has helped Pennsylvania reduce emissions by replacing less-clean coal — but did not say the party plans to move any other environmental measures.

“We believe the responsible expansion of natural gas energy production is key to continuing to reduce CO2 emissions in Pennsylvania,” said Mike Straub, the caucus’ spokesperson, adding that other zero-carbon methods such as nuclear power should also be used.

Environmental advocates say that because gas-powered energy production still emits carbon, it isn’t a good way to reduce carbon emissions. Democratic lawmakers want to pass a bill expanding renewable energy.

McDonnell, the head of the DEP, said the state should pick up its pace but said he believes it is “absolutely” possible for Pennsylvania to reach its emissions reduction goal. “We produce energy, that’s what we do. So being able to figure out how we do that in a way that reduces that climate footprint is a challenge we believe we’re up to,” he said.

Among the steps Pennsylvania has taken are updating building codes, which is projected to save 25% in energy usage and costs; installing electric car charging stations at state parks, and promoting the state’s electric car rebate program; funding new solar projects and implementing policies to increase solar energy generated here; and planning some clean energy transportation projects, according to the governor’s office.

“It’s not a partisan issue,” said Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who with other attorneys general has sued the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency various times over loosening environmental regulations. “It is an existential threat that is something we have a responsibility to deal with right now.”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.