When it comes to taking climate change seriously in Pennsylvania, there’s no day like today. No, seriously ... have you been outside?
Philadelphia’s heat index is steadily rising toward a Death-Valley-like reading of “feels like” 110 or more this weekend — the worst heat wave in at least seven years and possibly longer than that. And forecasters say that this time the nighttime lows will be even higher than usual — that’s a calling card of a warming planet — and will put older, less-advantaged city residents at risk.
Yes, yes, we’ve had major heat waves before, and weather isn’t climate — but you know what is climate? The average global monthly temperature, and Planet Earth just posted its hottest recorded June ever. With July traditionally the warmest stretch of the year, most climatologists say we’re right now experiencing the hottest month in human history — even if here in sizzling Philly you don’t need a climatologist to know which way the heat rises. This is happening, by the way, as a major ice sheet in Antarctica is about to break off and speed up rising sea levels, and as scientists confirm what everyone suspected, that there’s a direct link between climate change and deadly California wildfires.
But Pennsylvania is the state that literally invented the concept of drilling for fossil fuels back in 1859, and our oil addiction seems the hardest habit to break. The good news in Harrisburg — awash in oil-and-gas campaign cash for much of the 21st century — is that House lawmakers finally have a “Pennsylvania Climate Caucus” committed (on paper, anyway) to stopping planetary warming in its tracks.
The bad news? The overwhelming number of the 60 or so state House Democrats who belong to this “climate caucus” are supporting (and in many cases have co-sponsored) a major bill in which Pennsylvania will promise Wall Street to continue fracking for fossil fuels (mainly natural gas) for another 20 years, if not longer. That is at least nine years past the date — 2030 — that a United Nations panel warned of “catastrophic climate change” unless carbon pollution is sharply reduced.
“We lack a bold climate plan that addresses all of the challenges we face right now,” said first-term state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler of South Philadelphia, one of a handful of Democratic lawmakers — mostly new, and mostly on the political left — who are resisting the proposal from Gov. Wolf to pay for major infrastructure projects with a severance tax on oil-and-gas drilling.
The plan we have instead is called Restore Pennsylvania, and Wolf — who’s lined up a number of co-sponsors in both parties — is planning a major push in the fall. Although the Democratic governor has pushed unsuccessfully for a severance tax on fracking — every other major oil-and-gas-producing state has one — since taking office in 2015, the new $4.5 billion plan is the first one tied to major infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, and sewer plants, and it looks to have a better chance of success.
That’s not music to the ears of the environmental groups called the Better Path Coalition that are aggressively fighting Wolf’s proposal, mainly because it would require Pennsylvania to continue drilling for and producing fossil fuels at a healthy rate for at least two more decades to pay off the bonds that would fund the infrastructure work.
“There continues to be this failure to connect the dots,” said Karen Feridun, who founded an anti-fracking group called Berks Gas Truth and is a co-chair of the Better Path Coalition. Those dots include growing evidence that methane leaks from fracking rigs like those scattered across rural northern and western Pennsylvania are an outsized contributor to greenhouse-gas pollution, as well growing environmental concerns about plans to increase production of ethane — another form of natural gas — to produce plastics. Wolf’s Restore Pennsylvania blueprint even contains money to support building new pipelines, which would also advance fracking.
In recent weeks, the Better Path Coalition has been waging an active campaign — on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere — to convince members of the Pennsylvania Climate Caucus that while additional taxes on the oil-and-gas industry seemed like an environmentally sound idea 10 years ago, the accelerating global-warming crisis demands a different kind of response.
And activists say they’ve won some converts from the Philadelphia area. State Sen. Daylin Leach of Montgomery reportedly decided to withdraw his sponsorship of Restore Pennsylvania after interacting with coalition members of Twitter, while another Democratic senator from Montco, first-termer Katie Muth, also renounced her support for the Wolf plan. But the list of House members who oppose Restore Pennsylvania as too fracking-friendly is small; it also includes Philadelphia’s Chris Raab, Fiedler’s fellow democratic socialists Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato of Pittsburgh, and Chester County’s Danielle Friel Otten, a fierce opponent of the Mariner East pipeline.
But others have pushed back — most notably Democratic Rep. Ryan Bizzarro of Erie. He’s a member of the climate caucus but who got into a heated back-and-forth on his Facebook page with environmentalists —insisting that while he’s not “pro-fracking,” the demands of the Better Path Coalition are unrealistic and perhaps naïve.
“I’m ‘pro-have an actual idea of how our economy in Pennsylvania works,’" Bizzarro shot back. "I wish others had that sense too before they talked about bans, rainbows and ponies.”
Bizzarro was out of pocket this mid-summer week, and despite several attempts I also wasn’t able to connect with Rep. Steve McCarter, the founder and co-chair of the climate caucus. McCarter has teamed with Rabb to sponsor a bill that would move Pennsylvania toward 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 — a great step that also seems very much at odds with Restore Pennsylvania’s need for substantial fracking dollars through 2039.
Wolf and his aides have also stressed that Restore Pennsylvania includes considerable dollars for environmental work, including funding for renewable energy projects. But Wolf and the rest of Harrisburg seem stuck in a 2011 mentality, where at least natural gas is cleaner than coal, where wind and solar seem still far off in the future (they aren’t), and where fracking is seen as a job creator (actually, not so much) that liberals can tax to fix crumbing schools and bridges.
In 2019, the world is on fire — at least the parts that aren’t flooded by more powerful storms or by rising seas. It’s great that Pennsylvania doesn’t have a climate-denial governor like so many “red states” to our south or west but this growing crisis means it’s time to channel our inner-JFK and stop doing things because they are easy (like finally, years late, joining the U.S. Climate Alliance) and start doing things to save the planet because they are hard. A vote for fracking in Pennsylvania in 2039 is a vote for making today’s blast-furnace weather the New Normal.
This month’s climate tip: Unplug your dryer. In January I promised to write a column about climate change every month (7 for 7!) and to try to cut through the doom and gloom with something simple you can do to alleviate global warming. Here’s something I do when the weather gets hot (although maybe not this humid) and that’s hang laundry out to dry instead of running the dryer and burning up electricity.