Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly fiddles on fossil fuels while Cali burns

While climate change powers a record drought in California, Philly is all in on fossil fuels.

In the Philadelphia mayor's race, to call environmental issues an afterthought would mean giving afterthoughts too much credit. Admittedly, the seven major-party candidates for City Hall have a lot on their minds -- a schools crisis, neverending issues with crime and policing -- so there's not much time left for pondering the fate of the earth.

Environmentalism -- today, as was the case 40 years ago -- tend to get reduced in this blue-collar metropolis to "jobs." All of the candidates are eager to talk about Philadelphia as a high-tech "energy hub" because of the paychecks. Building the city's economy around fossil fuels -- a leading contributor to worldwide climate change -- doesn't strike anyone as much of a thing.

Global warming? That's someone else's problem. Today, that someone else is the governor of California, Jerry Brown.

Brown -- who ironically defined his first stint in Sacramento in the mid-1970s by telling Americans we would have to do more with less -- today ordered Californians to do more with less water because of the worst drought in the history of the Golden State. He told the state's water agencies to reduce H2O usage by 25 percent, which will mean brown (no relation) lawns and dirty cars -- but also with potentially much greater impacts that stretch beyond the state line. California is the nation's top farming state -- less water will mean less growing, which translates to less food, which typically means shortages and higher prices.

The backdrop for Brown's announcement -- the practically barren ski slopes of Phillips, Calif., where there would normally be five or six feet of snow this time of year -- is arguably more dramatic than the news. In fact, California has just 6 percent of its typical winter snowpack, usually the source of about one-third of the state's water as it melts over the spring and summer.

Climate science is complicated. It's important to note that experts believe California would be in a dry weather cycle right now under any circumstance. But scientists also stress that the current circumstance includes ongoing climate change -- the air pollution from fossil fuels creating a warming effect in the earth's atmosphere. California has not just been unusually dry but also unusually hot over the last three years. That heat -- elevated by the planetary warming trend -- is what's made this drought the worst ever.

"The key for drought stress is not just how much precipitation there is," Noah Diffenbaugh, an associate professor at Stanford University's School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, told the Los Angeles Times last year. "Temperature is an important influence on the water available in California."

And so now the water's running out. Now what? Having a decent-paying job at the refinery is great, but it's not so great when you stop at the supermarket on the way home from work and the produce section is closed off. When scientists have warned of some of the harsher impacts of climate change -- drought and food shortages come to mind -- too many Americans have acted as if they were delivering a lecture on the bartering practices of the ancient Spartans. Maybe -- thanks to the crisis in California -- 2015 will be a year that more people will realize that the stuff is real, that current lives are affected.

Maybe even in Philly. It seems like energy-hub boosterism is the lazy, default position. Philadelphia also has an enormous potential as a renewable energy hub -- both as a consumer of solar power and as a manufacturer of solar panels. Indeed, a federally funded, Penn State led energy-innovation hub at the Navy Yard could help Philadelphia become a national leader in types of energy that doesn't give asthma to inner-city kids or turn Planet Earth into an Easy-Bake Oven, but the idea needs political support.

It also requires leaders who don't have pipelines running through the ears. Philadelphia needs an open mind and open eyes -- to watch closely what's going down in California.