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Needed: Climate Change 101 for Pennsylvania politicians

Are you paying attention to the things that Pennsylvania elected officials and their appointees – like, say, the new head of environmental protection – have been saying about climate change?

Good people of Pennsylvania, are you paying attention to the things your elected officials – and the people they appoint – have been saying about climate change?

On Tuesday the State Senate approved, by a 42-8 vote, the appointment of E. Christopher Abruzzo as the Commonwealth's next Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. He's been acting in that position since April.

The selection of Abruzzo, a former prosecutor and deputy chief of staff to Gov. Corbett, who nominated him, has raised concerns among environmental advocates in the wake of his statements minimizing the impact of climate change. In his confirmation hearing last week, Abruzzo stated that he has "not read any scientific studies that would lead me to conclude there are adverse impacts to human beings, animals, or plant life at this small level of climate change."

While Abruzzo concedes that climate change is "at least partially attributable to human factors," he believes that "Pennsylvania's already doing at least its fair share, if not more than its fair share" to redress something that he doesn't believe is causing a problem in the first place.

State Sen. Daylin Leach, a Montgomery County Democrat who voted against confirming Abruzzo, said the nomination "shows a complete lack of respect for the job, for the legislature, for the issues." In an attack on Corbett's selection criteria, Leach believes that "to appoint someone who knows as much about climate change as I know about being a ballerina just shows an utter lack of respect for your role as governor."

Pennsylvania Senate President Joe Scarnati, a Republican from Jefferson County,  leapt to Abruzzo's defense and hit back at his detractors, saying: "We should not be deemed unfit to serve simply because we may not agree entirely with the strongly held view of some in this chamber and elsewhere." Perhaps attempting to let it be known that he also was confused about how climate change works, he cited the recent cold snap and early snowfall as counter-evidence. "As a matter of fact, anyone who has ventured outdoors the past few days may very well have good reason to disagree with that point of view," Scarnatti said.

Truly, a sorry state of affairs in Harrisburg.

So, for the legislators and political appointees who we could generously say are misinformed on matters related to climate change, here are five easy-to-remember, good-for-sound-bites facts about our changing climate.

  1. Nearly all experts believe climate change is real. Specifically, about  97%-98% of climate scientists believe that human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and the decomposition of waste in landfills are increasing the release of carbon dioxide and methane, two gases that are helping to warm the planet and lead to climate change. Yes, that means that 2-3% disagree, perhaps slightly more than the percentage who still believe the world is flat. If your child's health were on the line (which in fact it is), would you go with the 97% of medical experts or the 3%?

  2. The recent snow and cold snap here in Pennsylvania are not evidence against climate change. Citing colder-than-normal weather as evidence against climate change confuses what we see outside our window on a particular day (the weather) with the average weather conditions in a region over many years (the climate). A day, a week, or even a few years of cold weather do not offer evidence against climate change, and, in fact, higher than normal water vapor related to a warming planet may cause more severe snow storms in the years ahead.

  3. We know that temperatures are rising. The global average temperature increased 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the course of the 20th century and is projected to rise an addition 2 to 11.5 degrees by 2100. Whether we find ourselves at the high or low end of that estimate depends primarily on the future level of greenhouse gas emissions.

  4. Climate change is already having an impact. In the Northeast, temperatures have risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1970s, and are projected to rise in the region between 2.5 and 4 degrees in winter and 1.5 and 3.5 degrees in summer in the coming decades. Rising temperatures will lead to extreme heat, decreasing air quality, impacts on agricultural production, rising seas and flooding, and a reduction in snow cover that will impact the winter recreation industry. A report released last week by the National Academy of Sciences warns of the effects of climate-driven sudden changes in our environment, including warmer artic temperatures causing a rapid decline in sea ice and a worldwide "increased extinction pressure on plant and animal species." Local utilities are making preparations, and presumably not because they are run by bleeding-heart liberals.

  5. We can act to curb the effects of climate change. By developing strategies to reduce greenhouse gases and to prepare for the coming impact of a changing climate, we can lessen the most severe effects. For tips on what you can do to help reduce greenhouse gases, take a look at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's called "What You Can Do" website. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also has a site explaining what it is doing about climate change—including developing regulatory mechanisms to reduce greenhouse gases, collecting emissions data, and helping communities adapt to our changing climate. These might be helpful tools for Secretary Abruzzo as he learns about some of the challenges facing him in his new position.

Read more about The Public's Health.