A state of crisis

Sierra t-shirt

Courtesy A.J. Smith


By Jeff Schmidt

There are numerous threats to Pennsylvania’s natural bounty worthy of attention, but climate change needs to be at the top of the state’s environmental agenda. Unless human-induced climate change is controlled, other programs designed to protect Pennsylvania’s environment won’t be successful, which means that environmentalists could win current battles, but still lose the war. 

Both the Union for Concerned Scientists and Penn State University recently released studies on the global-warming impacts on the Northeastern U.S. and the Mid-Atlantic states, reporting that climate change will:

        • Increase temperatures, which will in turn increase heat-related human deaths and insect or animal-borne disease, including West Nile virus, encephalitis, and Lyme disease. Poor people in urban areas, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, are particularly vulnerable to heat stress.
        • Cause drought and changes in precipitation patterns, which will have adverse impacts on agriculture, ecosystems, and water availability.  Because winters are likely to warm faster then summers, significant threats exist to winter recreation.
        • Devastate trees in Pennsylvania’s forests, particularly some hard wood species, which will change the state’s landscape and decrease fall foliage.
        • Reduce wildlife species and plant biodiversity. Particularly vulnerable are bird species whose range will be greatly affected by temperature changes.
        • Impact cold water fisheries, particularly vulnerable are brown and brook trout.
        • Increase storm-related property damage from floods and more intense storms. 
        • Change stream flow, particularly in the winter and spring because of less snow melting, although larger fluctuations in stream flow will be experienced year-round, due to more intense droughts and floods.

Beyond the impacts that will be felt in Pennsylvania there are other, more global reasons for working on climate change in our state. Because of the large amount of electricity generated by Pennsylvania’s coal-fired power plants, our state contributes one percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, putting us ahead of most of the countries in Europe, including the Netherlands and Belgium.

To prevent warming that will be devastating to people and ecosystems around the world, carbon emissions must be reduced to less than three billion tons per year in the next 30 to 50 years.  The world currently emits over seven billion tons of carbon per year and under business-as-usual, carbon emissions are expected to climb to as much as 20 billion tons per year by the end of this century.  Unless large contributors like Pennsylvania quickly move to replace its coal-fired plants with green sources of energy, there is little hope that this immense threat will be lessened.

Although some adverse impacts from climate change are already noticeable, deeper and more rapid changes are very likely in the years ahead.  For these reasons, those interested in protecting Pennsylvania’s environment must put climate-change on the front burner. 

Jeff Schmidt is a member of the Governor Pinchot Group and Director of the Pennsylvania Chapter.


Published March 2007