STATE IMPACT PENNSYLVANIA — A report out this month from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change paints a pretty dire picture. By 2040, the world faces myriad crises — including food shortages, extreme weather, wildfires and a mass die-off of coral reefs — unless emissions are cut sharply.
The scientists wrote the report expressly for policymakers. They’re urging governments to try to keep the warming below 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That’s half a degree less than the goal set by the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. They conceded that there is “no documented historic precedent” for such a rapid transformation of the global economy.
Although Pennsylvania has a small share of the global population, it is an energy powerhouse that is both historically — and currently — a major source of harmful emissions. Among states, Pennsylvania is the third largest carbon emitter.
But a sense of urgency on climate change doesn’t show up in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race. Incumbent Democrat Tom Wolf and Republican challenger Scott Wagner acknowledge climate change is happening, but neither had made addressing it a top priority.
Wagner, who built his fortune in the waste-hauling business, was widely mockedlast year, when he offered up this explanation for the rapid warming.
“I haven’t been to science class in a long time,” he said. “But you know, the earth moves closer to the sun every year.”
He stepped in it again over the summer, when a young woman at a campaign event asked him about climate change. He called her “young and naïve”— and was criticized for being both sexist and dismissive of an important issue. The Wolf campaign immediately jumped on the gaffe, handing out bumper stickers that read: “Young and Naïve Voter.” Wagner walked back those comments in August, when he acknowledged climate change exists, but said he couldn’t do much about it.
“If anybody thinks that as governor, I can go into the governor’s office and flip a switch and that I can change all this–I can’t.”
Although Wolf’s campaign has seized on Wagner’s climate comments, the governor has not taken a prominent role in addressing the issue.
He has taken steps to curb methane leaks from oil and gas sites and backed measures that promote cleaner energy. He signed a bill last year aimed at encouraging solar power within the state — and another bill to help commercial property owners finance clean energy upgrades. But in a recent interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board, Wolf falsely stated that he had expanded the state’s renewable energy targets.
“I’ve increased the portfolio requirements,” Wolf said. “If there is more that I can do, I’m open as to how to do that.”
He could take a look at his 2014 campaign website. Back then, he pledged to introduce legislation during his first year in office that would set higher clean energy targets for the state. He didn’t follow through.
The existing law, known as the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, requires utilities to buy 8 percent of their power from so-called Tier 1 clean sources, such as wind and solar, by 2021. The law was considered cutting-edge when it passed in 2004, but since then many other states have set far more aggressive targets.
A fossil fuel state
Historically, Pennsylvania is a fossil fuel state, says Joe Minott, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, but given the stark warnings from climate scientists, he says the state should be doing more.
“We need to start taking this seriously,” Minott said. “It needs to be taken seriously in every decision that we — as Pennsylvanians and as Americans -make. It can’t be relegated to, ‘We’re going to tinker with this and we’re going to tinker with that.'”
Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale boom has helped reduce carbon emissions, says Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. He takes Wolf at his word that he wants to support and grow the gas industry.
“We differ, based on his calls for an additional [severance] tax on the industry,” Barr said. “Wagner as governor — I think you’d see him addressing the regulatory hurdles and [drilling] permitting delays we see. Wagner has stated he wants to dismantle some of the current environmental requirements we have. I think he would attempt to do it.”
Renewable energy and… a petrochemical plant
In the same Inquirer editorial board interview, Wolf linked his support of the large petrochemical plant Shell is building near Pittsburgh to the need for more renewable energy.
“The future is going to be solar, wind, sustainable and renewable energy sources,” he said. “So here in Pennsylvania, one of the things I’m trying to promote is things like the cracker plant.”
The cracker plant will take Marcellus shale products and turn them into ethylene, a building-block for the plastics industry. When it comes online, it will be among the largest air pollution sources in the state.
Wolf also has not followed through on a campaign pledge to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). The market-based system is a collaboration among northeastern states to limit emissions.
“I don’t remember making that promise,” he told StateImpact earlier this year. “In fact, I do remember–I didn’t make that promise.”
It’s unlikely the Republican-led legislature would go along with any efforts Wolf might make to cut emissions. But green groups have criticized him for not taking a harder line on the issue.
Research shows Pennsylvania voters care about it. In a Franklin and Marshall College/ StateImpact Pennsylvania poll earlier this year, a majority said that climate change is causing problems right now, and the state should be doing more to address it.