A chapter of The Climate Reality Project
 
Pittsburgh can be used as a model for other cities, for rural areas, for people that are hurting. And the lasting lesson is that your future does not have to be your past.
— Mayor Bill Peduto
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Life at Ground Zero

 
 

Across the U.S., no city better captures life at ground zero of the climate crisis than Pittsburgh. Located in the heart of natural gas country and a longtime manufacturing hub that built America with its steel, Pittsburgh is still suffering the effects of decades of industrial pollution tainting water and dirtying the air. Fossil fuel infrastructure, including pipelines, fracking wells, and natural gas plants, continues to multiply and spread throughout the region, filling the air with dangerous emissions that choke citizens and warm the planet.

When the White House announced its plans to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement earlier this year, Pittsburgh's dirty history was thrust into the center of the global climate fight with just three words when the president stated that he was elected to represent the citizens of “Pittsburgh, not Paris.”

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What the president didn't know about Pittsburgh is that while this city and region exemplifies some of the worst and most dangerous consequences of the fossil fuel economy and climate crisis, it also offers a shining example of how cities can transform themselves and even lead the nation in the fight for climate solutions.

Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto offered an inspiring response to the president's deeply misguided declaration in a tweet heard 'round the world. He made clear the President’s notions of modern-day Pittsburgh were not only wrong, but he pledged Pittsburgh’s continued support for the monumental Paris Agreement and committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2023 and achieve 100 percent-renewable electricity by 2035.

 

Pittsburgh is living proof that a city's past does not have to be its future. Visit Pittsburgh today and you’ll see how cities can harness the power of clean energy to open the door to a healthy, low-carbon future for their citizens tomorrow, while creating thousands of twenty-first century jobs for workers and a vibrant economy for businesses today.

Together, these factors made Pittsburgh the ideal location for the 36th – and largest ever – Climate Reality Leadership Corps training, which took place in October 2017. Over 1,300 activists from 140 countries came together in Pittsburgh for the three-day event lead by Former Vice President Al Gore to learn how to advocate for climate solutions locally and around the world. It is from this training that The Climate Reality Project: Pittsburgh Chapter has emerged.

The city’s commitment to climate action begins with the buildings that literally shape the city. Pittsburgh was at the forefront of the green building revolution and today boasts hundreds of LEED-certified developments. Today, the Pittsburgh 2030 District boasts 491 buildings in the downtown and Oakland neighborhoods that have pledged 50% reductions in energy use, water consumption, and transportation emissions by 2030.

Buildings are only part of the story, however. In addition to Pittsburgh reinventing itself as a national center for innovation, the surrounding region is generating wind energy from turbine farms in the Laurel Highlands and Somerset County and installing solar panels on local facilities like parking garages.

Pittsburgh is also a Department of Energy “Solar America City” and manages the Western PA Energy Consortium, a region-wide energy cost and consumption reduction program that buys 25 percent of its electricity needs from green sources.

Pittsburgh is demonstrating the importance of local leadership, but we must remain vigilant to make the clean, green, healthy economy of the future, and we also have to make ourselves fully aware of the human impacts the fossil fuel economy is inflicting on the region today.

 
 
 
 
 

This June, the president made one thing clear: the fate of climate action in the U.S. lies not with the federal government, but with the citizens and communities willing to stand up and fight for what they believe in. For the people we love and the planet we share, it's time to fight like our world depends on it. Because it does.

 
 
 
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Our Changing Climate

 
  June 30, 2010. Polar Bear at Pittsburgh Zoo. Photo by ChubbyWimbus at wts wikivoyage [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

June 30, 2010. Polar Bear at Pittsburgh Zoo. Photo by ChubbyWimbus at wts wikivoyage [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Impacts on Temperature

• Temperatures in Pennsylvania have increased more than 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 110 years [1]. Pittsburgh is also experiencing, on average, nearly six more days per year above 90 degrees Fahrenheit than in 1970 [2].

Climate models project that during mid-century (2041-2070), Pittsburgh’s temperatures will closely resemble those found historically in the warmer Washington – Baltimore metro areas. Mean warming across the state may be in the 5.4 to 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit (3.0-3.5 degrees Celsius) range [3].

One study found that Pittsburgh’s temperatures may increase by 0.5 Fahrenheit per decade between 2011 and 2040 and increase even faster by 1 degree Fahrenheit per decade between 2040 and 2099 [4].

The number of days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit each year may increase from nearly a dozen now to over 30 days by 2050 – and over 70 days by the end of the century [5].

  July 2013: Severe Thunder Cloud. Photo by Musician186 (CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Licence

July 2013: Severe Thunder Cloud. Photo by Musician186 (CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Licence

Impacts on Extreme Weather

Pittsburgh and surrounding areas are no strangers to flooding. Devastating floods occurred in 1907 and 1936 [13]. On August 19, 2011, two separate storms producing up to 6 inches of rainfall through parts of the Pittsburgh metro area led to flash flooding that contributed to the deaths of four people. During the evening commute, the second of the storms produced over 2 inches of rainfall in one hour [14].

An unusual storm system more typical of a winter storm than one found in late summer brought widespread 3—5 inch rainfall totals with locally higher amounts that led to significant flooding in southwestern Pennsylvania and adjacent areas of West Virginia and Maryland on July 28 and 29, 2017. The flooding closed roadways and forced evacuations and numerous water rescues in the region, including in Pittsburgh [15].

  February 8, 2010: Blizzard in Pittsburgh. Photo by Christopher Rice, (CSC_0146) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

February 8, 2010: Blizzard in Pittsburgh. Photo by Christopher Rice, (CSC_0146) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Impacts on Precipitation

There has been a 10 percent increase in annual precipitation in Pennsylvania over the past century. Projections through mid-century suggest a continued rise in very wet months (where precipitation is greater than 150 percent of the 1981- 2010 normal), with an annual precipitation increase of 8 percent and a winter increase of 14 percent [6].

The risk for extreme precipitation events and flooding will also increase, [17] exacerbating the already dangerous and deadly episodes of flash floods that have hit western Pennsylvania. [18]

The Northeast, including Pennsylvania, experienced a 71 percent increase in the heaviest (defined as the heaviest 1 percent of all daily events) daily precipitation events between 1958 and 2012 [7].

Climate Change & Public Health

 
 

The health of the planet and health of communities around the globe are closely connected. Global warming pollution has impacted our communities profoundly in a number of ways putting our health and the health of our families at risk. From more extreme weather and degraded air and water quality, to changes in vector disease, the climate crisis is a public health crisis. Even so, solutions are available to curb carbon pollution and revolutionize the way we power our society, using clean and renewable energy. What’s more, these solutions also produce co-benefits that clean up our air, safeguard communities, improve our health, and promote energy independence.

Fossil fuels, meanwhile, have left a dangerous legacy that cities like Pittsburgh are still working to leave behind. Photographs from the 1940s show a city choked by smog and deadly pollution so thick, it blocked out the sun. While numerous environmental initiatives have helped improve Pittsburgh & SWPA's air and water quality, pollution still remains a major problem. As just a few indicators of many, the American Lung Association recently ranked the Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton metropolitan area the eighth worst of more than 200 metropolitan areas in the nation for long-term (annual) soot pollution; the 14th worst for short-term or daily soot pollution, and the 29th worst for ground level ozone [6].

Sadly, these problems are not limited to the past. The expansion of oil and gas development has exacerbated not only the climate crisis, but also the pollution problem and the risks to human health that accompany it. Due to new drilling methods and the prolific Marcellus Shale, natural gas production in Pennsylvania has grown dramatically in recent years [7]. Fracking in the state has been linked to a wide range of negative impacts, such as the release of toxic chemicals and wastes into the air, rivers, drinking water, and land [8a, 8b, 8c, 8d].

Along with these chemicals escaping into the community, a rapid increase in methane emissions from fracking operations in Pennsylvania is particularly troubling [9]. In addition to being a greenhouse pollutant over 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over the short-term, methane leads to the formation of ground-level ozone (smog) and increases the risk for asthma attacks in children and pulmonary and heart disease in seniors and the disadvantaged [10].

Landowners and local communities, often already disadvantaged, are also being dealt new worries with a massive uptick in gas pipeline projects in the region that regulators are greenlighting despite the increased pollution and climate change they will lock in. On top of that, residents and electricity ratepayers are shouldering the increased costs of new gas pipelines that only benefit utilities and big oil interests.

After years of inaction, and with the consequences of natural gas development so clear, Pennsylvania policymakers have the opportunity to lead the nation in jointly tackling this climate and public health threat by reining in fracking to reduce methane emissions (and also pursue measures to protect residents from oil and gas pollution in other forms). As the nation’s second largest natural gas-producing state, Pennsylvania has a real opportunity to create solutions that empower its people, and work for its environment and economy [11].

 

Impacts on Health

o Higher temperatures and increased precipitation can impact allergies through increase allergens and longer allergy seasons. For instance, ragweed season has increased 13 to 27 days in northern U.S. latitudes [19a19b].

o The climate crisis is producing changes in the spread of vector diseases. For instance, the tick that carries Lyme disease is now found in every Pennsylvania county. There was a 25 percent increase in reported Lyme disease cases in 2014. Climate change is increasing the tick’s range and also the length of time (on a yearly basis) in which the tick feeds [20].

o West Nile virus is expected to increase in prevalence in higher elevations of Pennsylvania, but decrease in lower elevations as a result of climate change. The transmission season of the disease is expected to increase in length with increasing temperatures [21].

o A projected increase in the hottest temperatures can increase mortality from heat-related stress. The most at-risk populations to heat stress are infants and young children, the elderly over 65, those already ill, athletes, outdoor workers, and the less affluent [16].

o Vulnerable communities, particularly those in urban areas, are likely to become increasingly impacted by excessive heat and decreased air quality as a result of warming. [20] Water quality may be negatively impacted by increased runoff and increased risk of harmful algae blooms [21].

o One study found that excessive fatalities resulting from the hottest of days could, on a per-summer basis, increase by 25 times the current levels as soon as mid-century in Pittsburgh if emissions continue at current rates [17].

o Additionally, exposure to excessive heat can aggravate existing human health conditions like respiratory issues and heart disease [18].

  Photo by Gerry Lauzon via Creative Commons 2.0

Photo by Gerry Lauzon via Creative Commons 2.0

25x

Increase in heat-related fatalities


13-27 days

increase in ragweed season


25%

Increase in Lyme Disease

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Climate Change & Our Air

 
 
 
  Photo by Jay Kuntz; used with permission

Photo by Jay Kuntz; used with permission

o Despite notable improvements in recent years, Pittsburgh and Allegheny County residents are exposed to some of the most polluted air in the nation. Major industrial facilities, fossil fuel power plants, and oil and gas operations in the area emit a wide range of air pollutants and toxic substances [22a22b22c].

o According to the State of The Air 2017 report by the American Lung Association, the Pittsburgh metro area ranks as the eighth most-polluted area in the US in terms of year-round particulate matter pollution (out of 184 metro areas assessed) [23a23b].

o In 2015, the Pittsburgh metro area experienced 220 days with high levels of fine particulate matter pollution. It also experienced 93 days with elevated levels of ozone pollution, ranking it third among cities in the US Northeast for most such days during that year [24].

o Nearly 1.5 million people and 1,300 schools in Pennsylvania are within half a mile of an oil or gas operation [25].

o According to the EPA’s 2011 National Air Toxics Assessment (published in 2015), over 1,300 tons of hazardous toxic air pollutants — such as benzene, 3 formaldehyde, and acetaldehyde — are emitted by oil and gas companies in the state [26].

o Due to exposure to toxic gases from the oil and gas industry, residents of eight counties surrounding Pittsburgh face cancer risks that exceed the EPA’s level of concern [27].

o Moreover, at least one analysis suggests that over 30,000 Pennsylvania children suffer asthma attacks each year due to ozone smog caused by oil and gas operations. About 25 percent of those children live in the Pittsburgh metro area, while just over 20 percent live in the Philadelphia metro area [28].

o Climate change may exacerbate air pollution. For example, rising average temperatures can speed up the chemical reactions that create smog. Nationally, it is estimated that global warming-related increases in smog and particulate pollution could cause as many as 4,300 more premature deaths each year by 2050 [29].

 

Climate Change & Economy

 
 

To solve the climate crisis, the world must cut its reliance on fossil fuels and make the transition to renewable energy and a low-carbon economy.  But this transition has to be a just and fair one. Our challenge as activists is to support the communities that depend on fossil fuels for their livelihoods through this shift so that the burden of change does not fall disproportionately on any one group and all citizens benefit from a clean energy future. 

For two centuries, Pittsburgh made its name as a hub of heavy industry. Workers toiled in the city’s steel mills and miners in western Pennsylvania helped power America with coal mined from the “Pittsburgh coal bed,” the thickest and most extensive coal bed in the Appalachian Basin. [12] However, as the region’s extractive and manufacturing industries steadily decline, and mines continue to close, [13] affected communities are increasingly being left on their own, without jobs or opportunities. Further exacerbating the problem, the Trump administration’s proposed budget would eliminate funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal economic development agency designed to lift up these affected regions by providing retraining and other assistance. [14]

In stark contrast, the Pittsburgh region has been evolving from a center for manufacturing into a multi-industry hub for education, healthcare, technology, and sustainable development, creating new opportunities for workers and becoming the second-ranked large metro center for upward mobility. Renewable energy and energy efficiency have played a central role in this transition and today, statewide the sector now employs some 70,000 workers – more than coal, oil, and natural gas sectors combined. [15] Plus, these jobs are growing at time when Allegheny County leads the state in clean energy jobs. [16]

The challenge for policymakers and activists alike is to ensure these same opportunities reach communities in the Keystone State where mining and resource extraction are not only bedrocks of the regional economy, but have supported generations and become central to local culture. Commitment to a just transition calls on activists to work for retraining programs that help workers develop highly-marketable skills and tap into the new sectors and industries in western Pennsylvania that continue to grow.

  Photo (c)2016 by Jay Kuntz; used with permission

Photo (c)2016 by Jay Kuntz; used with permission

 

Impacts on Agriculture, Infrastructure, and Economy

 
  Pittsburgh. Photo by Chris Litherland Photography

Pittsburgh. Photo by Chris Litherland Photography

• Pennsylvania’s agriculture, including the dairy industry in Pennsylvania, is likely to be negatively affected by climate change due to losses in milk yields caused by heat stress and lower levels of forage quality [35].

• Forests are the dominant land use in Pennsylvania. Climate change is expected to result in changes in suitable habitat for species. Those where Pennsylvania is currently at the southern extent of their suitable habitat will likely become increasingly stressed [23].

• Warming may promote the growth of weeds, which can reduce crop yields. It may also lead to a northward expansion of plant parasites and insects, and overwintering insects, such as the corn flea beetle, presenting different challenges than those faced today [36].

• Climate change is more likely to have negative consequences on land values in the southern portions of Pennsylvania [34].

 

• Temperature and precipitation variability, along with increased weather extremes and changes in disease and insects may lead to a greater demand by farmers for risk management products such as crop insurance [37].

• Extreme weather, the likes of which is expected to increase with climate change, can cause costly damage to infrastructure. For instance, five major flooding events in Delaware Canal State Park since 2000 have cost Pennsylvania taxpayers over $32 million in repairs [38].

• Winter recreation in Pennsylvania, such as downhill ski and snowboard resorts, are expected to take a significant hit as winter low temperatures continue to rise and a higher proportion of precipitation is expected to fall as rain as opposed to snow. This will have significant impacts on winter recreation [39 or 24]. Much of Pennsylvania is projected to have insufficient snow cover, a 20 to 60 percent decrease [40], by the end of the century to support skiing or snowmobiling, and insufficient ice to support ice fishing [41].

 
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Climate Change & Wildlife

 
 

Impacts on Ecosystems and Organisms

 
 

• Because of climate change, limited habitat is expected to remain in Pennsylvania by the end of the century for northern hardwood tree species including black cherry, sugar maple, and yellow birch [30].

• Phenological changes may lead to mismatches between plants and pollinators and predators and prey with continued warming [31].

• The suitable range of some bird species is shifting. For instance, the range of black-capped chickadees is moving northward at approximately 1 mile per year in Pennsylvania [32].

• Warming temperatures are expected to negatively impact cold water fisheries. By the end of the century, Pennsylvania is projected to be unsuitable for cold water fish species such as brook trout if emissions continue at their current rate [33].

 

One mile per year

Amount Black-Capped Chickadee habitat IS shiftING in Pennsylvania

End of 2100s

PA unsuitable for some coldwater fish and hardwood tree SPECIES

 

Climate Change & Water

 
 

Impacts on Sea Level and Water Pollution

 
 
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Pittsburgh's three rivers; photo via Wikimedia Commons

• Sea levels are rising rapidly along Pennsylvania’s shoreline as the Delaware Valley is sinking at the same time as ocean levels rise [12]. Sea level rise is expected to increase the risk of flooding in the Delaware Estuary which extends into Philadelphia. For instance, under a medium-range sea level rise scenario, flooding events (storm surge) in the estuary exceeding 4 feet (above high tide line) is more likely than not by 2040 [25].

• One study conducted by the US Army Corps of Engineers and local partners found that the annual mean streamflow may increase by 15 to 25 percent in the Ohio River basin of SWPA by mid and late century. The same study found that annual maximum streamflow might increase by 15 to 25 percent by mid-century (2041-2070) and by 25 to 35 percent by late century [8].

• Peak spring stream flows in Pennsylvania are expected to occur 10 to 14 days earlier and summer low flows are expected to last about a month longer [9].

• Water quality may suffer as a result of more extreme precipitation events with associated increase in runoff. Runoff can carry increased sediment loads and pathogens. Higher water temperatures and heavy nutrient-rich runoff can also lead to increased algal blooms in lakes [10].

• Local stream temperature is expected to be altered by changes in future air temperature and precipitation, potentially affecting local ecosystem health by leading to shifts in habitat and species distributions [11].

 
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Looking Forward to a Sustainable Pittsburgh & Southwestern Pennsylvania?