Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale kicked off the first of several hearings on the state’s response to climate change, urging rapid action during an assembly Thursday at Penn State.
His public sessions are meant to gather expert input for a special report and recommendations — documents intended to help state leaders mitigate the forecast effects from shifts in the climate.
“I think that this is one of the most pressing issues facing our state and country,” DePasquale said. “As the state’s chief fiscal watchdog, I know enough to know that if we don’t address the problems at the beginning of it, the costs of dealing with it on the other side of it are drastically higher. Every day that goes by without addressing this, the challenge gets harder and harder.”
Effects of climate change are already emerging in Pennsylvania, he said. He pointed to road and bridge damage caused by mudslides and flooding in 2018, the wettest year on record in the state.
Related impacts in the State College area include mold found in schools last summer, also tied to the heavy rainfall, said Michael Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State. DePasquale noted wet weather also can shorten the growing season and threaten one of the state’s largest industries: agriculture.
He heard from leaders who’ve taken on the issue at the local level. Ferguson Township Supervisor Steve Miller and State College borough sustainability coordinator Alan Sam both spoke to actions taken in their municipalities.
In Ferguson Township, supervisors passed an environmental and community bill of rights in 2012, amending the home-rule charter to say residents have a right to clean air, clean water and a future of sustainable energy. In 2017, after President Donald Trump said he would withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, the township pledged to achieve net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050.
Miller said that goal influences many of the supervisors’ decisions, such as the construction of a public works building certified at the gold level under Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards.
“We feel like climate change — I think our board would agree — is one of the biggest issues facing everybody,” Miller said after the hearing. “And the municipality is affected by climate change. It affects our weather. We have large infrastructure investments, and I think the idea of going into what we can do to address the problem is just something that’s been important to our board for the past three years ... and looking at efforts that can make a difference, even if it’s small.”
State College borough has worked with Penn State to compile a greenhouse-gas-reduction strategy, which led to council’s approving a resolution in 2007 to declare the borough a climate-protected community. The borough also has set 21 goals to reduce carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions.
Additionally, a borough partnership with Penn State’s Sustainability Institute centers on efforts beyond climate, including hunger, poverty, gender equality and access to education.
Institute Director Paul Shrivastava attended Thursday’s hearing, along with about a half-dozen of his students. His office helped host the event as part of its outreach efforts, which Shrivastava called an important part of opening up conversation on climate change.
“What I hope will come out of it is a sense of urgency, that climate is not something that’s going to happen in the future — the problems are here; they’re happening now,” he said. “There’s a sense that we have to act now. We cannot postpone this for next year and the next year. I hope that sense of urgency will permeate the government in Pennsylvania and the public.”
The auditor general’s office plans to hold two more public hearings before compiling its report, which is expected to be released sometime this spring. DePasquale said he hopes the report will spur discussion on climate in the state Legislature and administration.
“We can’t wait for the federal government any longer and for the international community to act,” he said. “There are things that we cannot do on our own. But there are things we can do, and the things we can do, we need to do. Hopefully this report will outline a pretty big chunk of that.”