While former Vice-President Al Gore brought his 3-day Climate Reality Project Leadership Corps Training to Pittsburgh this week, Julian Routh provided a climate forecast of warm, wet, and miserable for the region:
Pittsburgh is 400 miles inland from the East Coast and 700 feet above sea level. It is nowhere near any massive icebergs, and its only polar bears live at the zoo. When the seas rise on much of New York City and engulf Miami, the city of bridges will stay dry.
But in Pittsburgh, the water will come pouring from the sky, the temperature will rise and climate change will shift from a distant worry to a daily obstacle for the average citizen.
In the next 50 to 100 years, communities will not just have to react to random weather events, but brace for frequent and intense storms that are a direct result of environmental change. As temperatures rise in an area that already suffers from poor air quality, fighting climate change is an immediate public health issue.
In addition to more frequent heat waves that impact family, friends, and neighbors who are most vulnerable to climate change (children, pregnant woman, the elderly, the poor, and those enduring pre-existing medical conditions), increased precipitation is already testing Pittsburgh’s aging stormwater management system. In the next few decades, Routh says, water flowing through the eastern portion of the Ohio River Valley, including Pittsburgh, will increase by 50%, according to the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, creating hazardous living conditions for people living down by the region’s major rivers and feeder streams.
More frequent and more severe extreme weather events already threaten life, limb, and the wealth of the region’s citizens. Air quality, which is already some of the worst in the United States, is getting worse due to climate change, Routh explains in an extraordinary interactive article published this week in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Allergy seasons would expand, too, as ragweed grows faster and produces more pollen under increased carbon dioxide levels. Between 1995 and 2011, pollen season in America, on average, expanded to become 11 to 27 days longer because of warmer temperatures.
For Pittsburghers suffering from that respiratory disease, the increase of allergens and air pollution will make attacks more severe and more frequent, according to a study by the National Wildlife Federation.
A wave of air pollution — similar to the one in Donora in 1948, when a smog and heat plume settled around the town for several days — could test the city’s preparedness for health-related disasters, especially when paired with excessive heat. The University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health and a company called Intermedix worked with the city to model a scenario in 2025 in which Pittsburgh experiences a severe heat wave and an air pollution event at the same time.
The results showed how one climate disaster would affect public health, linking the risk of asthma and heat-stroke among a census-based population to how many 911 calls would come in per hour.
“We showed that, in many parts of Pittsburgh, you would hit areas where the emergency management system could not respond in the times it likes to respond to the numbers of events that occurred,” said Dr. Mark Roberts, who directs the school’s Public Health Dynamics Laboratory.
Even before the planned petrochemical circus comes to town, heralded by the Shell ethane cracker plant currently under construction in Beaver County, many already consider the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area “Cancer Alley”:
Allegheny County is in the top 2 percent nationally of instances of cancer caused by air pollutants from industry, energy production and diesel vehicles. Millvale has a higher cancer rate per 100,000 residents than Allegheny County.
Routh describes the many ways in which the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County are turning to public and private entities to help solve the climate crisis — regionally, nationally, and globally. Optimistic energy from local stakeholders is all we seem to have going right now, as state and federal policymakers persist in their attempts to deny the reality of climate change and the need to act urgently and aggressively in order to preserve both health and wealth:
Faced with a future of rising temperatures and increased flooding, community leaders and climate experts say the time is now to prepare locally, and even though the fight against climate change sometimes requires sensitivity, it’s happening all around the city.
It isn’t simply an environmental issue. It’s an economic issue. A social issue. A quality of life issue. An “everything” issue in Pittsburgh and abroad, says Mr. Gould.
“This is amongst the biggest challenges facing humanity collectively in history, to date,” says Mr. Gould. “The irony is, it’s a problem of our making. Therein, it’s a problem within our ability to solve. The time is short. The urgency is great.”
Read more on how Pittsburgh is confronting its frightening climate forecast here.
(Image: Gregory C. Johnson, The Entire IPCC Report in 19 Illustrated Haiku, Sightline Institute)