Let’s begin with the Doomsday Scenario.
For the record, that’s my phrase, not Katherine Gajewski’s. But as Philadelphia’s director of sustainability starts to talk about what would happen if we had, say, a couple weeks straight of 100-plus-degree weather—which might not be such a crazy scenario in the decades ahead—you can understand why my brain starts to shift into Book of Revelation mode.
For starters, explains Gajewski, the whip-smart 31-year-old brunette hired by Michael Nutter three years ago to turn Philly into the greenest city in America, there’d be all those people who couldn’t breathe because of the choking air quality: the elderly, kids with asthma, folks with other respiratory issues and heart problems. Even worse is what would happen when all three million of us who live in the eight-county region cranked up our air conditioners—day after day after ungodly hot day—in attempts to stay cool.
“When you project out what happens when you have a high heat day,” Gajewski says, looking serious as she sits this December afternoon in a city government office on Market Street, “people are using air-conditioning, you’re maxing out the grid system, you’re potentially going into a blackout or brownout. In the United States, our electrical infrastructure is pretty outdated. And so you’re looking at systems that can’t withstand a lot of that stress.”
The power outages are where things really start to get fun. Because without power, people not only can’t run their air conditioners—more breathing issues!—but they also can’t run their refrigerators. Which means you’re going to have a whole lot of spoiled food. Which means eventually, you’re not going to have enough food in general. Which means … well, it doesn’t take Michael Crichton to conjure up what happens when you have a few million hot, angry, hungry people trying to figure out where their next meal is coming from. You see why I hopped aboard the fast train to Doomsday, right?
All of this is hypothetical, of course—conjecture piled on top of speculation layered on top of supposition. But it’s Gajewski’s job to think about these things, as well as what else can go horribly wrong if Philadelphia really is, in fact, starting to heat up. As she puts it, “We don’t know exactly what kind of temperature increase we’re looking at, but we need to look at a range of scenarios. And be prepared for each of them.”
SO. HOW ‘BOUT THIS WEATHER, HUH?
Obviously, I can’t predict precisely what will be going on outside your window as you’re reading this, but if it’s somehow, well, weird—90 degrees on Valentine’s Day, for example, or two feet of snow outside your Shore house, or, I don’t know, something that could never happen in Philadelphia … how about an earthquake?—that would be pretty consistent with what we’ve seen around here lately. Weatherwise, the last couple of years in Philadelphia have felt like something John Bolaris and Hurricane Schwartz came up with while tripping on LSD:
- Snow! Two years ago was, I’m sure you’ll remember, the snowiest in the long history of the city, with Snowmageddon socking us with 78.7 inches of white stuff. (Last year, no slouch, clocked in with 44 inches, more than twice what’s normal.)
- Heat! July of last year was the warmest on record, with the temperature hitting 90 degrees and above 21 times.
- Rain! Thank you, Irene and Lee. The tropical-storm twins made last August and September the wettest two-month period in the region’s history, and for the year, we set another record with more than 64 inches of precipitation.
- Storms! Speaking of Irene and Lee, 2011 also had the third-highest number of named storms in the Atlantic, reaching all the way to the letter “S” (the deceptively friendly-sounding Sean).
All in all, we’ve seen so much weather weirdness that our weather-obsessed city—which generally holds its meteorologists more accountable than its politicians—is asking one question: Is this just a freak blip on the Doppler? Or is it the start of something really big and scary and heinous: Permanent Climate Change?
In truth, nobody can tell you. One of the things you discover when you begin poking your nose into climate science is that few researchers are certain of anything. “We’re not sure, based on what climate scientists know, whether or not the storms we’ve seen recently are due to climate change,” says Gajewski. “But what we do know is that they look a lot like what we think storms would look like in a climate-change scenario.”
And there’s a pretty sizable—and growing—body of evidence that suggests something is going on when it comes to our climate. According to one report, over the past several decades the average winter temperature in Philadelphia has spiked by four degrees. No wonder the National Weather Service recently increased what it considers “normal” temps for our area. There’s also been an increase in both the number and the severity of storms along the Atlantic Coast. And the rate of sea-level rise there is the fastest in 2,000 years.
All of which raises the question: If this really is the beginning of climate change, how much change are we actually in for—not just in terms of polar bears and polar ice caps, but specifically here in Philly? Not surprisingly, there’s no consensus about this, either, even among the many scientists who believe that global warming is real and being exacerbated by humans. But there are some eye-popping prognostications. The most provocative come from the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group of environmental researchers who predict the following for Pennsylvania and New Jersey if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise:
- While snow will become pretty rare, there will be a rise in both the amount and the intensity of precipitation.
- The level of the Atlantic Ocean will continue to climb, potentially by more than three feet.
- The climate in Southeastern Pennsylvania will only continue to heat up, and by the end of the century the weather here could be similar to what we see right now in southern Georgia—with more than 80 days per year topping 90 degrees and 25 topping 100 degrees.
Even if those predictions turn out to be only partially true, the effect on the lives of Philadelphians could be pretty large. Indeed, cities around the world now potentially find themselves at the beginning of what amounts to a grand social experiment: What happens when you radically change the weather that’s long defined you? Will foggy old London still be charming and proper if it’s 90 degrees and sunny much of the time? Will Minnesotans be so hale and hardy if the temperature there barely drops below freezing anymore?
And will Philadelphia—not to mention Philadelphians—still be the same if our climate looks like the love child of Atlanta, Seattle and natural-disaster-magnet Haiti?
A WEEK AFTER MY CONVERSATION with Katherine Gajewski, I’m standing inside the headquarters of a company called PJM Interconnection, wondering if I’ve somehow stumbled onto the set of Mission: Impossible.
In case you’ve never heard of PJM—which is located inside a couple of inconspicuous buildings inside an inconspicuous office park not far from the very conspicuous King of Prussia mall—it just might be one of the most important, highly secured (the guard confiscated my iPhone) companies in the entire Philly region. The firm is essentially responsible for managing the electrical grid of a big chunk of the eastern U.S.—13 states in all (plus D.C.), ranging from Illinois to New Jersey, with a population of about 60 million people. At the moment, I’m overlooking the guts of the operation: the super-high-tech control center, where giant electronic maps line the walls and colored lights flicker to show what’s happening on the grid. A couple of PJM employees are talking to me about last July’s heat wave, when the East Coast was smothered under triple-digit temperatures. (Philadelphia hit 103 degrees.) “We set a record for usage on July 21st,” says Adam Keech, a bearded guy who manages PJM’s control room. The load that day was 158,450 megawatts; on this December day, with the temperature outside in the low 50s, it’s 91,000 megawatts.
The good news about July 21st: Though there was an increase in staffing and intensity inside the control room, PJM managed to keep the power flowing pretty much everywhere it was needed. The less good news: It did so in part because a number of its industrial clients signed up to turn off or reduce their power for blocks of time. (They’re compensated by PJM for their sacrifice.) It’s a common practice in the energy industry, but it doesn’t necessarily bode well for what might happen if summer temperatures on the East Coast permanently park themselves at 90-plus degrees.
The blockbuster-movie-set feel of PJM is fitting, given some of the disaster-flick outcomes that theoretically could result if the Philly-as-Georgia model comes to pass. Tops among them: drought. According to the Pennsylvania Climate Adaptation Planning Report—a document commissioned by the legislature as part of the state’s Climate Change Act in 2008—prolonged droughts, brought on by increased summertime temperatures, are among the most threatening scenarios we’re likely to see in the decades ahead. Among the scary consequences: lack of drinking water, crippled crops, increased disease, even the threat of trouble at the state’s nuclear power plants if river levels drop too low. (Bucking for a supporting-actor nomination in the disaster-movie schema: bugs. That same planning report mentions the likelihood of whole different types of pests and pathogens invading Pennsylvania and threatening agriculture.)
Still, for all the drama associated with those outlines, the biggest challenges from climate change might come from quieter lifestyle shifts. Start, for example, with what we’ll be able to grow. The warm weather of the past few years has already had an impact on farming and gardening—the Southern magnolia, which was once limited to growing zones from Florida to Virginia, can now thrive in Pennsylvania—and that trend will continue in the decades ahead. Among the items that could be threatened: apple, grape and sweet-corn crops; maple, black cherry and hemlock trees; and Pennsylvania’s lucrative dairy industry. (Our literal cash cows would produce less milk as the weather heats up. Lucky for Wawa that it now makes a lot more money from coffee, gas and Shorties than from dairy.)
We’re also likely to see a significant shift in the fauna around us—both the birds in our trees (goodbye, white-throated sparrow) and the fish in our waters. “In Philadelphia, what you grew up seeing as a healthy stream—or the standard fish and critters living in it—would be totally different under a new climate regime,” says Chris Crockett, the city water department’s deputy commissioner of planning and environmental services. “For example, trout fishing is a big deal around here. But would the first day of fishing season be as big a deal in 50 years if we had the climate of southern Georgia? We wouldn’t even be able to get the trout to survive if the water was that temperature.”
And it’s not just fishermen who’d feel the difference. “Certain changes in climate will affect other recreational activities and how we view them,” Crockett continues. “And that will affect the recreational season. Instead of having three months out of the year, we might have nine.”
Crockett is right that the single biggest shift brought on by rising temperatures might be cultural, rather than physical. Under the model used by the Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, one can imagine what we think of as spring-like weather starting sometime in February, while warm weather would last well into December. Which means you can pretty much say goodbye to traditional winter activities like skiing and snowboarding, not to mention certain local winter traditions, like the ice rink at Penn’s Landing and the ash-can fires lit by vendors at the Italian Market.
On the flip side, what would temperatures routinely cracking 100 degrees do to our quintessential summer activities? Would we still welcome America on the Fourth of July—or would Americans prefer to celebrate their independence with a nice long weekend in, say, Winnipeg? How about outdoor dining, which has so transformed Center City in the past 15 years—would we still want to sit outside at Parc or its 2050 equivalent when the heat index is 125? And what about sports? Pennsylvania’s climate-change report specifically notes that youth football in August and September would probably be so risky that the season might have to be moved. But what about the Eagles and Phillies? Would we have to follow the lead of Southern cities like Phoenix and Atlanta and erect domed or retractable-roof stadiums? If one out of every five days is over 90 degrees, will we have no choice but to become a hermetically sealed, perpetually air-conditioned city like Dallas?
Individually, none of these activities is essential. But collectively, they’re what give a place its color, texture and identity. To use an example from a state whose climate we may soon be appropriating: The peach has long been not only a staple of Georgia’s economy, but a symbol of the place itself. The most famous street in Atlanta is Peachtree Boulevard. For years, Atlantans celebrated the New Year with the Peach Bowl. Georgia itself is the Peach State. Alas, given the climate change coming to the southern U.S. (think: Central America), it may be tough to grow peaches there anymore. But one place the fruit might thrive? Right here in Pennsylvania.
AND THEN THERE’S WATER.
One recent morning I stood near the intersection of Columbus Boulevard and Christian Street, overlooking the brown-blue Delaware, trying to imagine how the river would feel if I were wading through it with the water up to my chest, its fetid smell wafting up into my nose.
What planted that image in my head was a conversation I’d had the day before with Joe Miketta, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mount Holly. Miketta—an affable guy who seems as amazed by the recent spate of weather as the rest of us—told me that we actually dodged a fairly large bullet last August with Tropical Storm Irene. Now, if you’re like my friend Michael, who lives in Lambertville and had Irene dump six feet of water into his basement, you’re probably not thinking we dodged much of anything. But Miketta told me that if the storm had arrived a few hours earlier or later, the damage could have been far worse.
The issue, he explained, was the level of the Delaware. When Irene came up the coast, she caused a surge in the Atlantic, which caused a surge in the Delaware Bay, which eventually caused a surge in the river. The break we caught was that Irene arrived in Philadelphia when the portion of the Delaware nearest the city was at a higher-than-normal low tide, rather than what would have been an extremely high high tide. If the timing had been different—just three or four hours either way—the river could easily have spilled even further over its banks. Gazing across Columbus Boulevard at neighborhoods like Bella Vista and Queen Village and Society Hill, I can’t help thinking one thing: Goodbye, Philadelphia. Hello, New Orleans.
Okay, that may be a bit alarmist, but the Irene example gets at two big aquatic challenges facing Philly and the Shore in the decades ahead: the rising level of the ocean, and the vast amount of rain we could get from future Irenes and Lees (when we’re not in the middle of insidious droughts).
On the second issue, despite Joe Miketta’s warning, Philly might be in better shape than most American cities. As he sits in his office one recent afternoon, Howard Neukrug, a bearish man who’s been a longtime official in the city’s water department and who became water commissioner last winter, explains to me that there are basically two different ways to handle the kind of rain we could see in future years. One is to build bigger sewers for all that storm water to flow into; the other is to reduce the amount of storm water that flows into the sewers in the first place.
Weather machine? I’m thinking. But no, Neukrug says the second solution—the one Philly is choosing to follow because it’s ultimately less expensive and more effective than making the sewer system bigger—is to green the city as much as possible, so more water gets absorbed into the ground. The innovative program Neukrug and his team have developed to do that—a $2 billion, 25-year initiative called Green City, Clean Waters—will result in the development of all sorts of green stuff in Philly: planters and trees along our streets, porous pavement to let storm water soak through sidewalks, green parking lots, more open green spaces. In addition to helping to prevent flooding, the program, which is the most aggressive green infrastructure program in the United States—and easily the most forward-thinking thing Michael Nutter has done since becoming mayor—has all sorts of other benefits, including improving the look of streets and neighborhoods. “It’s a remarkable program that we’re seeing cities all over the country mimic,” says Neukrug. “We’ve even been noticed in England, since they’re rethinking the Thames Tunnel.”
While Green City, Clean Waters might help mitigate the damage from future storms, dealing with the other water issue—rising sea levels—isn’t so easy. The Shore predictions are sobering: As ocean levels rise, all sorts of bad things can happen, from beach erosion to marshland loss. That won’t necessarily make the 127 miles of New Jersey coastline uninhabitable (or, to coin a phrase, unvacationable), but it will certainly make life in Stone Harbor and Margate more volatile. The most angina-inducing prediction from the Union of Concerned Scientists has to do with flooding from increasingly severe storms. “What is now considered a once-in-a-century coastal flood in Atlantic City,” its report says, “is projected to occur, on average, as frequently as once every four years by mid-century and once every year or two by late-century.” You might want to ask for a room on one of the upper floors at the Borgata.
If you’re more of a mountain person, I’m afraid you’re still not off the hook when it comes to sea-level rise. Remember the Irene scenario, where a surge in the ocean led to a surge in the bay and ultimately the river? As the ocean level rises, that surge will essentially happen all the time, eventually moving the salinity line—the spot where there’s a transition from saltwater to fresh water—from where it currently exists in the Delaware Bay to somewhere further upstream in the Delaware River. Since you can’t drink saltwater, and since about 60 percent of Philly’s drinking water comes from the river, that’s going to be an issue for each and every one of us.
THERE WAS A RUNNING JOKE in my house when I was growing up about how Philadelphians handled the weather. We lived a couple hours north of here, just outside of Scranton, where for some reason it’s always colder, grayer and snowier. (“Prozac City,” someone once called it.) But my father went to law school in Philly in the ’50s, and he would regale us with tales of how the natives here freaked at the sight of a single snowflake. His favorite example: People would simply abandon their cars in the middle of the Schuylkill Expressway and take off on foot, rather than try to drive in the snow.
For all our blue-collar yo-don’t-mess-wit’-me toughness, when it comes to weather, Philadelphians have long been weenies. And my sense is that this has only gotten worse—didn’t Ed Rendell call us a bunch of wusses when the Eagles postponed a playoff game two years ago? Still, maybe our aversion to extremes is understandable. Unlike in Minnesota, or Vegas, or London, the weather here in our moderate slice of the mid-Atlantic would seem to be the very definition of “normal”: hot for a couple of months in summer, cold for a couple of months in winter, with generally lovely springs and falls. So how will our psyches react if climate change changes us from a city of moderation to one of extremes? How will we handle droughts? Severe storms? Boardwalks that get washed away?
One possibility is that, well, we turn into Prozac City. A 2010 report from the American Psychological Association looked at the potential impact of climate change on mental health and found, not surprisingly, that reactions to disasters and extreme weather can range from post-traumatic stress disorder to a sense of despair about the future.
The other possibility, though—and this brings us back to where we started, because it’s admittedly conjecture piled on top of speculation layered on top of supposition—is that it will somehow make Philadelphians a little less hotheaded, a little less likely to get up in each others’ grills. After all, if you’re constantly being buffeted by droughts and hurricanes and questionable drinking water, the fact that the Eagles still haven’t won the goddamned Super Bowl doesn’t seem quite as important.
Personally, I’m not sure how concerned I am. The changes we’ll see—if they’re coming at all—will take place gradually, so we might not even notice them. (What’s that old example about putting a frog in a pot of water and slowly turning up the heat?) And by the time the scariest stuff arrives, I’ll likely be dead anyway.
On the outside chance I’m not, however, I have a request of my great-grandchildren: On New Year’s Day 2064, just before I turn 100 years old, I’d like to be picked up and driven to Philadelphia’s new domed stadium to watch the inaugural Pennsylvania Peach Bowl. I know it will be a tradition Philadelphians come to love.