Climate change and the impacts caused by climate change disproportionately impact communities of color, even though they are not the primary actors of pollution. This can result in issues like flooding, extreme heat events, and air pollution directly affecting communities with high percentages of residents that are lower-income and people of color. This topic was explored more deeply during a presentation, “Climate Change and Racism”, by Dr. Ayres Freitas at the Pittsburgh Racial Justice Summit.
While the summit addressed issues of racial and social justice at large, Dr. Freitas, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, narrowed in on climate justice and climate equity. Global temperatures are escalating rapidly and catastrophic weather events are increasing in frequency due to human activities and emissions, and the responses of governments worldwide have been tepid at best. The effects have been felt here in the Nine Mile Run watershed and Pennsylvania, where rainfall levels are at an unforeseen high and only seem to be climbing year-over-year, according to data provided by Dr. Freitas.
As Dr. Freitas explained, some of the worst impacts of the climate crisis have been felt by a demographic labeled the Global South, a term used to describe systematically disadvantaged countries and subgroups within countries. Dr. Freitas pointed out a number of examples of Global South communities that have been disproportionately impacted; here are just a few.
- In India, farmer suicides, correlated with temperature increases, have become a major issue.
- Around the world, the homes of hundreds of millions of people will be threatened by flooding by 2050, as you can see in dramatic flooding maps created by the New York Times.
- Here in the U.S, a study cited by Dr. Freitas indicates that formerly redlined neighborhoods continue to have negative environmental outcomes (see graphic below). (In the 20th century, banks used redlining to deem communities of color untrustworthy for loans.)
Lending data to this narrative, Dr. Freitas shared that the U.S. was among the highest CO2 polluters per person in the world. Most coastal countries in Asia that are projected to be impacted greatly by the crisis did not have nearly the same CO2 pollution levels. This exemplifies the asymmetric relationship between those that cause climate change and those who will pay the price for it.
As an individual, figuring out ways to reduce one’s carbon footprint and participating in collective actions such as protests against corporate pollution were recommended to combat this issue by Dr. Freitas, who led the seminar audience into a discussion. In his slideshow, he recommended an emphasis on “the racial justice dimension of climate change.”
Dr. Freitas summarized his overall message in an email:
“Our inaction on preventing climate change is a blatant disregard of the well-being of communities of color and poor people in the Global South and in the U.S.”
In Pittsburgh, black men and women suffer disproportionately on a variety of health outcomes, including living shorter lives than their white counterparts, according to a 2019 study commissioned by the city government. For black men and women in Pittsburgh, many of these outcomes, including adult and older adult mortality, are worse than in almost any other comparable American city, according to that same study. It is important for us to realize that climate change is a public health issue. Housing damaged by flooding leads to mold and eventually breathing problems. Communities built alongside industrial areas battle air pollution at higher rates. This is the story of climate change and how it is impacting communities of color here in Pittsburgh and the watershed.
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The environmental justice movement has a long history of fighting the outrage of toxic sites disproportionately placed near low-income communities and communities of color. NMRWA strongly supports environmental justice in greater Pittsburgh. Two of our watershed communities, Wilkinsburg and Swissvale, were rated as “high need” environmental justice priorities by the Allegheny County Health Department in 2019. Four additional communities in our sewershed were rated “high need” or “highest need”: Homewood North, Homewood South, Penn Hills, and East Hills. We strive to help these communities, and all of our communities, increase their climate equity through resilient infrastructure, both built and social.
By John Lavaccare, Communications Intern
Our last water talk of the year (and the decade) focused on Greater Pittsburgh’s climate future. At the talk, held at a community gathering space in Homewood, Pittsburgh on November 17, Jordan Fischbach of RAND Corporation and Ian Smith of Energy Independent Solutions offered individual and collective solutions for Greater Pittsburgh and its residents as we face the climate challenges of the future. Jordan introduced us to the big picture of the imminent changes in the climate and discussed RAND’s research projects to help spur innovation to adapt to the climate crisis. Ian offered a specific solution that watershed-area homeowners can take to combat climate change—using solar energy.
Jordan, who is co-director of RAND’s Climate Resilience Center, made it clear that climate change is going to impact our future, and is already impacting our present. He said Pittsburgh’s climate will look more like Kentucky’s in the not-too-far future. In about 30 years, the city will go from an average of 0 days above 95 degrees Fahrenheit per year to about 20 days per year. As another effect of climate change, major storm events are already proliferating, especially in the Northeastern US (including Pennsylvania).
One of Jordan’s recent studies concerned Greater Pittsburgh’s climate future, with specific focus on stormwater management. The two-pronged project featured an analysis of many simulations of Pittsburgh’s possible future climate and community engagement with local stakeholders. The project’s goals included learning what stormwater management solutions might be the most palatable for a wide variety of possible futures. (Learn more about Jordan’s past study here.)
This fall, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) signed a new consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency. Jordan applied his knowledge from his research to analyze the consent decree. While he noticed there were some good elements to the deal, like expanding the ALCOSAN water treatment plant, he was troubled by the focus on building underground reservoirs for water and the estimates of flow that the decree was based on. (Read more about the consent decree at WESA.)
The consent decree uses a baseline year as a predictor of future years’ weather, a practice that can easily be called into question given predictions of rapid future climate change. Moreover, the baseline year ALCOSAN and the EPA chose is 2003—not only 16 years ago, but also a lighter year for rainfall than almost any of the 9 years afterwards. Meanwhile, Jordan said 2018 and 2019 have been two of the heaviest rainfall years on record for the region.
According to WESA, the inclusion of Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) in the new consent decree was “the major win” of the decree. However, the plan doesn’t go far enough in this regard. Our fellow Pennsylvanians in Philadelphia have already implemented their own initiative to greatly expand GSI. (Read more about Philadelphia’s GSI initiative here.)
We think this consent decree is a chance for Pittsburgh to follow Philadelphia by greatly expanding our use of green infrastructure. GSI can help us manage stormwater and build a more sustainable and beautiful Pittsburgh. The current consent decree is a start, but it could and should go much further.
Allegheny County residents can raise their voices about expanding the role of GSI in the consent decree during the decree’s public comment period, which lasts until December 2. Visit bit.ly/alcosan to send a message to the EPA—you can use the default message on that page or write one of your own.Jordan is currently running a project that focuses on GSI in the Negley Run watershed, one of our nearby watersheds in the East End of Pittsburgh. The new study includes some steps that are similar to Jordan’s previous research. His team of researchers are running what he called an “uncertainty analysis” including more simulations of future storm and flooding conditions, and they are planning further community engagement. They are using their research to analyze the costs and benefits of stormwater projects that could be implemented in the Negley Run watershed, with a specific focus on GSI. (Read more about Jordan’s current study here.)
Ian followed Jordan by discussing solar energy. He was able to cover the topic both as an employee of a firm that installs solar panels and as a homeowner in the watershed area with solar panels on his own home.
Ian told us that homeowners can estimate the potential monthly value of solar energy to their pocketbook. If a homeowner gets all their energy from solar, Ian said their electric bill will come out to about $12. This means that a homeowner’s total electric bill minus this $12 is roughly the value of energy from the electric grid that they currently use.
Ian said that solar panels tend to pay for themselves within eight to 15 years, depending on the circumstances. A significant tax credit is available for the year of solar panel purchase, but the credit is being phased out, so it may not be valid for purchases made after 2021.
Since solar energy is unlikely to meet all of a homeowner’s energy needs at all times, two types of backup exist. One is a battery backup, and the other is to connect to the regular energy grid as a backup. The latter is called “net metering”, and its major drawback is that solar energy cannot be used if the electric grid goes down. This is generally not a major problem in the watershed area, as Ian said outages are relatively uncommon and of short duration in the area, and net metering users can purchase a small generator for emergencies. Neither option is more costly than the other.
For low- and moderate-income Pittsburghers who want to install solar panels, the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh’s Pittsburgh Home Redevelopment Program (PHRP) offers zero-interest loans for solar panel installments and other home improvements. (To learn more about PHRP and whether you qualify, visit this link.)
Rooftop solar panels are not right for every situation, as Ian acknowledged. For homeowners who plan to remain in place for the long-term, they’re a great solution. For some groups, such as renters or those planning to move, installing solar panels may be untenable or unaffordable. “Community solar” programs, which allow residents of many buildings and homes to use energy from a single solar infrastructure base, are a possible solution to this problem that has been adopted in other states. Pennsylvania currently has pending legislation to allow community solar programs in our state. (Learn more about the pending community solar legislation and about PA’s renewable energy status in general here.)
Installing solar panels on one’s home is an individual action that can help make our region more sustainable, for those who can afford it. Community solar programs help make solar energy a big-picture solution. Individuals can also lobby major organizations like ALCOSAN and the EPA, or even send a message to their local congressperson, to make sure that our voices are heard in support of the large-scale initiatives needed to adapt to climate change. As we head into the 2020s, we will need both individual and collective action to help make sure we have a livable watershed and community to pass down to the generations to come.
Post written by John Lavaccare, Communications Intern
You may have heard by now that the Amazon rain forest has been burning this summer. The internet quickly filled with quotes about the Amazon being the lungs of the earth, providing the earth with 20% of its oxygen. This article by PBS Newshour does a good job of explaining why oxygen production and loss is not a primary concern when addressing the Amazon fires. In short, we have a huge reserve of breathable oxygen which is barely impacted by the oxygen output of plant matter. The most significant threats posed by Amazon fires are much more significant and dire: regionally the loss of biodiversity, and globally the destruction of massive carbon sinks.
Trees, and more broadly forest ecosystems provide countless ecosystem services, but the most notable are carbon sequestration, natural habitat, oxygen production, and water management. In healthy forest ecosystems trees ‘sink’ carbon, meaning they absorb more than they produce. The total of carbon processed during photosynthesis is more than the amount released through fires and decomposition. Carbon can be stored more permanently in wood products (think wooden houses, furniture, and more), but also in the soil, and the biomass of the forest itself (plants and animals). Healthy forests can have forest fires, even significant ones, and still, sequester or sink more carbon than they release. The problem in the Amazon, and other forests, however, is that fires reduce the capacity for carbon storage. When a large tree burns, a certain amount of carbon is released, but the tree also becomes incapable of photosynthesis and stops sequestering carbon. In our National and State forests, trees reemerge naturally or are replanted, giving the land a chance to store carbon again. In the Amazon, these burned areas are likely to be replaced with pasture or cropland, significantly reducing their capacity to sequester carbon. Even in areas where trees are replanted, young, immature trees sequester much less carbon than large trees. Using the PA treemap we can see that a 20-inch London planetree (Platanus acerifolia) sequesters 630 pounds of carbon per year and has sequestered 1900 pounds over its lifespan. A 40-inch London planetree, however, sequesters 1400 pounds per year and has sequestered 11,350 pounds in its lifespan. In short, the 40-inch tree sequesters almost as much in one year, as the 20-inch tree sequestered in its life to that point. For greater perspective, the trees we typically plant are 2 inches in diameter and sequester less than 20 pounds of carbon in their first few years.
If you repeat that millions of times over, replacing large trees with seedlings, or in the case of the amazon with no trees at all, huge amounts of carbon go un-stored. This is the opposite of the math in a recent study which showed that planting millions of trees could be a long-term solution to climate change. By replacing unplanted and unused areas with trees we can create long-term carbon sinks in more areas. Of course, the study didn’t account for the loss of the Amazon rain forest, and like all tree planting efforts it will take years, and millions of dollars in maintenance to bring enough trees to maturity to begin to see impacts. It is still most beneficial to preserve the remaining large trees we have, but we can always increase planting efforts.
If you’ve taken a walk in lower Frick Park recently, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the unusual amount of trash and debris scattered around the flood plain and dangling from trees and shrubs, as well as some significant erosion of the walking trails. I’ve been working with the Watershed Association for more than 11 years, and I can honestly say conditions are the worst I’ve ever seen in and around the restored stream, with the possible exception of June 18, 2009, the day after a particularly intense storm system rolled through. This time there is not just a single storm system to blame. Instead, what you are seeing is a graphic manifestation of how climate change is impacting our region.
For years the accepted average amount of annual rainfall in Pittsburgh was 37.7 inches – and if you ask Google, that is still what you will find. But in 2017 we had 40.6 inches, and last year the total was an extraordinary 57.8 inches. This year, the rain gauge at the bottom of Nine Mile Run had already recorded 37.1 inches by July 31st. So we will almost certainly exceed 2017’s total this year, and may come close to another record year. Not only are the totals higher, but the way the rain arrives has changed as well. Only a few years ago, a summer thunderstorm “tropical downpour’ would last for just a few minutes, and then it would gradually taper off to a more moderate rate, or even stop altogether. Now we frequently experience intense downpours that last for 30 or 40 minutes, or more.
What’s going on here? Well, it’s pretty simple. Warmer air holds more water vapor, and eventually that will find its way to earth as snow, sleet, rain, or hail. And as anyone who hasn’t been living in a cave knows by now, our temperatures are getting warmer, both here in Pennsylvania and globally. Worldwide, the five warmest years on record were the past five years — and the 20 warmest occurred over the past 22. The warmest year on record for the earth’s oceans was 2018. Every time that a weather reporter uses words like “record-breaking”, or “unprecedented” to describe a weather event or disaster, that should be followed by an explanation that these are exactly the kinds of events that climate scientists have predicted for decades and that we should expect as the earth warms.
As we explain at all of our stream sweeps, since much of the watershed has separated storm sewers, heavy rains carry any trash on the streets into the storm sewers and directly into Nine Mile Run, during major rain events, the stream spreads out across the flood plain, which is exactly what was intended in the re-design of the stream when it was restored between 2003 and 2006. But this year’s storms have carried more trash, and deposited it over a wider area, than ever before. While it isn’t safe to be in the middle of the valley during one of these prolonged intense storms, you can find out later how high the water got by just looking at where the plastic bags and other debris are hanging from the trees.
One of our core missions here at the Watershed Association is to steward the NMR restoration area. In addition to our annual Spring and Fall Stream Sweeps, this year we will be scheduling some additional clean-ups to deal with the “unprecedented” amount of trash we are facing. Follow us on social media for announcements of when these will be happening if you’d like to help out. We’ll also keep working on better stormwater management solutions in the upper watershed communities to try to reduce the overall burden of flooding that the stream now faces on a regular basis. If you already have a rain barrel or rain garden, or a street tree in front of your house, THANK YOU!! If not, and you are interested in getting involved to help solve the problem, give us a call.
“Nine out of 10 scientists believe that humans are causing global climate change, surveys suggest. But only about one out of two science-education facilities are discussing it at all”.
Two recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette articles explored the presence of climate change lessons in museums. Some people are concerned that nationally, museums are not addressing climate change with their audiences. One expert estimates only about half of facilities around the country are addressing the issue “one way or another”. Some institutions explain that facts in this category are controversial and not conducive to creating science exhibits which often take years to develop. Others argue that the sponsors and funders of some museums are barriers to speaking candidly about climate change.
Everyone seems to agree that museums are able to reach large populations. Many see it as a responsibility of theirs to communicate about climate change.
At the end of the article, “Discussion of climate change is scarce at some Pittsburgh science-education institutions”, the Climate and Urban Systems Partnership (CUSP) is mentioned. For several years NMRWA has been part of this effort to reach more people with lessons on climate change. CUSP is a national project, funded by the National Science Foundation, with groups working in Philadelphia, New York, Pittsburgh and Washington, DC. Each city works to create a model of climate change education that can be used in cities around the country. Focusing on community issues, the group relates climate change back to their audiences. Many Pittsburgh area organizations, with a focus on the environment, come together to form CUSP.
NMRWA has been participating in discussions and activities of CUSP. This year, CUSP created a fun and exciting plan to engage kids and adults in learning about climate change. CUSP’s leaders assembled an impressive Climate Change Playground where anyone could learn how everything from daily activities to city planning can affect our climate.
You can read more about the Climate Change Playground in our blog post about ALCOSAN’s Open House where NMRWA staff participated in the playground.
CUSP focuses on creating activities that are fun and engaging for kids and adults. All of the aspects of the playground are hands-on and interactive, inviting kids to take an active role in their learning. Adults often become engaged through their kids. In every CUSP activity, participants learn what they can do to help combat the effects of climate change. NMRWA focuses on the green infrastructure activity where participants see how a rain storm floods a city and how green infrastructure reduces the amount of rain a city has to endure. We are able to deliver the message that green infrastructure brings many benefits with it and it can reduce the amount of water coming into Nine Mile Run. We explain that with climate change, we can expected more severe weather events like large rain storms. Finally, we ensure participants understand that green infrastructure is accessible to them whether they purchase it for their home or advocate for its use in their communities.
NMRWA is excited to be part of CUSP and share what everyone can do to protect and conserve Nine Mile Run. CUSP collects data and information at each playground they assemble. They hope to continue to improve on their activities based on this information. All of the activities are available for partner organizations and educators to use and will be shared with the CUSP partner cities, expanding the reach of the climate change lessons.
What do you think? Should museums offer more educational opportunities about climate change?
Check out some pictures below of the Climate Change Playground at the ALCOSAN Open House.