Wrightstone: Statement to the Pennsylvania Environmental Resources & Energy Committee, June 22, 2021

By Gregory R. Wrightstone, Geologist and Executive Director, CO2 Coalition

I want to thank the Chairman and the Committee for the opportunity to provide my perspective on climate change and specifically on Governor Tom Wolf’s proposal to enroll the Commonwealth in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). I will focus my testimony today on the justifications presented by the Governor for the need to impose this large regulatory and taxation burden on the state’s citizens and companies.

Pennsylvania is poised to implement RGGI based primarily on dire warnings of existing and future CO2-driven catastrophes documented in the 2018 Pennsylvania Climate Action Plan (PACAP). In this document we will review and assess the primary claims of looming catastrophe that have been used by the Governor and his supporters to justify imposition of this plan.  This review will document that the stated claims of current and future harm from continuing emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) are unsupported by the facts.

If the reasons presented to justify imposition of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative are shown to be false, then the governmental bodies tasked with review of RGGI should “follow the science” and reject this economically crippling program.

The justifications for imposing the carbon taxation scheme that is RGGI were included in the 2018 Climate Action Plan in the section titled “Why Does Pennsylvania Need a Climate Action Plan?” To quote from the action plan:

In recent years, extreme weather and catastrophic natural disasters have become more frequent and more intense. Like many parts of the United States, Pennsylvania is expected to experience higher temperatures, changes in precipitation, sea level rise, and more frequent extreme events and flooding because of climate change in the coming decades. Climate impacts in Pennsylvania are already occurring and put Pennsylvanians and local industries at risk. Key impacts include:

  • Increasing precipitation leading to extreme weather events and flooding throughout the state
  • Increase in drought and heat waves
  • Increased health risks from worsening air and water pollution
  • Farming sector would be harmed

Are extreme weather events attributable to human-caused changes in climate?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the gold standard for climate science and disagrees, stating: “Many weather and climate extremes are the result of natural climate variability… Even if there were no anthropogenic changes in climate, a wide variety of natural weather and climate extremes would still occur.”

The World Meteorological Organization goes even further, saying: “… any single event… … cannot be attributed to human-induced climate change, given the current status of scientific understanding.”

Do Pennsylvania’s records of rainfall, drought, food production, flooding and the like support the allegations that the Commonwealth is experiencing any of these?

Claim #1 – Man-made climate change is leading to increased precipitation and flooding

Precipitation has increased slightly over the last 100-plus years. That increase amounts to about 4 inches of additional precipitation per year (figure 1).

Figure 1 – NOAA Pennsylvania annual precipitation

The slight increase in precipitation is already providing many benefits to the Commonwealth that were not addressed in the Climate Action Plan. These benefits include increased vegetation, crop-growth, silage for livestock, snow for ski resorts and a decrease in fire risk. The only downside to this increase in rainfall would be if it resulted in a documented increase in devastating floods.

According to the well-respected Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, their latest report (AR5) states that they have a “low confidence that there is a sign of a trend globally in the magnitude or frequency of floods on a global scale.” In other words, they can discern no connection between the modest 0.8 degree Celsius increase in temperature since 1900 and any change in flooding worldwide.

Governor Wolf seems fixated on his belief that flooding is being made worse by climate change and has referred repeatedly to several high-precipitation events that occurred in 2018, but here the governor makes the common mistake of conflating weather with climate. For example, Governor Wolf personally viewed flooding of the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg in July of that year when it crested at 17.3 feet. Much was made of the flooding at the time, but it ranks just 31st on the list of the greatest floods at Harrisburg — and only a bit more than half the record set by Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972.

Due to the large number of measuring stations across the state, it is difficult to assess flooding statewide. We have here sampled a handful of sites. Those from the Ohio, Allegheny and Susquehanna rivers show a decline in the average crest of floods over the last century, while the data from Bucks County show a similar decline in the number of floods (figure 2).

Figure 2 – Localized flooding data

According to the IPCC AR5 WGI report, they state that they have “…low confidence in trends in small-scale severe weather phenomena such as hail and thunderstorms…”

We shall find in a later section that Pennsylvania crops are thriving — likely helped by abundant and timely rainfall.

Fact check on Increasing flooding: False and misleading

Claim #2 – Droughts are increasing

In order for drought to occur, two climate events are required: lack of rainfall and intense heat waves. We have seen in the previous section, that rainfall is increasing slightly, and we shall see in the next section that heat waves are not increasing. Neither of the two required elements for drought to occur are happening.

The most commonly used measurement of drought is the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI). It estimates dryness by using both temperature and precipitation data. Figure 3 shows annual values of PDSI for Pennsylvania as accessed from NOAA. This chart clearly reveals a trend (blue line) of decreasing aridity.

Figure 3 – NOAA drought index

According to the IPCC AR5 WGI report, they state that they have “…low confidence in a global-scale observed trend in drought or dryness (lack of rainfall) since the middle of the 20th century…

The data and the experts agree that droughts are NOT increasing.

Fact check on Increasing drought: False and misleading

Claim #3 – Heat waves are increasing

There is little dispute that the longest and most intense heat waves in the United States occurred some 80 years ago in the 1920s and 1930s. Figure 4 is a chart created by Dr. John Christy, Professor of Atmospheric Science and Director of the Earth System Science Center at The University of Alabama in Huntsville and Alabama’s State Climatologist. This chart shows that the percentage of US stations measuring more than 100 degrees F peaked during that time frame and have been in decline since.

Confirming this are data from the EPA (figure 5) once again showing peak heat waves occurring during the early 20th century during a time when CO2 was at levels too low to impact temperature significantly.

Figure 4 – % of US stations >100oF
Figure 5 – EPA heatwave index

Fact check on Increasing heat waves: False and misleading

Claim #4 – Increasing health risks from worsening air and water pollution

Our air and water today are cleaner than in more than 100 years and getting cleaner every year. According to the EPA, the concentrations of air pollutants in the United States have dropped significantly since 1990 (figure 6):

    Carbon Monoxide (CO) 8-Hour, down 73%

    Lead (Pb) 3-Month Average, down 86% (from 2010)

    Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) Annual, down 61%

    Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) 1-Hour, down 54%

    Ozone (O3) 8-Hour, down 25%

    Particulate Matter 10 microns (PM10) 24-Hour, down 26%

    Particulate Matter 2.5 microns (PM2.5) Annual, down 41% (from 2000)

    Particulate Matter 2.5 microns (PM2.5) 24-Hour, down 30% (from 2000)

    Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) 1-Hour, down 91%

Figure 6 – EPA National air pollution chart

Pennsylvania is home to five major rivers (Delaware, Susquehanna, Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela) and many thousands of tributaries that each have their own history of pollution and subsequent clean up. The good news is that nearly all of these waterways have seen tremendous water quality improvements over the last several decades. Once polluted waters around the state are now home to fishing tournaments like the annual event in Pittsburgh that features fishing in all three of Pittsburgh’s famous rivers — once infamously contaminated.

Some rivers and streams remain hopelessly polluted by acid mine drainage that thwarts remediation efforts, but the overarching story is one of steadily improving water quality that we should all be proud of.

The PA DEP shines the light of success on the Susquehanna River in their report titled “The Susquehanna River Story: Pennsylvania’s Chronicle.” This story details the successful efforts to clean up a polluted river that, as recently as 2005, led to disease-related deaths of young smallmouth bass.

The claim that Pennsylvania’s air and water quality are declining is shown to be factually incorrect and divorced from reality.

Fact check on worsening air and water quality: False and misleading

Claim #5 – Rising sea level to cause more flooding in southeastern Pennsylvania

According to the 2018 Climate Assessment, the Delaware River Basin communities (including the city of Philadelphia) can expect more frequent flooding and associated disruptions due to sea level rise that presumably is caused by anthropogenic warming. Fortunately, we have very good data available that should be a relief to citizens of those communities.

Relative Sea Level (RSL) measures both sea-level rise and geologic down warping. RSL at the tide gauge in Philadelphia shows a rise of 12 inches over the last century (0.12 inches/year) at a remarkably even rate (figure 7).

Figure 7 – Relative sea level at Philadelphia harbor

A small amount — about 2 inches of that sea level rise — is due to the long-term downward movement of the land mass in the Philadelphia area as measured by a station some six miles to the north of the tide gauge and anchored on bedrock. The downward movement measured here is likely due to well-documented isostatic rebound along the eastern seaboard responding to glacial melt at the end of the last ice advance.

The tide gauge itself is built on land that was created by filling in the waterfront. It is attached to a wooden sea wall of questionable stability (figure 8) at the local Coast Guard station. Both of these issues may lead to an additional 3 inches of subsidence due to compaction and settling of the fill used to create the waterfront. 

Figure 8 –Positioning of tide gauge at the port of Philadelphia located on wharf and subsiding land fill and location of elevation measuring station

Since long-term sea-level rise has been steady over the last 150 years, if we extrapolate the same trend back to the founding of the port it is likely that Philadelphia has seen between 24 and 30 inches of relative Sea Level Rise over the last 250 years.

Over that same 250 years, in spite of the over 2 feet of relative sea level rise, Philadelphia has not suffered any disaster from rising seas but rather Philadelphia has prospered, and the Delaware River port complex has become one of the largest shipping areas in the United States.  

When dealing with slowly occurring changes over long periods of time, such as has been the case with rising relative sea level at Philadelphia, adaptation is often the most appropriate response.  Philadelphia has obviously successfully adapted to the last 150 years of relative sea level rise already.

Global sea levels have been rising for over 300 years, long before we began adding prodigious amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere in the mid-20th century, and they are likely to continue to do so whether RGGI is adopted or rejected. Having successfully, if unwittingly, already adapted to 300 years of rising sea levels, Philadelphia, with modern technology and capabilities, can expect to easily adapt to the projected 8 or so inches of rise expected between now and 2100.

Claim #6 – Pennsylvania’s farm sector will be harmed

The 2018 Pennsylvania Action Plan forecasts future harm to the agricultural and dairy sector because of man-made climate change and makes recommendations for how dairymen and farmers can adapt to their predicted crises. Is that the case? Are we seeing indications that this sector has been impacted negatively?

While focusing on perceived negative consequences and predictions of doom, the Climate Action Plan ignores the many benefits that are accruing to our ecosystems and agriculture from modestly rising temperatures, increase in precipitation and increasing CO2. Contrary to predictions of looming famine in the Keystone State, facts on the ground present a story of agricultural bounty and steady increases in production.

Agricultural production in Pennsylvania and around the world continue to break records year after year. The increase in temperature results in longer growing seasons. Killing frosts end earlier in the spring and arrive later in the fall, leading to more plantings and harvests.

The benefits of warming are turbocharged by the CO2 fertilization effect which enhances crop and foliage growth significantly. According to laboratory studies by Dr. Craig Idso, a 300 parts-per-million increase in atmospheric CO2 will lead to an astounding average increase of 46% in crop biomass.

Corn is, by far, the largest agricultural product in Pennsylvania, with more than 15,000 farms growing it to use as a grain and for silage. Figure 9 reveals a stunning relationship between corn yield per acre and increasing global carbon emissions.

Figure 9 – Corn yield and carbon emissions

In Pennsylvania, both corn yields in tons per acre (figure 10) and milk yields in pounds per cow (figure 11) are improving year after year.

Figure 10 – Corn silage is steadily increasing in yield per acre
Figure 11 – Milk yield is steadily increasing in pounds per cow

The facts from down on the farm paint an entirely different picture than that presented by the Climate Action Plan. By every metric, the dairy and agricultural sector are thriving and improving with no end in sight.

Summary – There is no climate crisis and no need for RGGI

The Wolf administration relies on factually incorrect assertions of ongoing and future harm from CO2-driven warming. Historical data show predictions of increased flooding, drought, heat waves, health risks and more to be blatant fearmongering meant to advance a destructive anti-science agenda. Instead of relying on climate misinformation to support the imposition of a program that would destroy Pennsylvania’s billion-dollar fossil fuel industry and tens of thousands of associated jobs, the government bodies tasked with review of RGGI should “follow the science” and reject this economically crippling program.

This statement was delivered to the Pennsylvania Environmental Resources & Energy Committee on June 22, 2021.


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