This month’s Philadelphia magazine decks its cover with an image of the city under water. It asks “What Can a City Do About Climate Change?” and promises “more doom on page 68.”
The auspices of ruin are staff reporters David Murrell and Claire Sasko. They recommend 10 steps Philadelphia can take against warming and its effects. Before getting to those, a word on the recommenders.
A 2017 University of Pennsylvania graduate, Murrell has been a “music blogging intern” at WXPN and an editorial intern at Esquire. His recent work at PhillyMag includes a report on price hikes at Five Below and a preview piece on the National Dog Show. He dabbles in science reporting, having mused some weeks ago about how low regional temperatures presage a cold winter. (A good belletrist appreciates irony.)
Sasko, between her updates on the Christmas Village exhibit and an interview with a local horror novelist, has actually written two recent pieces on global warming. She doesn’t quote any scientists therein but does cite the state auditor general, a city bureaucrat, and a television reporter who has lately covered difficulties in controlling robotic vacuum cleaners.
The writers’ lack of authority shouldn’t matter if they seek expert guidance. But their cover story directly quotes no physical scientists. They claim to have read a study or two, including a 2018 report on flooding by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Let’s clarify “scientists”: UCS’s directors and advisors also include artists, businesspeople, social scientists, actors, an Episcopal priest, a historian, a farmer, a cookbook author, a homemaker, a marriage therapist, someone describing her occupation as “Traveler and Theatre Addict,” a Hell’s Angel, and a Rastafarian prophet. Only the last two are made up.
Standing upon such shoulders, Murrell and Sasko declare, “Government can lead, but we’ll need action on all fronts to solve this problem.”
And a problem—as even real scientists expect—it may be, though not as cataclysmic as PhillyMag’s reporters dread. Among the duo’s 10 ideas, there’s at least one good one: “Plant more trees in low-income neighborhoods.” Through evapotranspiration (whereby plants release water into the atmosphere), plant life helps cool hot regions. Disadvantaged parts of the city need more trees for both beautification and temperature reduction.
Another of their suggestions also may have merit: raising the required elevation for new riverside buildings. Floods are already far from worst-case scenarios, so tailoring construction projects to avoid them makes sense.
Where the reporters go daft is in insisting Philadelphia play a major role in the global endeavor to cut carbon emissions. They endorse taxing car travel as London does and as New York City soon will; incentivizing energy-efficient building construction; fining buildings already discharging copious CO2; and converting the south Philly oil refinery into a renewable energy complex. Nowhere does Pennsylvania’s natural gas boom have a role in PhillyMag’s vision. Too bad: Natural gas emits only 75 percent as much CO2 per unit of thermal energy as gasoline and only 57 percent as much as coal, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Gov. Tom Wolf, via executive order, has already committed to reducing CO2 discharge statewide, far beyond what Philadelphia alone could achieve. Unfortunately, even this credit-purchase (i.e., tax) system won’t meaningfully lessen warming. “Using the calculations for predicting warming from the National Center for Atmospheric Research,” writes geologist Gregory Wrightstone of the Heartland Institute, “if 100 percent of the state’s electricity generation emissions were eliminated, only 0.001 degree Fahrenheit in warming would be averted by the year 2050. This difference is well below our ability to measure global temperature.” Also lamentably, the governor seeks to punitively tax natural gas companies that already pay substantial corporate taxes and environmental impact fees.
Sprinting past obtuseness, crashing into delirium, Murrell and Sasko further plead: “Move the airport before it’s underwater,” “stop building shore houses,” and “get ready for hundreds of thousands of migrants.”
Cassandras like Murrell, Sasko, and Wolf call for desperate measures because they anticipate melted polar ice will result in unmanageably high sea levels. Current research, however, favors optimism. According to Richard S. Lindzen, who recently retired from the Alfred P. Sloan Professorship of Atmospheric Sciences at MIT, “the issue of potentially rising sea levels has provided the primary graphic illustration of danger, though little evidence is on offer.” And a 2017 New York Times report showcased engineering advances made in the Netherlands to adequately manage seawater overflow. Seaside locales in the United States and elsewhere often hire Dutch firms toward this end.
Such solutions need no hysteria. Like the earth, PhillyMag should keep reasonably cool.
Bradley Vasoli is president of Hill Media Strategies in Montgomery County, PA.