Penn Program Delves Into the Details of Climate Change

Sandra Folzer, Weavers Way Environment Committee

Two committees in the House of Representatives spent the past month talking about various aspects of climate change, with an emphasis on the economic impact of 500-year floods, mudslides and extreme heat. But last fall, a presentation at the University of Pennsylvania sponsored by the Center for Public Health Initiatives took a more global approach, detailing the many aspects of life affected by this environmental crisis, and what we need to do about it.

Judge Alice Hill, former Director for Resilience for the National Security Council, talked about the general lack of knowledge about climate change in the population. Most people learn from the media, and 61 percent don’t see a relationship between climate change and human behavior, she said.

William Braham, professor of architecture at Penn, said the U.S. needs to construct buildings that can survive climate change. The University’s goal is to be carbon neutral by 2042.

Laurel Redding, assistant professor of epidemiology at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine, described how climate change affects animals. Near San Francisco, sea lions are dying because algae has released neurotoxins and they can’t navigate. They used to roll in urine-soaked surfaces, which gave them needed antibodies. Now with less surface, they have less protection.

Howard Kunreuther, James G. Dinan professor at Penn and co-director of the Risk Management and Design Processes Center at the Wharton School, talked about the shortsighted American mindset, which is resistant to planning for the future. An example is the homeowner who doesn’t put a fireproof roof on the house to guard against wildfires because it is too expensive. The bias is, “It’s not going to happen to me,” even though statistics say otherwise.

According to a 2014 report mandated by Congress and reported in the New York Times, if the U.S. doesn’t rein in climate change, we will lose 10 percent of our economy by the end of the century. Projected costs include $141 billion from heat-related deaths, $118 billion from sea level rise and $32 billion from infrastructure damage.

The goal of the Paris Accord was to avoid global temperatures rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. With a rise of 2 degrees, Arctic ice is 10 times more likely to disappear over the summer, along with most of the coral reefs. Once that happens, one-third of the world’s population will become exposed to extreme heat waves, 411 million will be exposed to severe urban drought, and flooding from sea level rise will affect 80 million.

According to NASA, the planet’s average surface temperature rose about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century. In July of last year, the following places recorded these high temperatures: Montreal, 98º; Chino, CA, 120º; Guadalajara, Mexico, 103º; Algeria, 124º; and Pakistan, 129º.

If we can hold to only a 1.5 degree Celsius rise, then the Arctic ice may survive the summer and coral reefs will be damaged but not wiped out. Those affected by extreme heat waves will drop from 37 percent to 14 percent, and the population affected by urban drought will drop by 60 million.

But as of now, no industrial nation is posed to meet either the 1.5 or 2 degree Celsius goal.