A Painful lesson in Climate Injustice

As our world overheats, the poor and elderly will struggle and suffer the most. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned, “Susceptibility to climate change differs across sectors and regions… Recent modeling of heat wave impacts in 44 U.S. urban populations, allowing for acclimatization, suggests that large U.S. cities may experience, on average, several hundred extra deaths per summer.”

We got a painful reminder of how that will play out in the years ahead in Pittsburgh. During the blistering heat of summer, a window air conditioner that was overworking in the stifling heat sparked a fire trapping two boys; Dylan, 7, and Nicholas Taylor, 12, who were apparently sleeping in the attic. This family lost everything; two precious children, a family dog and all of their possessions. The fire marshal reported that the smoke and flames spread rapidly and trapped the children and concluded that it was an electrical fire triggered by an overheated air conditioner that was plugged into a power strip.

In August 2003 a massive heat wave enveloped Europe for three weeks and killed about 70,000 people mostly elderly and poor according to a data compiled by Richard Keller at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of “Fatal Isolation: The Devastating Paris Heat Wave of 2003”.

Pittsburgh like the rest of the world has been very hot. According to the Climate Prediction Center, this will be the first time that the three-month forecast is for above average temperatures for all fifty states for each of the next three months. In recent days, based on what has happened so far this year, NASA scientists are predicting that we have a 99 percent chance that this will be the hottest year ever recorded, surpassing the current record holder-2015.

The scientific and moral dimensions of climate change are clear. Pope Francis for example, issued a powerful 184-page papal letter “Laudato Si,” warning that climate change presents far-reaching environmental and social consequences especially for the poor. He pointed to “(t)hose who possess more resources and economic or political power” and he observed that they “seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms”. The pope warned that climate change “represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

The NAACP has long recognized: “Global climate change has a disproportionate impact on communities of color in the United States and around the world.” They go on to warn “(h)istorically, American society has failed to make the connection in terms of the direct impact of environmental injustices, including climate change, on our own lives, families, and communities, which depend on the physical environment and its bounty.”

I feel a measure of personal guilt sitting in my solar-powered air-conditioned home and thinking about families like the Taylors who are just trying to survive hyperthermia in a poorly insulated, overheated home in an overheating world. The things I witnessed in the natural world including the melting of the Arctic, Greenland, Alps and in the decline of the Amazon Rainforests are now happening in our neighborhoods and the pace of warming appears to be moving faster than projections.

We should learn a lesson from horrendous tragedies. It’s been ten years since former Vice President Al Gore let me listen to an uncut version of Melissa Etheridge’s “I Need To Wake Up” on his IPod. Why has it taken us so long to wake up? I have concluded that some are blinded by their ideology, others by their paychecks, and far too many Western Pennsylvania politicians are blinded by fossil-fuel lobbyists and the checks they bring.

While our lawmakers procrastinate curbing carbon pollution, many on fixed or limited income may not have a way for relief as our world overheats. We must do more to help the poor, disabled and elderly to prepare for the coming heat that will only get worse year by year.

We must wake up to what is happening to our world and commit to ending carbon pollution in all of its forms while helping each other adapt to a warmer world. There is some good news. In May, five Republican senators including Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, Susan Collins, Mark Kirk and Rob Portman joined five Democrats and sponsored an amendment calling on Congress “to take actions that reduce emissions and combat climate change”. As a part of any comprehensive climate policy that might emerge in the coming months, we must put a price on carbon pollution and make sure that a portion of the money collected is reinvested in insulating homes, LED lights and in rooftop solar panels for the poor.

In the meantime, Western Pennsylvania community leaders must explore new ways to help the most vulnerable in our communities adapt to a warming world. You can help the Taylor family directly by donating at:

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About Larry Schweiger

Larry Schweiger is President and Chief Executive Officer of Citizens for PennFuture. Previously, he was President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation and earlier the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Larry also served as the Executive Secretary of the Joint (House and Senate) Air and Water Pollution Control and Conservation Committee of the Pennsylvania General Assembly and 1st Vice President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. He returned to the National Wildlife Federation in March 2004 with a commitment to confront the climate crisis. He is passionate about protecting nature for our children's future. Larry continues the climate work as the battle moves to the states. Previously, Larry served for eight years as President and CEO of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, where he pioneered watershed restoration and promoted ecological research, land conservation, community outreach and Fallingwater restoration. In the past, Larry was the Executive Secretary of the Joint House/Senate Conservation Committee for the Pennsylvania General Assembly, Senior Vice President for Conservation Programs at National Wildlife Federation, and 1st Vice President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Larry wrote a book warning about climate change impacts on nature entitled: "Last Chance: Preserving Life on Earth" that won 1st Prize for the best non-fiction at the 2011 Indie Book Awards. Larry started volunteering at age 14 and is an active community leader, having served on more than 40 governing boards, commissions and committees. He currently serves on the Boards of Directors of Climate Reality; the John Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment; and National Wildlife Federation Action Fund. In 2012, He was honored by the Blue-Green Alliance for the Federation's leadership on the auto rules and was selected as Pennsylvania’s Environmental Professional of the Year in 2002, Pittsburgh of the Year in 2000, and he received a Conservation Service Award from the Christian Environmental Association in September 1995. Larry is married and is blessed with three daughters, two sons-in-law, and five grandsons.
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