By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director
This piece will printed in the Roxborough Review on Thursday, June 19 in the column Natural Selections
“We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change,” Washington State Governor Jay Inslee notably says in the new TV series, Years of Living Dangerously, “and we are the last generation that can do something about it.”
Inslee gets it—climate change will be the transcendent environmental issue of the coming decades. Hard to know yet if either Governor Tom Corbett or his opponent, Democratic challenger Tom Wolf, gets it at quite this high level of concern.
For me, an environmental educator following the climate change debate for 25 years, I thought it a baby step forward that the Governor actually used the phrase “greenhouse gas emissions.” Visionary? Maybe not. A step forward? Absolutely.
In their first public appearance of the coming electoral season, the two Toms squared off in Center City last week at the annual dinner of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. They each presented their vision for the environment, and while sparks didn’t exactly fly, they presented some notable differences.
‘The governor, an avid kayaker, reminded us of a time—not that long ago—when you wouldn’t want to kayak in many of Pennsylvania’s rivers, especially Pittsburgh rivers where Corbett grew up. Today, it’s notable “how much cleaner the rivers are, and not one day (he has kayaked) I haven’t seen an eagle.”
The word “balance” appeared in his remarks multiple times, and he noted that greenhouse gas emissions in Pennsylvania were falling, that he has enforced environmental laws on the criminal side, that Pennsylvania has “the most progressive set of environmental laws in the nation,” and that “others states are coming (to Pennsylvania) to see how we did this.”
For me, an environmental educator following the climate change debate for 25 years, unnerved by how politically polarizing the debate has become, I thought it a baby step forward that the Governor actually used the phrase “greenhouse gas emissions.” Visionary? Maybe not. A step forward? Absolutely.
Challenger Tom Wolf then fired a warning shot across Corbett’s bow; with the governor bringing his secretaries of the Departments of Conservation and Natural Resources and Environmental Protection to the event, Wolf said he’d hire “qualified individuals” who used science and data to manage environmental concerns.
He also promised a “severance tax” on Marcellus shale; while Corbett levies an “impact fee” on drillers, many policy experts hoped for a tax, like other Marcellus states use, as the tax would generate much more than the $630 million that has come to Pennsylvania from the impact fee in the last three years.
Wolf, promising to put Pennsylvania on the “cutting edge” of a new clean energy economy, touted a seven point plan for the environment, noted that “one day, a carbon-based energy will be a thing of the past,” and said he wants Pennsylvania to consider joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an effort among nine states to reduce the types of pollution linked to global warming. That last point—given, mind you, to a room filled with environmental lawyers and green policy geeks—was the sole applause line of either Tom’s speeches. The only one.
What that told me is professionals within the environmental sphere—which, let’s be honest, will be a hugely important driver of jobs in the 21st century—get what Martin Luther King called, in a different context, “the fierce urgency of now.”
With carbon dioxide levels higher than they have been in millions of years, with ice caps in retreat, glaciers melting, sea levels rising, temperatures warming, the weather getting weird, Pennsylvania needs a full throated, complex discussion of our environmental future.
That conversation only began last week in a Center City banquet room between the battling Toms. Let’s hope it continues among all of us.