Photo of Gov. Wolf touring Rte. 30 landslide area used by permission via Gov. Tom Wolf / Flickr.

In a landmark report issued last week, the United Nations working group on climate change wrote that the most dire effects of global warming are coming much faster than previously anticipated, and have already arrived for many parts of the world.

For officials and experts in the City of Pittsburgh, this came as no surprise.

2018 has seen a historically large amount of rain in the Pittsburgh region, leading to a record number of floods and landslides. Mayor Peduto, echoing the scientific consensus, has said that the extreme weather is a clear result of rising global temperatures. Absent action at the state and national level, local experts say the situation is only going to get worse, and city leaders will need to plan accordingly.

“We have to shift resources to address this new normal,” says Grant Ervin, chief resilience officer for the City of Pittsburgh.

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, Ervin said that while there is no initiative to update the city’s Climate Action Plan in light of the UN’s report, the study “underscores the need to act and the urgency to accelerate our efforts.”

Those efforts include ongoing plans to switch the city’s internal operations to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, as well as commissioning a City Resilience Strategy in collaboration with the RAND Corporation. That strategy, developed last year, identified specific ways extreme weather will affect the city.

Jordan Fischbach is the co-director of RAND’s Water and Climate Resilience Center and worked with the city to develop the strategy. He says that in the near future, “we’re looking at more flooding and additional landslides. Basically, everything we’ve been seeing in the past year.”

While Fischbach commended city leaders for being committed to addressing the issue, he says the region faces a number of “chronic stresses” that will make combating extreme weather especially difficult. These include aging infrastructure, economic inequality and a fragmented system of community and emergency services spread across Allegheny County.

While Pittsburgh is not at risk for the droughts and coastal flooding ravaging other parts of the country, Fischbach says the city is at great risk for an acute environmental shock leading to cascading damage to public health and the local economy.

“Imagine,” he says, “if the Fort Pitt Tunnel was blocked by a landslide.”

In addition to spending tens of millions repairing the damage from this year’s previous floods and landslides, Ervin noted that the city is spending additional millions on more resilient infrastructure and water systems. It’s a necessary but expensive move.

“I wouldn’t say we’re going into fiscal distress,” Ervin says. “But it puts a strain on the budget.”

While city and county leaders have petitioned both the state and the federal government for assistance building out the city’s environmental defenses, Ervin says additional support has not been forthcoming.

“We’ve seen a lot of cutbacks from the state and federal level, to be honest,” he says.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.