The Next 50: The Only Constant Is Change

December 9, 2020By: Aurora Sharrard
PEC Blog

Over the last year, we’ve celebrated PEC’s 50th anniversary by looking back at our history and impact on Pennsylvania’s environment. But as we look toward year 51 and beyond, there is plenty more work to be done.

You can find other pieces commemorating our 50th anniversary here. 


Dr. Aurora Sharrard, Director of Sustainability at the University of Pittsburgh

As we celebrate 50 years of environmental success and effort in Pennsylvania, it’s astounding how far we have come—and how much further we still have to go. While we stand on the shoulders of some remarkable policymaking, executing, and creative giants, I am simultaneously invigorated by how much progress has been made, humbled by the struggles we are still mired in, and stunned by the magnitude and extent of the journey that remains ahead of us.

Looking both back and forward, the only constant in the past 50 years of environmental progress, effort, and cooperation is transformational change—and we should expect nothing different in the next 50 years. The primary questions before us are: Will we be proactive, or will our planet be the change we are reacting to? And can every one of us participate in and benefit from our efforts? The answers are up to us.

We are now in a geologic epoch dubbed the Anthropocene, reflecting the significance of humans’ past 75 years of impact on the planet’s climate and environment. In this new age, the single largest environmental obstacle we have created is clearly climate change; the science is unquestionable and the planetary changes far too numerous to ignore. Whether you live in a city, in a town, on a cul-de-sac, or on a farm, it’s obvious that we are all increasingly at the mercy of a warming, wet, and unpredictable planet.

Research findings show that we underestimate the environmental concerns of vulnerable populations, who also collectively underestimate their own and others’ environmental concerns.

Why is Earth so volatile? While on land we’re still unable to make peace within our species, the reference here is to our planet’s inability to host through the next century with its atmospheric balance askew—and it is fighting us at every turn.

While some debate the details, others have been studying, deploying, and proliferating solutions, acknowledging that there is no time to spare. It’s rather sobering for 16-year-olds to voice the concern that they may not have an opportunity to live their full lives on this incredible blue sphere, especially when we have the solutions to mitigate climate impacts, but not the collective will to take action on them.

“Climate anxiety” is a real phenomenon people are wrestling with worldwide, including many youth.

While the sheer scale and relative speed of what we’re facing with climate change is massive, our only option is to move forward; but we must do so on the same side, instead of competing with and opposing each other, which we seem to do at every decision and turn.

The solutions we need now must be bigger, move faster, be actionable, and happen with consensus. They must be simultaneously focused globally, nationally, regionally, and locally, increasing quality of life for all, while fighting our invisible, gaseous nemeses.

We know what we must do—focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from buildings, industry, transportation, agriculture, waste, and energy. We all must conserve. We all must upgrade. We must use our feet and brains more, engines and combustion less. We must be more plant-based and local. We must embrace new technologies, change our behavior, and embrace diversity to make demonstrable progress. And we must make sure our local and global neighbors also shift—and do this all across every sector, community, and country, now, as quickly as possible.

As we celebrate 50 years of environmental progress in Pennsylvania, we have only begun to change, but change we must, and, I believe, change we will.

Change is hard, but oh so familiar, because it is change that has brought us here.

We are already changing for the better, but we can misjudge our individual and collective interest in doing so. Research findings show that we underestimate the environmental concerns of vulnerable populations, who also collectively underestimate their own and others’ environmental concerns.

The very constituencies we must be working with to gain broad participation in environmental decision-making are supportive, but we must consciously ensure that they are represented, engaged, and amplified partners, especially from frontline and fence-line communities.

We are already changing for the better, but our collective voice is quiet, when it should be amplified. Nationally, “We Are Still In” is a U.S.-based effort 3,800 leaders strong, promising to “world leaders that Americans would not retreat from the global pact to reduce emissions and stem the causes of climate change.” Over 2,200 businesses, 285 cities and counties, and 10 states are making active, bipartisan progress toward meeting the global carbon reduction targets laid out before us by the Paris Agreement.

We must work together to create the change needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Pennsylvania while improving quality of life for all.

We are changing for the better; we just need to look in the mirror and create more reflections. In Pennsylvania alone, there are over 90,000 clean energy jobs, a nearly 60% increase since 2014 (with most in construction and manufacturing); two out of three Pennsylvania clean energy employees work in small businesses. Our economic livelihood is linked to our success in combating climate change, while demonstrating that everyone benefits from a thriving clean economy.

We are all already changing for the better, but we need to continue to harness regenerating opportunities that reflect financial markets. The trend of energy production costs has starkly shifted toward renewable technologies, with Pennsylvania already reflecting that transition. In the Commonwealth, we have 1,300 megawatts (MW) of wind power from 27 wind farms; 354 MW of solar power generation installed at nearly 19,000 homes, farms, and businesses; 892 MW of conventional hydropower; and 1,583 MW of pumped storage hydropower capacity. By ensuring that Pennsylvania’s renewable requirements are met with in-state installations, we create jobs that can’t be outsourced, assets that won’t be non-competitive, and communities that build themselves and people up for success.

We are changing for the better, following old, new, and emerging leaders. In Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Erie, over 150 companies and property owners representing over 112 million square feet of building space are committed to reducing building energy and water use 50% below baselines by the year 2030, while reducing transportation emissions from commuters just as much. Pennsylvania boasts 20% of all building square footage committed to these goals in North America—and is reaching for these measured performance goals across 283 miles.

We are changing for the better, and have been for some time. Higher education institutions are known for developing new innovations and future leaders, but 22 colleges and universities in Pennsylvania are committed to carbon neutrality—some since 2008, a couple by 2020. They stand with 420 others nationwide making active progress toward these goals, while investing in their communities, training the next generation, and ensuring that the future is one based in knowledge, informed by history, and steeped in innovation, creativity, inclusivity, and collaboration.

Regional and global partnerships ensure that universities remain inspiring leaders and innovators for each other, but also for students, faculty, staff, community members, and visitors from around the world.

We are changing for the better, in institutions small and large. The University of Pittsburgh is one of many colleges and universities answering the global call for climate action by championing not just blanket greenhouse gas reductions, but sustainable food practices; local, renewable energy sources; green building design and operations; healthy lifestyles; and more. Regional and global partnerships ensure that universities remain inspiring leaders and innovators for each other, but also for students, faculty, staff, community members, and visitors from around the world.

Together, we have changed—and we must continue to be catalysts for positive change at all levels so that we can have compounding, transformational impacts on people and the planet.

We must work together to create the change needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Pennsylvania while improving quality of life for all. By embracing change, taking action, and working together, we have individual and shared opportunities to control the course of our collective environmental journey, while bettering lives locally and globally. The past has brought us here, but our fearless commitment to a shared equitable future will ensure that Pennsylvanians are part of the change the world needs.

 

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