Dec. 7, 2015 1:19 pm

This is how the city is starting to prepare for climate change

The Mayor's Office of Sustainability has released a report detailing how each city department can better plan for climate change.

Warmer and wetter. (Photo by Flickr user Henk Sijgers, used under a Creative Commons license)

(Photo by Flickr user Henk Sijgers, used under a Creative Commons license)

Warmer and wetter weather: That’s what’s in store for Philadelphia as the world’s climate gradually shifts, building towards rising temperatures and a higher frequency of damaging storms. Sure, we’re all going to die, but don’t let the blustering, nihilistic whirlwinds of all-consuming dread suck you into the existential eye of the storm just yet —  the city is working on an interdepartmental plan for the near future.

Cities across the globe — particularly up and down the mid-Atlantic — are preparing their municipal departments for inevitable climate change. New York City released a report in early 2015 that includes plans to implement the “Big U,” a $335 million flood protection system around Lower Manhattan.

Philadelphia has its own storm-related concerns, and municipal planning needs to start immediately. That’s why the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability has just released a report three years in the making that details climate projections for the city and offers suggestions on how each department can adapt to prevent loss in service.

“We’re lucky in that we are less exposed than some of our peers, but we’re all in that bucket of ‘Oh, shoot. We built all this stuff a long time ago and no one planned for this.’ None of us are escaping that fate,” said MOS Deputy Director Sarah Wu, who began work on this report in early 2012, collecting scientific projections and working to educate departments on how they can better prepare for that impending warmer and wetter weather.

While the report, which Wu said is a “first step” in getting the city ready for adaptation, does not include any plans to implement a $335 million wall, it does say one severe hurricane in the near future could cost more than $2 billion — a figure Wu said is modeled on historic weather data and the potential of increased frequency of those events.

Right now, Wu said the city’s Achilles heel is its aging infrastructure.


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“We’re an old city and we built a lot of our infrastructure a long time ago in a totally different context,” Wu said. “We built our water infrastructure when we had a lot less impervious surface.”

As it stands, there is no immediate solution. Wu said that’s a next step, as the science continues to update and the range of possible futures narrows.

“At this point, there’s no big worry, we don’t need to build that Big U,” she said. “I think the other way we can stay resilient is keep going back to that science and recognize if that switch does flip, there needs to be more systematic, more drastic intervention.”

For the time being, the report does offer some preemptive practices for affected departments. Considering rising temperatures and Philadelphia’s high elderly population, a lot of the pressure falls on the shoulders of the Department of Public Health.

“Socially isolated elderly and folks who have preexisting cardiovascular issues are the most vulnerable,” Wu said.


The Department of Public Health, Wu said, should be prepared to continue working with the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging to scale up their heat hotline. But Wu has some other ideas for the future — figuring out where concentrations of folks without air conditioning reside and working with the Office of Emergency Management and PECO to prioritize bringing electricity back up in those places in the case of an outage.

“We’re not there yet, but that’s a potential place we’ll be going with heat adaptation,” she said.


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