The biennial science and environmental summit held by the nonprofit Partnership for the Delaware Estuary traditionally focuses on technical talks like how to defend coastal marshes from encroaching seas.
But this year’s summit included members of the Delaware River Basin Commission’s multidisciplinary Advisory Committee on Climate Change as well as a popular TV meteorologist.
Their message: Preparing people to deal with the changing climate’s extreme weather and its bigger storms, higher temperatures, and heavier rainfall demands effective communication that expresses science in plain language.
Representatives from local government, business and academia said clear and consistent messaging about the causes of the changing climate and the options facing policymakers and individuals will make it more likely that people will understand the magnitude of the current and future changes, and will take steps to adapt to them.
Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz, who has been forecasting the Delaware Valley weather for Philadelphia’s NBC10 since 1995, said he gave up his popular long-term winter weather forecasting last year because weather patterns have become so wild and unpredictable that the past is no longer a reliable guide to the future.
Warming oceans, melting polar ice caps, and rising seas have recently set records for a series of weather metrics including rainfall, snowfall and temperature, Schwartz said Tuesday in a virtual keynote speech at the summit.
Dramatic changes in weather
“The weather has changed dramatically in the time that I’ve been doing this,” said Schwartz, recalling a career that began in 1972. Although he has historically focused on forecasting the weather rather than looking at longer-term climate patterns, his attention has increasingly turned to climate because it helps his viewers understand recent weather that defies past norms, he said.
“Who are they going to ask about that? What person do they know who can help explain something like that to them?” he said. “We’re pretty much representatives of science in the community.”
Schwartz said he quit doing the winter weather outlook because the changing climate had made it impossible to forecast with any accuracy. “The past is almost irrelevant,” he said. “The world isn’t the same as it used to be, and the atmosphere isn’t the same.”
The fact that three of Philadelphia’s biggest snowstorms have occurred since 2009 shows that climate change is a current phenomenon rather than a future prospect, he said, and warned that such recent climate extremes are likely to get much worse. He has proposed that meteorologists create a new Category 6 for hurricanes that exceed even the strongest currently on record.
Danielle Kreeger, science director with Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, said Schwartz’s inclusion in the program was consistent with some past summits that have included non-scientists such as elected officials or motivational authors.
Climate change: The local impact
“Along with talks on how climate is changing locally, effects on key natural resources, and how we adapt, we thought it would be appropriate to also discuss how climate change affects local weather,” she said. We’re delighted that DRBC was able to get Glenn to touch on his deep experience in reporting and translating climate-weather pattern changes.”
The interstate water regulator launched the 18-member climate-change committee in December 2019. The panel is headed by Howard Neukrug of the University of Pennsylvania’s Water Center, and former head of the Philadelphia Water Department.
Nick Procopio, a member of the DRBC panel who is also head of the division of science and research at New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, said Schwartz’s increasing focus on climate rather than just weather shows an increased public demand to understand the science of climate change.
To make climate science clear to non-specialists, he called for “language that is consumable by the public and yet retains enough of its technical nature that it conveys the necessary details.”
The evolving science of climate change makes it hard stay current, and hard to translate to the public, Procopio said.
Getting accurate information
Accurate and balanced climate information is more likely to come from a unified government source such as the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or in the case of state governments, from an interagency source, than from media outlets that currently supply most people’s information on the issue, he said.
A crucial point to get across to the public, Procopio said, is that the evolution of climate-change science doesn’t mean it’s changing its basic facts but that it is adapting to additional information.
“How do we spread the message in a way that the lay person is going to be able to understand it, embrace it, trust it, and remove some of the emotional context that comes along with what climate change really means long-term”? he said.
At the Jersey Shore, where sea level will rise by up to 2 feet by 2050, according to the latest Rutgers/DEP forecast, continued development has prompted some lawmakers and state officials to conclude that some sections of the public don’t understand the realities of climate change or have chosen to ignore them.
In 2019, the Princeton-based research group Climate Central reported that the development of coastal flood-prone areas in New Jersey since 2009 was three times greater than that in safer areas. It said the increase was probably the result of rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
DEP officials are nearing completion of land-use regulations that are expected to put new requirements on people who want to build houses in flood-prone areas of the Shore or inland, but will not dictate where development can and cannot occur, the DEP’s Acting Commissioner, Shawn LaTourette, has said.
Bill Brady, vice president for corporate environmental strategy at the power generator Exelon, and another member of the DRBC panel, said the company also tries to communicate climate science clearly to its customers and investors to help them understand business decisions such as where to build infrastructure.
Climate change will mean, for example, increased demand for cooling power because of higher summer temperatures, as well as a transition to more renewable fuels as the country pursues cuts in carbon emissions, Brady said.
“If I’m going to invest in an electrical substation, what elevation should I build it at so that it doesn’t flood?” he said. “Having confidence in the science and being able to communicate it effectively, are very important as we move forward.”