On November 8, PICA gathered three local experts for our 2023 Fall Conference, entitled “The Costs of Climate Change: How Philadelphia Can Prepare.” The two-hour conference featured presentations from Dr. Franco Montalto, Professor of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at Drexel University, Abby Sullivan, Acting Chief Resilience Officer from the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability, and Stephen P. Mullin, Principal at Econsult Solutions. Here’s a recap of what we heard.

Dr. Montalto shared research demonstrating that the Philadelphia region is projected to get warmer and wetter, with mean temperatures rising, sea and river levels rising leading to compound flooding (coastal and inland), a greater number of extreme event days, and more frequent drought and flood periods. Because Philadelphia sits at the bottom of two watersheds, it is especially vulnerable to storms and flooding from surrounding regions. Experts expect problems related to urban heat islands, access to safe drinking water, regular nuisance flooding, and major flooding like the city saw after Hurricane Ida to become more frequent and widespread. Some areas of the city will bear the burden more heavily than others, particularly those located in coastal floodplains. Similarly, communities of color and indigenous populations, low-income Philadelphians, and the young and elderly are expected to be disproportionately impacted by these climate changes due to their greater exposure, greater susceptibility to damages, and lesser access to resources to cope with environmental obstacles.

The challenges that will be brought on by climate change will pose budgeting challenges and affect nearly every City department, including:

  • The Water Department may have trouble complying with water quality regulations, repairing assets and infrastructure that are vulnerable to flooding, and maintaining drainage capacity.
  • The Department of Public Health will be at the forefront of combatting health challenges brought on by excessive heat, poor air quality, mold and bacteria, and vector-borne diseases that thrive in warmer weather.
  • The Office of Emergency Management and Fire Department will be called on more frequently for climate-related emergencies, exposing staff to environmental hazards, health and safety risks, and exacerbating employee burnout.

Acting Chief Resilience Officer Abby Sullivan highlighted other specific risks, such as recent commercial and industrial development in flood-prone areas, like the Navy Yard and Hilco’s Bellwether District. She also shared the ways that the City of Philadelphia is already working to address these climate challenges. The City of Philadelphia has implemented cross-cutting initiatives that involve multiple departments to tackle climate challenges, like the Flood Resilience Program and the Excessive Heat Steering Committee. It is also beginning a process of Citywide resilience planning aimed at integrating inclusive public engagement, climate science, and resources for coordination and strategy development.

While work is underway, Ms. Sullivan explained that addressing the full scope of the issue would require more resources. She shared a study from the Center for Climate Integrity that estimates Philadelphia needs to spend $3.3 billion by 2040 (or $190 million per year) on infrastructure to adapt to climate change. For comparison, the entire new borrowing for all new General Obligation capital investments was $214 million for FY24.

Mr. Mullin raised several questions about the intersection of local government funding for resilience and Philadelphia’s fiscal condition. He highlighted that shifts to increase funding in one section of the budget (say, for climate resiliency) can require reductions elsewhere in the budget; and that the same communities of color and vulnerable populations most at risk from climate change could be harmed by reductions in other services and programs. Mr. Mullin also explored the question of who should bear the burden of these costs and when, noting that FEMA or other federal agencies can be expected to cover costs associated with disasters in the foreseeable future. That relative certainty paired with uncertainty about what specific threats Philadelphia may face in the short-term will need to be considered when allocating scarce resources.

Our panelists gave several suggestions for the City moving forward, including creating a dedicated funding source for resilience projects, funds for matching federal grants, and the creation of a Climate Resilience Research Agenda and Climate Resilience Advisory Panel, as other cities have done. The City could also leverage local institutions of higher education to create an independent advisory body that can use scientific information to inform policy and map social vulnerability to climate risks.

The session made clear that Philadelphia’s finances are already being impacted by climate change and this isn’t expected to change. Philadelphia must have a thoughtful approach to climate resilience spending within the context of its overall resources and competing needs. By allocating resources wisely, Philadelphia should seek protection against the immediate threats of climate change, such as flooding and extreme weather events, and invest in infrastructure that fosters economic growth and social well-being without sacrificing other key investments to address community needs. Striking this balance not only safeguards against environmental hazards but also supports a sustainable and thriving urban environment for the benefit of current and future generations.