Change Agent: Meet Greg Czarnecki, a man on a mission to impact climate change, one Pennsylvanian at a time

By Karen Hendricks

Greg Czarnecki / Photo by Dani Fresh

If there’s a face, or voice, of climate change awareness in Pennsylvania, it might be Greg Czarnecki’s.

As climate change and research coordinator for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), he’s the only person dedicating his entire focus to climate change at a Pennsylvania state agency.

For more than five years, he’s been crisscrossing the state, giving about 60 presentations annually, about the impacts of climate change on the Keystone State. His audiences include nonprofits, businesses, colleges and state agencies. That’s more than 300 speaking engagements about climate change, and counting.

But last summer, there were three that stood out as perhaps more vital than all the others.

“They were definitely my youngest audiences, and it’s really important for two reasons,” said Czarnecki. “Number one—they’re the ones that are going to suffer the brunt of what we’ve done and are still doing to the earth. And number two—they’re the ones that are going to be saddled with solutions, especially adapting to climate change.”

He’s talking about the next generation of Pennsylvania’s climate change agents.

Natural Leaders

About 100 teens—nominated by their teachers as outstanding students destined to become the next generation of park rangers, biologists and researchers—gathered for three separate weeks of intense summer study. Camps, organized by the nonprofit Wildlife Leadership Academy (WLA), deep in the woods of Centre County’s Krislund Camp and Conference Center, nearly pinpointed Pennsylvania’s geographic center.

And on Aug. 2, within one of those camps, Czarnecki’s presentation got to the heart of climate change issues in the commonwealth.

Czarnecki, 63, a 33-year veteran of the environmental field, began by explaining the greenhouse effect—the science that explains why the earth’s climate is changing.

“Sunlight travels through our atmosphere, to earth—and think of our atmosphere as a blanket, an insulating blanket that holds in some of that heat,” Czarnecki said, his PowerPoint graphic illustrating the process. “Greenhouse gases—think of them as the fiber in the blanket. We’ve nearly doubled the normal amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

That carbon dioxide, the end result of burning fossil fuel—coal, oil and natural gas—has increased dramatically since the start of the Industrial Revolution about 200 years ago.

“Last summer, for the first time ever inside the Arctic Circle, it was over 100 degrees,” Czarnecki said, explaining rising temperatures associated with climate change. “My hometown is Erie, and the Great Lakes aren’t icing over like they used to. Warmer temperatures mean more lake effect snow. Last year, lake effect snow made it all the way to the Chesapeake Bay, which never used to happen.”

As the climate changes, affecting weather, nature too is shifting, impacting wildlife, habitats, agriculture, human and animal food supplies, human health and the economy.

“How are species going to respond? There are three responses,” Czarnecki explained to the teenage audience. “They either adapt, move or disappear. DCNR has studied about 150 species across the state to assess how they’ll do under climate change.”

There were times, throughout the presentation, when you could have heard a pin drop. That’s because the teens were rapt, processing, engaging and asking questions. They seemed to have both a sense of wonder and worry.

“For that reason, I try to be a bit more upbeat with younger audiences,” Czarnecki said later, “because I get a real sense they’re really worried—almost scared. One of the kids afterwards said, ‘Should we be planning to leave the planet—is that the solution?’ No, absolutely not— there are solutions—but that showed me the level of concern.”

2-Pronged Approach

The way forward, outlined in Pennsylvania’s Climate Change Plan, includes two strategies. The first, adaptation, identifies ways of coping with climate change’s direct and indirect impacts. Mitigation, however, seeks strategies for reducing greenhouse gases.

“We have to do both,” Czarnecki said.

Within the sprawling 2.5-million-acre network of state parks and forests is one form of adaptation. Countless culverts—pipes channeling stormwater—are being redesigned to withstand intense flooding, the kind Pennsylvania used to experience every 50 to 100 years. Under climate change, flooding frequency is increasing. Previously, culverts were created to withstand 25-year floods.

That’s just one adaptation strategy. But the students, like the vast majority of Czarnecki’s audiences, have a more personal, burning question.

“What can you do to help deal with climate change?” asked Czarnecki—and it brought a shift in energy to the room.

The entire hour, it felt like Czarnecki was briefing the high schoolers, preparing them for the passing of Pennsylvania’s environmental baton—and with it, the continuation of climate change research. But it’s not just a race for research and solutions. He’s in the midst of a marathon mission to change human habits.

Ripple Effects

“It’s a mindset—think about everything you do,” Czarnecki said. “Number one, reduce your carbon footprint—walk or bike.”

His message is that individual, daily decisions form habits that, collectively, can make a difference.

“I’m trying to change my habits. I feel like my family and I are conscious of climate change,” said 16-year-old Mia Carado of Linglestown, a Central Dauphin High School junior who not only attended WLA, but calls it “one of the most impactful weeks of my life.”

She’s implemented many of Czarnecki’s climate change-fighting strategies related to daily meals.

“I pack my lunches in reusable containers, and I reuse metal straws instead of plastic,” Carado said. “Our neighbors have a compost bin, and we add our food scraps. My family and I—we try to eat as organic and clean as possible. We don’t want to contribute to pesticide runoff in area creeks.”

Waterways are always running through her mind.

“I’m hoping to become a wildlife biologist,” Carado said. “I really enjoy creek-side studies and macroinvertebrates like crayfish, water pennies and mayflies, because the cool thing about macroinvertebrates is that they can tell you about the quality of the water.”

She especially perked up when Czarnecki mentioned that climate change’s warmer temperatures favor invasive species, including those invading warming waterways.

“I don’t want to see any animals going extinct, because all wildlife is in a delicate balance,” said Carado, who hopes to study environmental science at Washington College in Chestertown, Md.

While climate change was a small component of WLA’s enriching weeklong curriculum, organizers say it was one of the most critical.

“For me, as a director, I feel it’s a current topic kids are going to have to deal with now, and into the future—and we want to be part of that conversation,” said Michele Kittell Connolly, WLA’s executive director of 10 years. “The students are always asking questions—exceptional questions—and this conversation about climate change is something we’re grappling with as a society. Our hope is that we’re educating and empowering the next generation … to think, through science.”

Make a Change

The following are ways you can lessen climate change impacts:

  • Reduce your carbon footprint by walking or biking.
  • Consider a hybrid or electric vehicle.
  • Choose an electric provider powered by wind-generated power.
  • Evaluate your diet and consider becoming a flexitarian (integrating meatless meals).
  • Choose locally grown foods that have a lower carbon footprint.

This is the first story in a six-part, Pennsylvania-focused climate change series by freelance writer Karen Hendricks, which will publish every-other month throughout 2023, in TheBurg, Harrisburg. This first story published in the January 2023 issue.

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