June 30, 2017 – By Mark Dixon
When President Trump announced that he represented “the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” while declaring his withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, he sparked outrage from the global community and strong words from Pittsburgh’s Mayor Bill Peduto. Peduto’s position of strong support for the Paris Agreement was echoed by 23 regional elected officials in the form of a full-page ad taken out in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, declaring, “President Trump, you are not ‘representing’ Pittsburgh… by stalling action to solve climate change by abandoning the Paris Climate Agreement.” Global media reveled in the moment, as did our political leaders, but a critical question remains: are our region’s leaders willing to make the tough decisions necessary to actually support the goals of Paris Climate Agreement? Let’s take a look…
Much of the Pittsburgh region’s economic history has been deeply tied to fossil fuels. The land was flush with coal, natural gas, and oil resources that enabled Pittsburghers to churn out mountains of iron, steel, glass, and other products essential to the industrial revolution. This production, however, came at a cost of intolerable pollution, and so local leadership developed and executed plans to clean up and revitalize this smoky city — slowly weaning our economic livelihood off of fossil-fueled industries.
Over the last decade, however, the petrochemical wealth of our region has re-emerged with new vigor due to fracking technology. Building on that production boom, local politicians have recently celebrated the construction of a “world-class” Shell petrochemical facility that will turn some of that gas into plastic and other byproducts — once again investing in our people’s pollutability instead of our innovative spirit and brainpower. The plant will also generate new CO2 emissions equivalent to about 200,000 homes, not to mention volatile organic compounds exceeding those emitted by Clairton Coke Works. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald (listed on the aforementioned climate advertisement) called the news of the new plant “thrilling.” Senator Jay Costa (also listed on the advertisement) called the facility “an excellent step forward.” While it is certainly rhetorically possible to support both the fracking/petrochemical industry and bold climate action, my research into climate change tells me that the two positions tend to work against each other.
I attended the Paris Climate Summit in December 2015, and emerged with a somber sense of the challenges facing civilization. The dramatic final days of the Summit featured a flurry of meetings among scientists, citizens, and governments struggling with the monumental scale of decarbonization necessary to “limit the temperature increase to 1.5° C.”
More recently, Christiana Figueres (a critical shepherd of the Paris Agreement) and a host of notable colleagues revealed an ambitious global plan to “bend the greenhouse-gas emissions curve downwards by 2020,” entitled “Mission 2020.” Figueres et al. set a global CO2 emissions “budget” of 150-1050 gigatonnes, after which we will likely exceed 2° C. With current emissions of 41 gigatonnes/year, it is clear that our time to shift to a renewable economy is extremely short. Any city, state, or nation that bets their economic future on fossil fuel infrastructure is asking for economic and moral trouble down the road. We can and must create cleaner and more reliable jobs in other ways.
The first thing we must do is decouple our economic well-being from all fossil fuels. As noted by Upton Sinclair, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” We cannot become leaders in a global, renewable, regenerative economy if our region’s livelihood is dependent upon industries like fracking and petrochemical manufacturing. We must not only work to develop clean energy jobs, but also actively and publicly discourage the development of dirty ones. We should electrify our transportation and factories, then modernize and decarbonize the grid. Once we add a healthy dose of energy conservation and green chemistry by looking to nature for creative and system-changing product ideas (biomimicry), I believe that most of the cultural and technical obstacles to a clean and green future will fall away. We will no longer need to put up with “sacrifice zones” filled with personal environmental justice tragedies caused by polluted air, water, and soil. The benefits are there for the taking, and all we have to do is actively choose them. Insist that your political leaders support the Paris agreement, NOT the petrochemical industry. We can’t have both.
(Please see Paul Hawken’s book, Drawdown, for additional insight into rapid global economic decarbonization.)
Mark Dixon is an award-winning filmmaker, activist, and public speaker exploring the frontiers of social change on a finite planet.