Mind the Climate Gap

As I engage government officials and scientists in discussions about climate change, I frequently encounter a gap between what politicians say is possible and what scientists say is necessary to address the issue. Try as we might to bridge that gap with economic, political, and social innovations around the world, our global climate continues to grow unstable as CO2 concentrations rise to dangerous and unprecedented levels. Push too hard on the politicians for climate action, and they call you unrealistic. Push too hard on our natural systems and climate scientists call you unrealistic (and inviting catastrophe). How can a moral, rational person meaningfully navigate these two seemingly irreconcilable positions? I suggest that we “mind the climate gap.”

Minding the climate gap involves a very simple process that aims to enable communities to set politically reasonable climate policy goals while simultaneously articulating the “gap” between those feasible political goals and the scientifically necessary goals. Once the gap is clear, the community’s resources can be galvanized to address them. Here are the essential steps in this process:

  1. What is possible? Adopt the strongest climate policy goals that the community is willing to support.
  2. What is necessary? Determine, in proportion to each community’s ability and responsibility, how much stronger those goals would need to be to achieve what scientists determine is necessary.
  3. What’s the gap? Explicitly articulate the differences between the policies that are deemed possible vs. those that are deemed scientifically necessary.
  4. Eliminate the gap! Focus the attention of the community not only onto the established political goals (from step 1), but also onto the necessary goals (from step 2) and the gap between the two (from step 3). Promote the list of differences as a challenge to students, educators, and social/business entrepreneurs. Celebrate those who attempt and tackle the challenges, and gradually work to eliminate all differences between what is possible and what is necessary by focusing the creative genius of the entire community on this monumental but inspiring challenge.
  5.  Share what works. Collaborate with communities around the world who are similarly challenged by gaps between what is politically feasible and what is necessary, and share ideas about what does and does not work.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. If we don’t mind and mend the gap between what is possible and what is necessary, somebody will have to make up for our slack or we will simply fail in our endeavors to meaningfully address climate change. Both of these outcomes are morally untenable, but with this simple “mind the climate gap” model we can meaningfully build a plan that has the potential to inspire the full spectrum of policy makers, activists, businesspeople, and average citizens to work together towards a common goal of meaningful climate action.

Comments on the Pittsburgh Climate Action Plan 3.0

Pittsburgh is taking comments on their DRAFT Climate Action Plan 3.0 through Friday (tomorrow, 10/6/17). You may submit your own comments on the DRAFT Plan (link) via e-mail to climate@pittsburghpa.gov.

I’m sharing my comments publicly below to spark dialogue. While I feel the what IS shown is a reasonable start, it stops short of sufficiently bending the CO2 emissions curve for our city to meaningfully address the climate crisis. Significantly more action is required.

  1. As a city, we need to “mind the gap” between our anticipated carbon emissions reductions and what the science calls for to reach at most 1.5C above pre-industrial levels (per COP21 Paris Climate Agreement). If all cities and nations accomplished the goals that we have set for ourselves, what would be the net result? If the result is insufficient, who do we expect to fill that gap for us OR what plan can we put in place to address this gap? This is the essential question for the entire plan. It is foolish to create a plan that explicitly has no chance of accomplishing a given goal unless part of the plan seeks remedy of that problem. Consider reviewing the following website to get a better idea of what our climate would like like if all other nations were held to our goals: http://climateactiontracker.org/countries/usa.html

  2. Carbon sequestration is essential to a successful climate plan. More emphasis should be placed on endeavors to sequester CO2 via investments in technology, universities, land use, etc.

  3. Refugees will become common in a climate-changed world. How can Pittsburgh prepare to support global climate refugee populations in the coming decades?

  4. Our region cannot support a petrochemical industry expansion if we expect to realize our climate goals. The Shell Ethane Cracker alone may well emit as much CO2 as ⅓ of all sources in the City of Pittsburgh, and more crackers are under active consideration, let alone additional polluting support facilities. Pittsburgh leadership must take a public stand against the Shell Ethane Cracker and related petrochemical industry build-out if their commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement is to be taken seriously. Read more about the connection between the Shell Cracker and climate change in this piece that I wrote: https://nopetropa.wordpress.com/2017/08/14/climate-change-the-beaver-shell-petrochemical-plant/ . Part of stopping the petrochemical build-out must include a ban on fracking state-wide, then nation-wide. Any conversation about climate change that assumes the Shell Cracker must inevitably be constructed is inherently unproductive.

  5. I really like how the plan connects air quality to climate change. Since the vast majority of our air quality problems relate to fossil fuels, if we remove the fossil fuels we win on BOTH climate change AND air quality.

  6. The CO2e of methane is inconsistent between statements on pages 18 and 29. I prefer to use the higher estimate.

  7. Do not use industry estimates for methane/natural gas leakage, as those estimates are very likely much lower than other research indicates. Consider this report: http://co2scorecard.org/home/researchitem/28

  8. We should consider whether it is worthwhile to replace all the gas lines instead of just turning them all off and moving our entire city to electronic heating and cooling. Then we can move the grid to renewable power and be done with related CO2 emissions.

  9. Pittsburgh’s district energy plan must be able to convert to 100% renewable sources immediately after construction. Otherwise that investment may be orphaned when we realize how few CO2e emissions we may put into the atmosphere and still expect to achieve the Paris Climate Agreement terms.

  10. I did not see any explicit support for electric bicycles. That would be a welcome addition, as it makes biking accessible to a wider range of people over a broader geographical area.

  11. Any conversions to natural gas are foolish when we must move immediately over to full electrification of most industrial engines and processes (particularly relates to boats, p65)

  12. It would be helpful if there was more effort put towards integrating the section on the circular economy into classrooms, policy, and communities.


Update 11/29/17 – I just got out of a public hearing held by the Pittsburgh City Council regarding their Climate Action Plan 3.0. There was a great crowd in attendance and several dozen comments shared by the public. I have summarized some of the key points I feel are worth sharing below. Feel free to add your own in comments…

  • MANY comments touched on themes of needing more concrete implementation steps in the plan, along with additional budget and staff formally allocated to support that implementation.
  • MANY people talked about the Shell Cracker and how the climate goals in the plan were not compatible with the petrochemical build-out underway throughout the SWPA and Ohio/PA/WV region.
  • MANY people talked emotionally about the horrible air quality in Pittsburgh and how they viewed the climate plan as a pathway to address some of these issues.
  • Additional comments touched on these valuable issues:
    • Addressing inequality in a transition to a low carbon economy
    • Increasing the attractiveness of the city for bicyclists and increasing the goals for bicycle commuting.
    • Consider measuring “energy productivity” measured as the economic output per unit of CO2 emissions.
    • Seek transparency in the process.
Photo by Mark Dixon, Blue Lens, LLC via Flickr

Defining a Win for Climate Change

At the end of Al Gore’s recent climate change film, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, he calls for the audience to fight [for climate action] like your world depends on it. I appreciate the encouragement, and the film was beautifully crafted, but the fight is ill-defined. Despite decades of political struggle and mass demonstrations, the climate movement has overlooked the necessary task of clearly defining what it means to actually “win.” We have substituted comfort for clarity, and it could cost us the world if we don’t change course.

Truth to Power skillfully winds its way through global climate disaster stories, dances through the struggles of herding cat-like nations towards signing the relatively weak but important Paris Climate Agreement, then dumps you by the curb of Trump’s announcement that he will withdraw the U.S. from it. Ten years into my own environmentalism, I have seen that this kind of bad news can disappoint veteran climate advocates, and believe it may well cause new activists and skeptics alike to declare “game over” without having properly defined what the “game” is! The global community generally agrees that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions with some urgency, but how will we know if and when the climate fight is won? To answer this question, we need to know what victory really means.

The widely acclaimed Paris Climate Agreement made a valiant attempt at clarifying our collective climate goals, but it introduces more questions than it answers. In order to attain the broadest level of participation, it carefully avoided specificity. It declares a non-binding intention to keep warming “well below 2° C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5° C.” But when exactly is pre-industrial? 1700’s? 1800’s? And is 1.5-2° C even a worthwhile goal? Renowned climatologist James Hansen’s research suggests that 1° C is a more appropriate target. And when negotiating commitments to reach these poorly justified targets, politicians often ask scientists to develop models that achieve those targets with 50% or 66% probability of success, but why not press for near 100%? (I certainly would not want to fly in an airplane rated with a “66% chance of not crashing.”) Furthermore, virtually all plans to “win” at climate change do so by pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere using technologies untested at scale. Should we bet on such “carbon sequestration” or rely on the more grounded options carefully examined in Paul Hawken’s book, Drawdown? The answers to these questions lay the groundwork for getting to the really tough part: who pays for it? There is more than enough money in the world to make a profound dent in the climate crisis, but it is not being sufficiently deployed for lack of “return on investment.” Is this how we want civilization to end? I certainly don’t, but what can we do about it?

My answer is simple and challenging: (1.) Clarify the questions above, then (2.) use those answers to set uncompromising CO2 emissions/sequestration goals for local, regional, and international governments and institutions, and (3.) if/when cultural, economic, and technological barriers prevent the accomplishment of those goals, highlight and track where reality falls short of the goals (i.e. “mind the gap”). Finally, (4.) support local and global collaboration to creatively address the list of gap challenges.

Al Gore has spent much of his life educating and activating tens of thousands of climate advocates, myself included. The Paris Climate Agreement spurred millions around the globe to seriously consider how their cities, states, nations, and businesses could take climate action to the next level. An Inconvenient Sequel beautifully tells these stories and so much more, setting the stage for the climate movement to grapple with the potent questions that will define the lives of generations to come. Once we define victory, we can pursue it relentlessly, marching forward with the effectiveness and purpose that our descendants deserve.

Climate Victory Plan – Worth Reading

I’ve been following The Climate Mobilization organization for a couple years now, and have been pleased to see them rally around a “wartime mobilization” platform to address climate change in a timeframe that I feel is the most ambitious and most meaningful of any plan I’ve ever seen. I still have yet to dig into the details, but the bullet points look very good and I encourage any climate-caring citizen to familiarize yourself with the plan and share it widely. They’re looking for feedback, too, so definitely send them your comments! Here’s the link: http://www.theclimatemobilization.org/victory_plan

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COP21 Paris Agreement Signed Today

Dear COP21 Journey Supporters,

Just a few short months after the COP21 event in December, and coinciding with Earth Day, world leaders gathered today at United Nations HQ in New York City to sign what is being called the “Paris Climate Agreement.” The details of the signing and ratification process are complicated, so I’ll just say that it is likely that it will be signed and ratified by enough nations to come into effect, though I’m not sure when.

The USA Today reports these details:

Friday’s signing sets a record for the number of countries signing an agreement on the first available day, the Associated Press reported. The old record goes back to the Law of the Sea in Montego Bay, which was signed by 119 countries in 1982, according toAccuWeather.

Signing the accord is only one step in the process. The leaders must now go back to their home countries’ governments to ratify and approve the agreement, which could take months or years. The deal goes into effect once 55 countries representing at least 55% of global emissions formally join.

I am not in a celebratory mood on this occasion. Just since December we have seen the global heat record get “smashed,” as noted by Jeff Masters and Bob Henson at the Weather Underground here. The annual mean growth rate of CO2 in the atmosphere also hit a record high in 2015, with 3.05ppm.

GISTemp March 16 only
Global mean temperature anomaly. Courtesy of HotWhopper.com.

The Paris Agreement will be useful IF and ONLY if it triggers massive global action AND we do not use it as cover to grow complacent in our local, regional, and global efforts to combat climate change. I believe, as Bernie Sanders has mentioned and as championed by the Climate Mobilization, that a wartime-scale mobilization to address the climate crisis is our only option. Hillary Clinton still supports burning natural gas as part of a broad energy transition (which I view as a non-starter), and Republican presidential candidates are barely worth mentioning on this front (though Kasich does at least believe it exists).

One of my most trusted climate news aggregator sites, CarbonBrief.org, highlighted these two articles today that I feel are particularly important to consider on this day:

logo-flipboardAnd don’t forget that I keep a curated breadcrumb trail of climate articles I find noteworthy in Mark’s Climate Mag(azine) via Flipboard. Subscribe to this ever-updated collection of articles (662 articles so far!) that I think might be interesting to those who follow my climate work. Great for mobile devices, too. Beautifully formatted on the Flipboard platform.

While not an occasion for a victory dance, today is an important day in climate history. I encourage you to use it as an opportunity to redouble your own carbon reduction efforts at home and in your community. Gather yourself, then step outside of your comfort zone. Nothing less will preserve a livable planet for future generations.

Best Presentation Slide Guide Ever

People often say nice things about my Power Point (actually Apple Keynote) slides, and I appreciate the encouragement! I’d like to share my secret sauce: a little book that I received during my training with Al Gore’s Climate Project. I can’t recommend it enough: Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes. You can now download the book for free at http://www.thegoodmancenter.com/resources/



My Post-COP21 Lecture is now on YouTube

At long last, I am pleased to share my post-COP21 lecture with you on YouTube.

Watch Mark’s full post-COP21 climate presentation here:

Presentation slides HERE.

Mark’s COP21 photos are available for use via the Creative Commons with Attribution license. Browse through them here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/9602574@N02/sets/72157660828567724

I’ve trimmed it down a bit for the sake of your time, but it is quite comprehensive and covers multiple dimensions around COP21, complete with loads of photos, not to mention videos of the protests and COP21 grounds and booths, and even a brief snippet from noted scientist Kevin Anderson. You can find the slides for the lecture HERE. E-mail me if you’d like a version that contains the notes with the slides: mark [at] yert [dot] com.


P.S. If you missed my PRE-COP21 presentation, which takes an extensive look at the latest climate science and plans for emissions reductions, you can catch that here: youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_PoMZKZsaY&w

TONIGHT: Mark presents on COP21 at Sustainable Monroeville

TONIGHT! I’ll be giving another COP21 climate change presentation, this time at Sustainable Monroeville. Please share the news and come on by for some hearty climate conversation: http://sustainablemonroeville.blogspot.com/2016/01/you-are-invited-filmmaker-mark-dixon-on.html

Here’s a re-post of the full event listing:

You Are Invited: Filmmaker Mark Dixon on COP 21 Paris Adventures! Monday, February 1, 2016 at 7:00 PM in the Monroeville Public Library

Join us on Monday, February 1, 2016 at 7:00 PM at the Monroeville Public Library to hear Mark Dixon on his trip to Paris for COP 21 A FIRST HAND ACCOUNT OF THE COP21 CLIMATE CHANGE SUMMIT
Mark Dixon, known throughout the region for his dedication to more sustainable solutions to our ecological and climate crisis, will be offering his impressions and experiences of the COP21 Climate Change Summit in Paris in December. Mark’s trip to Paris as a representative of western Pennsylvania was funded by members of the Pittsburgh ecological community. Before he left, he spoke to many groups including FUMC about the issues and dynamics that would be at play at the Summit. Now, after having attended the summit as a reporter and an observer, he will be sharing his impressions and insights to our church and the wider Pittsburgh community. This is a bit of planetary history that is crucial to every one of us. Here is your chance to get a first-hand account of an international history making event. 
Watch Mark’s presentation leading up to the summit: https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/…
Mark’s blog. Scroll down for a 10 minute video summary of the summit:
We’ll also hear about an upcoming Hard To Recycle Event in the springtime in Monroeville, PA and the agenda for the rest of the Sustainable Monroeville meetings in 2016.
Looking forward to seeing everyone on Monday evening & Many Blessings for all of us on this magical spaceship planet Earth!
Elisa Beck 🙂
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