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A Climate of Conversation: Perspectives on Climate Change and Clean Energy

by Larry J. Schweiger

I recently attended the “Energy Evolution: 2017 Pittsburgh Energy Forum Series” held at the Heinz History Center. This panel discussion was sponsored and presented by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Peoples Gas Company. I have been impressed by Morgan O’Brian, Peoples' president and CEO, as this particular gas company is seeking to have an honest dialogue about climate change and clean energy. I was also pleased that David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, moderated a revealing discussion called: “A Climate of Conversation: Perspectives on Climate Change and Clean Energy."

The size of the public turnout was impressive and very encouraging. The conference center of the History Center was full, and the audience actively engaged with appropriate questions. Highlighting the panel was Michael Mann, Penn State University’s distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science Center, whose now famous hockey stick warned of the impending non-linear climate change confronting the world. I was very pleased when Michael recently joined the board of directors of PennFuture as his knowledge and leadership will be invaluable to our cause. 

The underlying issue of the evening circled around the unstated question: in the face of a non-linear climate crisis, what does sustainability really look like?

This was an evening with divergent perspectives on the matter for sure. On one hand, Michael painted a scientifically-sound picture of the stark realities of climate change, complete with the assertion that we need an aggressive clean energy program capable of cutting carbon emissions dramatically to avoid catastrophic climate change. 

(On this point, the highly-regarded accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers has been doing audits to measure progress. For the past several years, PWC has been running the numbers on climate change, and in 2014, warned that we're 20 years away from catastrophe, making it clear that we need to cut global emissions by 6.2 percent to avoid the dreaded tipping point of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.) 

On the other hand, the solutions were thin to non-existent. The stark contrast between the alarming threat of fast-approaching climate disruption and the profound lack of action could not be starker. While claiming to be a green city, Pittsburgh has failed to deploy truly clean energy. Apart from a handful of corporate leaders like Levin Furniture, PittOhio, PNC Bank, and scattered pioneers like Phipps Conservatory, the community of Millvale, and a few private solar powered homes in the city, we are lagging far behind what we need to be doing to avoid climate calamity. The black and gold city needs to be installing clean energy and cutting its carbon emissions by 6.2 percent per year and not just talking about being a green city.

I was particularly troubled by what one of the panelists, Ron Gdovic, CEO of WindStax Wind Power Systems, said about the solar industry. His lack of knowledge about concentrated solar and battery options were concerning. For reasons that escaped me, Gdovic took a shot at the solar industry, that has been experiencing massive growth around the world, but not in Pittsburgh and certainly not on Wall Street. In the clean energy mix of the future, there is room for solar, wind and for WindStax. The clean energy community needs to be united and not divisive. The fossil fuel industry would love to divide and conquer. Fortunately, the discussion turned back to Michael to conclude with his assessment of the future.

Whether we listened or not, Michael warned that there is much more change coming our way as we overrun numerous planetary boundaries. As Michael suggested, the Arctic deterioration is happening many years earlier than the IPCC scientists predicted, and sea-level predictions have been revised upward from the latest IPCC report. 

(The Arctic is in massive positive feedback mode as the tundra is a net carbon producer now. The once frozen methane clathrates are releasing their potent greenhouse gases and the open waters of the Arctic are absorbing energy and feeding heat-trapping cloud formation. As the oceans warm, thermal expansion swells sea-level predictions. Greenland lost one trillion tons of ice in the past four years, and Antarctica is readying to shed an ice sheet the size of Delaware.)

Much remains to be done in Western Pennsylvania, but this was a good start to daylight the extraordinarily challenging days ahead. We need to listen to our top scientists like Michael Mann. 

I hope this gathering can be a turning point. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette needs to dig deeper into the climate crisis to help its readers understand the enormous threat we face, and journalists must be unleashed to investigate the over-investments in the gas infrastructure by politicians. 

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