The One with Al Gore

October Great Story by Chelsea Marcell, 2017-18 Bay Area Climate Fellow

This past month I had the opportunity to join Al Gore’s Climate Reality Corps Training in Pittsburgh, PA. I joined 1,400 individuals from all over the world with the shared passion and goal of solving the climate crisis and making our world a more resilient, healthier, and safer place.

During this three day conference, I learned amongst a diverse network of change-makers ranging from renowned scientists, politicians, and climate activists – and most notably the former Vice President, Al Gore. Initially, I thought the setting of Pittsburgh was somewhat random (and pretty inconvenient since I’m placed in Fremont, CA) but as the conference commenced I soon learned the significance of Pittsburgh and how it serves as a beacon of hope for environmental success.

A major takeaway I want start off with is privilege. Acknowledging the privilege I have attending this event (and even offsetting my air travel) along with the long list of other examples of privilege I have in my life is one small step in the process of communicating climate action. One overwhelming privilege I took away from being in Pittsburgh is that I don’t live or work in an area that’s heavily polluted/funded/reliant/dependent on the fossil fuel industry. Hearing from local Pittsburghers who grew up in these mining towns, whose parents and neighbors were miners, and how they started to face down an industry that poisoned but also employed their community made me truly acknowledge the variety of backgrounds we come from and how that heavily effects our decisions.

No one will make any progress in engaging people and urging them to make choices that, in their eyes, compromise their ability to put food on the table without putting the effort into learning who they are. From both my CivicSpark and Reality training environmental justice has been a focal point, stating that without hearing from and advocating for the most marginalized and most vulnerable, how are we actually helping to serve? The Pittsburgh local leaders further proved that point of in order to advocate for these populations, we need to have them be part of the conversation – they know what the biggest needs are in their communities, and we need to pass the mic to let them be heard. This message has resonated with me for my work in Fremont and beyond.

The narrative of Pittsburgh transitioning from a dirty fossil fuel economy to championing solar renewable energy was not only insightful, but inspirational. With over 10 billion tons of coal mined in Pennsylvania to now upholding the Paris Agreement and committing to reduce emissions 20% by 2023, and to rely on 100% renewable electricity by 2035, Pittsburgh is a story of “if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.”

There is an incredible acknowledgement of Pittsburghers (who are especially proud of their mining roots) for embracing renewable energy and moving towards a resilient and sustainable economy, in order to address the negative environmental and health impacts the fossil fuel industry has caused for their families and the world. Being the eighth-worst city in the country for year-round fine particle pollution with alarming rates of pediatric and adult asthma, as well as lung cancer, according to the American Lung Association’s 2017 Annual State of the Air report, Pittsburgh experiences the negative health implications daily from the fossil fuel fabric that placed Pittsburgh on the map and fueled their economy for generations. This philosophy was not always widely shared, but thankfully it is now. This is largely attributed to individuals fostering these once thought impossible conversations to shift attitudes and encourage behavioral change, which is now reflected all the way up to their Mayor.

Mayor Peduto shares and embraces this call to action stating, “The United States joins Syria, Nicaragua, & Russia in deciding not to participate with world’s Paris Agreement. It’s now up to cities to lead,” championing Pittsburgh’s progressive efforts towards climate action.

Hearing this directly from Mayor Peduto during the welcoming remarks was a powerful opener and reminder of our individual call to action of doing not just what is best for ourselves but for our families, neighbors, cities, the environment, the economy, and the health of the world.

This might seem like a no-brainer to me, fellow CivicSparkers, attendees of the conference; the answer I wanted to learn was how this transformation happened. How did people get involved and stay engaged? What resonated with them? What can I bring back to the City of Fremont? Through engaging with a variety of Pittsburgh leaders, I was able to distill the answer to the question into five key components:
1. Strong embracement and delivery of messaging/willingness to engage in difficult conversations from a trusted leader.
2. Celebrate successes, however small: doom and gloom only immobilizes and paralyzes change
3. Make the message relatable – truly understanding the audience, highlight health impacts, the future for their children, what will the world look like when your kids are your age etc.
4. Keep it local – global statistics or issues in other States let alone countries can be too overwhelming and easy to detach personal responsibility from
5. Have a direct ask or action and be prepared to back it up with accessible steps to follow.

One observation that was particularly evident that I would like to expand upon from #3 is the power of messaging. Particularly in Pittsburgh, the message that most strongly resonated with residents was the potential for health risks for family members and loved ones. Climate change is often posited as a political issue when it is truly a matter of public health and safety, which can be a very powerful tool for driving behavior change. While my belief in the science of climate change is enough for me personally to affect my behavior, humanizing and localizing this issue has been proven effective for the general population. I hope to emulate and incorporate these lessons learned as I continue to communicate with my peers, constituents, family members, etc. on the climate crisis to hopefully inspire climate action in Fremont and beyond.

The conference’s emphasis and celebration of local civilians such as waitresses, school nurses, mother’s etc. to serve as drivers of an environmental grass roots movement empowered my position as an individual and also as a CivicSpark Fellow in Fremont. I realized that change can quickly ignite through just a simple, non-threatening conversation followed with active listening and celebration of successes.

Although I can’t replicate the training I attended, I will work to deliver these messages moving forward in my presentations and communications with residents of Fremont and citizens of the world.

The City of Pittsburgh has become my beacon of hope. The movement that Al Gore has created is my beacon of hope. My work is my beacon of hope. Despite the many examples of challenges and failures associated with climate change, there have also been an inspirational number of successes, breakthroughs, and tangible results that give me reason to celebrate. My time at the Climate Reality training and with CivicSpark so far has reaffirmed and rewarded my dedication to this field; a field that is inclusive, that serves everyone. I am truly honored to have been a part of the Climate Reality Training and to have the opportunity to apply my knowledge to Fremont.