How to control (or not) climate change in Pittsburgh

Written by Ethan Magoc on .

(Ethan Magoc/Post-Gazette photos)

Professor Peter Adams asked for a show of hands Tuesday night.

How many in the audience use energy-saving LED bulbs in their homes?

About 90 percent of hands went up among the 110 or so attending "Building a More Resilient Pittsburgh," a discussion at Carnegie Mellon University that examined climate change and Pittsburgh's future.

"That's pretty good," Mr. Adams said of the bulb usage. "This is not a representative crowd."

And that moment encapsulated the challenge humanity faces in stemming effects of climate change. The global crowd that believes severe changes in weather patterns are already taking place — changes that humans have caused — is not yet large enough to form a critical mass to reverse them.

There also exists a quandary for citizens who want to help but feel limited. You can change a rather small number of energy consumption patterns. Switch in LED light bulbs. Take shorter showers. Live in a potentially more expensive apartment or house closer to your job to save commute time and burned gasoline.

In the end, you can't directly control the industrial polluters, poor existing infrastructure or rising rents that cause people to live further from their jobs.

Political inertia is at work, too, noted one of the guests who asked questions of a five-person panel.

What can be done to push politicians to act?

Grant Ervin, the City of Pittsburgh's sustainability manager, pointed to efforts in local communities.

Too often, he said, "practice is ahead of policy," and the public needs to drive the conversation.

Grant Ervin, left, and Fred Brown.

Fred Brown of the Kingsley Association backed up that suggestion. Larimer, a neighborhood in which his organization works frequently, has built a unique relationship with Mayor Bill Peduto. Residents there have his administration's attention for their efforts to create a net zero community.

Some day Larimer will use no more energy than it produces and saves. It's getting there through a mix of efforts, though not because its residents devised a magical way to alter their energy consumption.

Kelly Klima and Peter Adams.

"No silver bullet is going to solve the problem," said Kelly Klima, a CMU research scientist in engineering and public policy. "Solar won't do it."

Solar power is too intermittent, she said, and quite expensive to build the infrastructure needed to harvest sunlight. You'd need a backup in places like Pittsburgh.

Still, Mr. Adams said, there are benefits to shifting away from burning coal wherever possible. He researches the effects of particulates on public health.

"Forget the problems caused by climate change, and there are still benefits to getting coal out of the system," he said.

And what about transportation, a daily thorn for many Pittsburghers? Why can't high speed rail be part of the equation for traveling and getting to work?

"The short answer?" Mr. Ervin said in a deep tone. "Mouuuntains." The area's geography is going to prevent a reality of speeding commuter trains in the short (and maybe long) term.

From left, CMU professor Neil Donahue, Mr. Ervin and Mr. Brown.

As for students in attendance and those who otherwise make up a large part of Oakland's transient population, one asked: what can they do?

Mr. Brown spoke of a moral obligation, even if it's just in a Pittsburgh dorm room.

"Whether you're living here for six months or six years, everything we do has an impact," he said.

Even at the dessert table, there were guilt-inducing reminders of the need to conserve. "Eat what you take," the sign reads.

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