Too much of technological optimism, too little of societal transformation. Is this a decisive crossroad for the U.S. on climate?

By Mônica Prado

For three days, I have immersed myself in the climate leadership training in Los Angeles, CA, USA, promoted by Climate Reality Project, a non-profit international organization dedicated to education and advocacy. Now I have a green circular button I can use as a global identification – a symbol that allows me to be named a climate leader and to be part of a global community of more than seventeen thousand people. Mine was the 39th climate leadership training and the largest already within a thread that began with the historical meeting held in 2006 outside of a barn in a farm with no more than twelve people sitting around in wood benches. Al Gore was and still is in command. He is the leader of a crowd in the U.S. eager for transformation, one of its kind, and the tactics of the Climate Reality Project rely on interpersonal communication, innovative technology and business trade. The goal is to create individual and societal support for strengthening the U.S. position as one of the players on the global effort to decarbonize the economy.

LA-training-group-photo.png
LA Training Group Official Photo – August 28-30, 2018. Fonte: Climate Reality Project

The public international image of Al Gore – the 45th vice-president of the U.S. and the recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize jointly awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – is associated with An Inconvenient Truth. The documentary released in 2006 was part of the IPCC strategic communication plan aiming to spread the scientific findings stated on the AR4 (Assessment Report Four). For the first time in history, a global organization announced that climate change was caused in part of (a big chunk, I would say) human intervention in the atmosphere due to emitting too much greenhouse gases and creating an unbalanced state putting in risk ecosystems and species (humans inclusive). Professor Dr. Filipe Duarte Santos, last year, during an interview about the wildfire in Portugal, mentioned that humanity has changed the composition of the atmosphere, while explaining that the concentration of CO2 has increased 43% since the pre-industrial period.

The tone of An Inconvenient Truth, known as the first Al Gore documentary, was alarmist, emotional and persuasive. It was time to raise awareness about the issue and to craft solutions to reduce emissions and avoid drastic impacts. The movie, targeting a massive international audience, worked as a wake-up call for perceiving risks associated with climate change. The threatening tone is no longer there. The mainstream discourse of the 39th climate leadership training is the same one embedded in the second Al Gore documentary released last year – An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power. It is still emotional and full of infographics; however, the attention is on hope.

During the leadership training, sessions and speeches (or presentations) on how to communicate climate change emphasized the need for focusing on solutions and on taking local actions that will impact globally. One of the practical and hands-on teachings was about how to prepare and deliver presentations. Five sessions and three speeches addressed the subject, and Al Gore gave two presentations, explaining the cause and effects of climate change and the solutions for the climate crisis using vivid images and less wordy slides. On the first one, he spent a little more than an hour; on the second, he taught the 2.400 training attendees how to deliver it in ten minutes. Presentation is a keyword under the umbrella of how to shape interpersonal communication and build rapport with people. This type of communication is sedimented on the premise that personal interaction is a way to effect social change, whose process starts with the individual, and from this ground zero builds a ripple effect into collectiveness.

Most important of all was the talking points for communicating and messaging climate change for small groups. Communicating from the heart – “tell your personal story and why you do care about the issue” – was pinpointed as crucial to establishing a conversation. The mantra for messaging is to divide the presentation in three parts: science, impacts, and solutions. One of the suggestions was: “Explain them all, but jump on the hope part as quickly as possible to drag peoples’ attention for acting on what they can do individually and collectively to reduce emissions”. The hope part is based on an optimistic narrative that technology and innovation will do the job to shifting a carbon society to a low carbon one.

At that point, there was no way not to notice the absence of mentions on adaptation measures and changing consumption patterns. These subjects require behavior change at large. The Climate Reality Project, during the 39th training, pointed out interpersonal communication, innovative technology and business trade as strategic cards for keeping the U.S. in the game of reducing emissions under the Paris Agreement. The need for a deep societal and economic transformation leading to a new future and life style was not part of the climate training. It passed over in silence on topics such as production and consumption pattern, soil for agriculture, and food waste as if natural resources were unlimited and inexhaustible. The IPCC latest report – Special Report 15, Global Warming of 1.5 °C (IPCC SR 15) – officially released on October 8th, highlights the importance of reducing consumption of energy and greenhouse-gas intensive products through behavioral and lifestyle changes.

IPCC SR15 Risk 1.5C
IPCC SR 15 – risks at 1.5 °C for people, economies and ecosystems based on the Five Integrative Reasons for Concern (RFCs). Fonte: IPCC SR 15.

The LA 39th climate training took place one week before the Global Climate Summit, held in San Francisco, CA (September 11-14). Taking advantage of the Summit agenda, the California governor, Jerry Brown, signed the SB 100 measure pushing the state to carbon neutrality by 2045. In signing the measure, he reassured – what was a side dish of the main menu in the narratives of panelists and speakers of the 39th climate training – “we are open for business”. This avenue is the one chosen by Eric Garcetti, mayor of Los Angeles, a city integrating the C40 – a network of 40 world megacities committed to clean energy and sustainability. Garcetti spoke on the second day of the training and emphasized that the key point for acting locally is to envision a post-carbon era now because sustainability is intertwined with every aspect of a city and its people.

These efforts, however, are not even near the 2 °C cap. A close look at the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) from all 197 signatories of the Agreement (the U.S. included) points to a 2.7-3.7 °C of warming at the end of the century. The IPCC Special Report 15 (Global Warming of 1.5 °C) could function (I expect) as a push to strengthening the global response to avoid the catastrophic risks of climate change. The Climate Reality Project is in tune with the tone of the SR15 and its 2019 agenda is focusing on businesses such as clean grid, efficient buildings, mass transit transportation, and renewable energy storage. The international NGO 350.org is aligned as well. According to the NGO, the report is a call to action for phasing out fossil fuels now and aggressively accelerating the transition to 100% renewable energy and implementing nature-based solutions to reduce CO2 already in the atmosphere.

California emissions by sector 2015 Data
California GHG emissions by sector – data 2015 Air Resources Board. Fonte: California Air Board Data 2015.

Alongside with Climate Mayors – a coalition of 407 US mayors, representing 70 million people – and the societal movement We Are Still In, the California governor is leading the presence of the U.S. in the Paris Agreement, navigating as a parallel power in relation to the current President of the U.S., Donald Trump. More than ten times during the 39th training (I counted, how surprised I was), Al Gore and executive members of the Climate Reality Project have said, loudly and didactically, that the U.S. is not out of the Paris Agreement as the President Trump brags. They explained that, officially, the U.S. could not withdraw until the next day of the new presidential election – November 4th, 2020. Until there, “We the People”, as imprinted in the United States Constitution, will keep the U.S. in the game working with alliances to keep pace with the voluntary contributions pledged by the U.S.: reducing emissions by 26%-28% by 2025, based on 2005 levels.


Mônica Prado is a doctoral student attending the program Climate Change and Sustainable Development Policies at the Social Science Institute – University of Lisbon (ICS-UL). pradoigrejamonica@gmail.com

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