At the Climate Reality Project in Pittsburgh. Photo by Matthew Conboy.

“My whole life has been two worlds,” says Danielle Crumrine, who grew up in a family of coal miners. Her father is a retired miner. Her 5’3 grandmother worked underground.

She speaks of the “coal mine pride” where she was raised between Greene and Washington Counties before she knew what the word environmentalist meant. “Reconciling those two worlds has been challenging, especially now given our political climate,” she says.

As Director of Tree Pittsburgh, Crumrine is on the front lines of the environmental sector in Pittsburgh. And yet, she has shied away from talking about climate change not only to her relatives but also on social media, to avoid alienating family. That changed last week after Crumrine participated in the Climate Reality Project at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. She was one of approximately 1,400 – the largest ever of the 36 events — to take part in the workshop training.

The purpose of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps training is for citizens to work with former Vice President Al Gore and top climate scientists and mentors to learn what’s happening to our planet, and how to use social media, storytelling and personal outreach to inspire others to take action. On the first day, Al Gore spent more than two hours presenting 500 slides depicting climate change and its effect throughout the world.

“Give us three days. We’ll give you the tools to change the world,” their website promises.

As a follow up to the event, NEXTpittsburgh talked to some participants, all of whom seemed pumped and ready for action. The one exception was an older man who approached as we stood near the door during the slideshow and muttered something about it being time to cue the violins. He left in a huff – by slide 300 or so – before we could find out what that was about. (Wrong conference, perhaps?)

Former Vice President Al Gore presenting at the Climate Reality Project in Pittsburgh. Photo by Matthew Conboy.

Others were unanimous in how deeply impressed they were with the training — free with underwriting from The Heinz Endowments — and how they were ready for action. (Missed the training but want to get involved? Contact Divya Nawale, of the Mayor’s office, who is already forming the Pittsburgh Chapter for Climate Reality. Anyone interested can join.)

Workshop participants had to commit to 10 items, some which are restrictions (no lobbying on behalf of Climate Reality, not seeking payment, etc) and others are affirmative actions.  The key commitment is performing at least 10 activities within one year of completing training, which could include giving climate presentations, contacting influencers, writing letters to the editor, or other forms of climate advocacy.

“Climate Reality raised the bar on the conversation around climate change,” says Deb Smit, communications manager of the newly-formed Air Quality Collaborative. “It solidified the science of climate change in my mind which I will be using to make the case!”

The coal miner’s daughter

The takeaway for Crumrine was “to learn how to talk about climate change in a new way, in a way that has been tried and tested across the country to all types of audiences. I want to be able to talk about it to my family and people back home.

“I run Tree Pittsburgh. I plant trees. Before that, Allegheny CleanWays, where I cleaned up garbage. I feel I’ve earned the respect of people, that I walk the walk. I don’t want to be scared to talk about climate change anymore.”

After three days of training, she said, “I really feel confident now. I’m so excited. I’m already thinking about how I’m going to present and to whom, and how to talk about this at Thanksgiving.

“What I took from this training is the solution to this climate crisis is also the solution to our economic crisis: jobs in solar, jobs in wind, there are more jobs in that sector than there are coal mines. Instead of subsidizing an antique tech like coal, why aren’t we investing in new tech in those communities?

“The Waynesburgs out there, the 84s and the Bentleyvilles, everyone who feels they’ve been left behind — so often they blame the environmentalists. They’ve been scammed by that. It’s not an economically viable industry.

“Invest in solar and wind and wind turbines — build ‘em here! That’s exciting if political leaders are truly willing to invest in those communities. Other countries are moving in that direction. We’re going to be left behind if we don’t.”

One thing on the agenda for her and a small group of Pittsburghers is to bring the solution-focused Earth Optimism Summit to town. “It’s an event to bring people together to talk about all the great projects happening,” says Crumrine.

Around 1,400 people participated in the largest ever Climate Reality Project Leader Training in Pittsburgh. Photo by Matthew Conboy.

The reluctant participant

Unlike Crumrine, Mt Lebanon resident Teresa Saxton was apprehensive about even applying to the Climate Reality Project, thinking she would be out of her league. “But then I thought about it and said to myself, I would be crazy to miss out on this opportunity to learn. So I’m proud that I got out of my comfort zone and stepped up to the challenge.”

Saxton, a former Donor Relations Manager for The Nature Conservancy, responded to our question by email with this fitting analogy:

“The three days of training delivered a Category 5 level hurricane of information and my brain reached overflow at the 100-year flood equivalent! Now I’ve got to let those flood waters recede a bit to find where I can best put my efforts and skills to work.”

So what does she plan to do?

“The very first thing is to say ‘Yes, I can do this!’ My next action is to work with Deb [Smit] and Beth Evans [of Mt. Lebanon] — also newly certified Climate Reality Leaders [who were seated with Saxton] — to write an editorial piece to submit to the local media. We also plan to brainstorm, set goals and prioritize our activities. We know we want to present together, perhaps at our local library or for the PTA. We will try to bring sustainable practices to our community. Mt. Lebanon is a Tree City, why can’t it be a Solar City or a Sustainable City?

“Or why not think about asking one of our local supermarkets to try eliminating plastic bags? Beth suggested maybe start by requesting one plastic bag-free lane. We could photograph people in the no-plastic line if they were amenable and add a social media component. This might be a fun project to tackle with a high school or college environmental club. Things like that. Small actions and initiatives that will add up and could lead to policy changes which is where the real progress gets made.

“One of the other things I’ve already done is to collaborate and share ideas. I will join the Pittsburgh Chapter of Leaders. Here we will pool our skill sets and resources. I’m also writing down every single crazy idea I can think of to capitalize on the momentum. I wasn’t thinking about doing any of these things and now I am. And I feel confident the Climate Reality Network will have my back to help me be successful.”

The clean air activist

For Thaddeus Popovich, co-founder of Allegheny County Clean Air Now (ACCAN), the training “was both exhilarating and exhausting. While he and his daughter saw Al Gore deliver his slideshow at “An Inconvenient Truth” in 07/24/2006 at Chautauqua Institution, he was “blown away” by Gore’s updated version of the slideshow, as well as by his presence. “There was great breadth and depth throughout the three-day period. I am inspired!

“As a result, my work at ACCAN continues with more clarity and energy with the Shenango Campaign. We were fortunate to be chosen to lead an Action Session titled ‘Coal to Solar: Accelerating the Switch to Renewable Electricity in Pennsylvania.’ We are beginning work on submitting a shareholders proposal which will include climate realty language.”

The anti-petrochemical activist

“The training impressed me with the number of people who attended, including hundreds from the Pittsburgh area and even more from across the country and around the world.  So it was an excellent opportunity to connect with others working on the same issues,” says John Detwiler, PhD, a Squirrel Hill resident and retired engineer and business consultant. 

For example, at my table were seven other Pittsburghers, none of whom I had met before, and all of us working toward the same goals.  So we are now in contact and making plans to collaborate.  There were dozens of other “Pittsburgh” tables, and many other folks reported similar experiences.

“For most of us, the most pressing issue is the threatened petrochemical industry build-out in the Ohio River Valley.  If it goes ahead, this build-out will affect communities in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia; so, again, last week’s meeting was important for building relationships.

“Gas and chemical industry boosters are making grandiose proposals for multiple “cracker” plants, along with related “upstream” (gas wells, cryogenic processing, pipelines and compressor stations) and “downstream” (waste disposal, plastics and associated manufacturing) infrastructure.  Those boosters are promising billions of dollars of “investment,” all of which is absolutely opposite to the direction our economy must take – and is already taking – over the next few years.  And they’re asking for taxpayer subsidies in the billions to jump-start their proposals.

“If built, this petrochemical complex would make our region a pariah instead of a leader in responding to climate change.  So last week’s meeting was an important rallying point for our sustainable vision for the Ohio Valley.”

Like others we talked to, Deb Smit said the three-day event blew her away. “It was exciting to see so many people in Pittsburgh getting behind a clean energy future,” Smit says. “I will continue to elevate these issues so responsible regulators and polluters get on board in advancing the vision for climate reality and clean air.”

If you were at the event, we welcome your comments below as well as your plan for action.

Tracy is the founder and Editor at Large of NEXTpittsburgh which she started in March 2014 and sold in December 2020. She is passionate about making Pittsburgh a better place for all and connecting people to do the same.