- The Washington Times - Friday, September 25, 2009

If a group of climate activists drives cars to an environmental protest, is their message polluted?

No, those activists say — especially when the protest takes place during the G-20 summit, offering the largest global stage from which to share beliefs.

“The cost of inaction is much greater — infinitely greater — than the small cost of the carbon emissions we’re making by driving across a couple states,” said Sam Daly, 23, one of 10 activists who drove 250 miles from Washington, D.C. to Pittsburgh to stage a “flash mob” protest Thursday in the city’s downtown urging world leaders to address growing climate concerns.

“The point of being at the G-20 is to get our message out,” he said.

Daly said his group piled into three cars. He wouldn’t reveal their makes or models, calling the question “irrelevant.”

But if each car used one gallon of fuel per 24 miles, the American average, the roundtrip released about 400 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to Chris Weber, an assistant research professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s department of civil and environmental engineering. By comparison, over a year of living, the average American’s carbon footprint is 20 tons.

In coming here, protesters this week likely had to perform a “cost-benefit analysis” of whether the trip was worth it, according to James Craft, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Joseph Katz Graduate School of Business.

“What you’ve got here is a situation where people have made a decision based on appearing on the most visible stage in the world,” Craft said. “They ask themselves, ‘Is it more costly to sit back and abide by personal beliefs, or to get the message out, even though I make compromises?’ ”

Most protesters are willing to compromise. Grady Minnis is not.

Minnis, 28, of Asheville, N.C., wanted to come to Pittsburgh to protest mountaintop-removal coal mining, and to urge people to use alternative modes of transportation. But he didn’t want to look hypocritical by driving here to make his point.

So he rode his bicycle, zigzagging across several states for what he estimated was an 800-mile trek.

“If you say you’re going to do something, live your life that way,” he said. “It’s not about using an energy-efficient light bulb. It’s about sticking to your beliefs.”

Minnis notwithstanding, thousands of protesters were expected to travel to Pittsburgh this week, most by auto, bus or plane. The increased traffic could leave a significant carbon footprint, environmental analysts said.

Their presence might have a positive environmental impact, others say.

With traffic restrictions effectively shutting down much of the city through today, untold thousands of cars will sit in driveways rather than clog city roadways.

“The air quality might actually improve,” said Ann Gerace, executive director of Conservation Consultants Inc. in South Side. “People will stay home, walk or take a bus.”

Many downtown Pittsburgh companies allowed employees to work from home, and that could lead to eco-friendly changes down the road, said Court Gould, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh. The practice of telecommuting can lower greenhouse emissions, keep commuters off roads and improve worker productivity, he said.

“Many companies will now gain experience in telecommuting,” Gould said. “Perhaps that will lead to some companies saying, ‘Hey, this works pretty well. Maybe it’s something we’ll adopt in the future.’ ”

Tent cities are another potential negative, Gerace said. They could leave behind trampled vegetation and large amounts of trash.

Then again, long-term positives could be culled simply by the fact that the G-20 world leaders will meet in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, she said.

Touted as the world’s largest green building, the sprawling facility on the banks of the Allegheny River could inspire international leaders to push for more green buildings in their homelands, Gerace and Gould said.

“Let’s hope it not only inspires them long-term, but on the spot, and that inspiration makes its way into the deliberations of this eminently powerful global organization,” Gould said.

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