Mark Dixon stood in a busy restaurant in Pittsburgh, surrounded by friends and people who’d supported his filmmaking and environmental activism over the past few years.
Dixon hopped around the group, doling out hugs and thanking guests for hitting ‘Yes’ on his Facebook invite to the party. The occasion was Dixon’s sendoff to Paris, where he’d soon be among thousands from around the world monitoring the UN’s big climate talks.
He’d been organizing this trip for months, but the voyage had actually been years in the making.
Dixon used to work in the world of software startups in Silicon Valley. But he soon took an interest in the environmental movement. He saw Al Gore give his “Inconvenient Truth” presentation in the Bay Area and quickly became passionate about climate change.
Listen: “From Pittsburgh to Paris”
“I kind of woke up to climate change in the early 2000s and decided I needed to redirect my life in that direction,” he said at his going away party in late November.
Dixon started making a movie about the topic of climate change in which he and a pair of fellow filmmakers travelled around the country reporting climate stories. In a way, the movie, YERT (short for “Your Environmental Road Trip”), brought him to Pittsburgh. His sister, who lived in Pittsburgh, invited him to come live with her for free while he was making the movie.
In the years he spent making the movie, Dixon paid close attention to the UN’s yearly climate change meetings, known inside climate circles as the COP—short for conference of parties.
“All through that time, ever since I went to work on YERT, I had known about COP, and every year I kind of had a little tug, wanting to go,” he says.
The Paris COP loomed large for Dixon. Ever since the 2009 Copenhagen talks failed to produce a climate deal, activists have held out hope that this year’s COP, known as COP21, would succeed.
Dixon decided he’d go to Paris. But what would he do once he got there? And how would he make what happened in Paris relevant for people in Pittsburgh?
The answer came for Dixon with a chance encounter over the summer. He was at a restaurant watching the U.S. play in the Women’s World Cup when he ran into a major fan of his films—Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto.
“I bumped into him and said ‘Hey, Bill, I’m going to go to Paris in December for COP21.’” Dixon asked the mayor if there was any way “to help better connect Pittsburgh” to the Paris talks. “He said, ‘Well, you know what, I might have something for you.'”
As it happened, there was a precursor to the Paris conference held in Lyon, France in August. If Dixon could pay his own way to Lyon, Peduto said he could get him a pass into the event as an official representative for the city of Pittsburgh to be a kind of eyes and ears for Peduto and the city’s sustainability office.
“I said, sure let’s go for it,” Dixon says. “I didn’t know where I’d get the money. But I figured it was too good an opportunity to pass up.”
Dixon needed $2,000 to go to Lyon, so he started a GoFundMe campaign.
Within 24 hours, he had raised almost the entire amount. In Lyon, he educated himself in the dizzying and arcane language of the UN’s climate process, as well as the Gordian knot of international carbon politics.
When he got back to Pittsburgh, he debriefed Peduto and several staffers on his trip.
Grant Ervin, the city’s chief resiliency officer, was in the meeting and called it “a very sobering presentation” that focused not just on the scientific realities of climate change but also the difficulty in getting the world’s nations to agree on lowering their own carbon footprints.
Peduto, who’s been following the climate process since the first UN climate summit in 1992, said he was inspired by Dixon’s trip. (Peduto is also in Paris, representing the city with an international group of mayors.)
“He came back from Lyon charged, and he’s charged me and he’s charging others,” Peduto says. “He sees this issue probably better than most.”
Dixon’s GoFundMe campaign eventually raised enough for him to travel to Paris for the big climate summit. While there, he’s observing the meetings, posting web videos and blogging about what he sees.
Dixon says progress in Paris will be fairly easy to measure.
“I’m looking for signs of money moving toward material solutions,” Dixon says. “I know at COP, everybody’s mouth is going to be in the right place. But I don’t know if anybody’s money will be in the right place—or headed to the right place.”
As for Dixon, he says he’s headed towards more climate action. When he gets back, he’s planning a big speaking event about lessons he’s learned from Paris.
Check out some of Mark Dixon’s reporting from Paris at his blog.