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Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto: “Your Future Does Not Have to be Your Past”

Over the course of a long conversation, Mayor Peduto told us how Pittsburgh picked itself up after the fall of its main industry, how the city is taking climate action, and much more.


During a June 1 speech from the White House Rose Garden, President Trump explained his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement with the declaration that he represented the citizens of “Pittsburgh, not Paris.”

It was a baked-in applause line. And it backfired.

The actual citizens of Pittsburgh wondered what their president was talking about. The city’s mayor, Bill Peduto, who has made environmental action central to his public service, responded quickly, with a tweet heard ’round the world, stating that Pittsburgh would remain committed to the Paris Agreement “for our people, our economy, and future.”

“The [Paris] Agreement itself sits in a glass case inside of a conference room when you enter my office,” Mayor Peduto recently told Climate Reality.

With our next Climate Reality Leadership Corps activist training coming up in Pittsburgh from October 17-19, we wanted to learn more about the reality of Steel City today. Because in contrast to the sooty industrial center in the president’s imagination, modern-day Pittsburgh has reinvented itself as a twenty-first century hub for education and technology, a community whose citizens care deeply about the planet and a place where climate solutions like clean energy and green buildings are just part of everyday life.

Fortunately, we were able to get the inside view of this second act from the man leading it, Mayor Peduto himself. Over the course of a long conversation, Mayor Peduto talked about his take on that announcement, as well as how Pittsburgh picked itself up after the fall of its main industry, how the city is taking climate action, and much more. Read our interview below.

Climate Reality: Pittsburgh’s been working hard on climate for years, but really got thrust into the spotlight following President Trump’s “Pittsburgh, not Paris” speech. Were you surprised that many people – perhaps including the US president – didn’t know that your city has been flourishing because you are working to diversify your economy, invest in sustainability, and attract high-tech businesses?

Mayor Bill Peduto: I think the president’s statement was more hyperbole than fact. There’s this misconception that Pittsburgh is this dirty city with rusted steel mills falling into a river. But the fact is that over the past 30 years, the city has transformed itself – both economically and environmentally.

But the real initiative began back in 1946, when Pittsburgh became one of the first cities in this country to pass a clean air act – decades before the EPA would ever be created or the Clean Air Act of Congress would be passed. Mayor David Lawrence began working with the corporate community to minimize air pollution within the city and ban the use of coal to heat homes. It almost cost him his reelection four years later, but he would go on to become the governor of Pennsylvania and one of the strongest politicians of his era.

What was it like for you to become a politician at the center of the national climate fight overnight?

It’s an issue I’ve been involved with since the 1980s. As a councilmember, I passed the second clean air act in the city’s history in 2011. I wrote the city’s first clean water act, and wrote legislation to preserve our hillsides. As the mayor, I’ve been able to secure the largest park, nearly 700 acres, in the city’s history, as well as instituting standards on construction and sustainability. So it’s something that I’ve worked on throughout my life.

The tweet was read by nearly 23 million people worldwide, which was surprising. But the actions that I’ve been able to be a part of for the majority of my life have been much more significant than that tweet.

I think what that tweet did was two things. For those that don’t understand Pittsburgh, it was a wakeup call of how a city that had been known for its heavy industry and pollution could rise back with a very different future than its past. And second, it was an understanding on a global level that if the United States was not going to participate from a federal level that mayors throughout this country and governors would participate from a state and local level. That we were not going to abandon our responsibility – we are going to step up and do even more.

So that’s why you felt it was so important to speak out?

I think the tweet itself was more just spontaneity. It came out immediate when I saw that Sean Spicer had tweeted the quote about Pittsburgh, and it certainly was the opposite of everything that this city had stood for. And it was the opposite of how our economy was able to rebound.  

With the decline of manufacturing and steel, Pittsburgh faced some real challenges. What role do you think clean energy played in Pittsburgh’s transformation into the hub for education, healthcare, and technology that it is today?

Without the leadership of the corporate, civic, and government community back in the 1940s and 1950s to clean our air and clean our water, Pittsburgh would never have been able to emerge out of the collapse of heavy industry in the ‘80s and ‘90s. If we had been left with a city with polluted air and polluted water and an economy that had basically died, we would still be struggling to come back. Because we did the tough actions in the 1940s and 1950s to begin the process, we were able to have the stability to create a new economy.

To be certain, the economy may not be directly based off of the efforts that we did in the environment, but without those there would never have been a return for Pittsburgh, even with the great education institutions that are here.

Why do you think Pittsburghers have embraced climate action?

Part of the reason is just civic pride. We did not want to be the smoky city. It is part of our heritage and we’re proud of that; steel will always be part of our DNA. But we also wanted to be able to have a quality of life that’s afforded and should be afforded to everyone.

The other part of it was an understanding that, before there was ever a discussion of attracting talent, we understood that we – for our economy – had to be a place that would be welcoming to companies and individuals. A lot of the civic leadership in the past realized that the quality of our life is dependent upon clean air and clean water.

So it became not only an issue of civic pride, but also economic sustainability.  


Today, Allegheny County leads the state of Pennsylvania in clean energy jobs. How is clean energy putting Pittsburghers to work?

We’ve been working along with the Department of Energy on becoming a model for district energy production. Earlier this week, NRG announced a new FuelCell partnership to be able to provide energy to our downtown and Northside of the city through fuel-cell. Duquesne Light has created a district energy [plan] based 100 percent on renewable energy. We have downtown steam energy for heat that is being co-opted to next generation co-generation. So we’ll be able to create heat and electricity.

Our foundation community is developing 178 acres of the last steel mill into a potential net-zero, 100-percent renewable development. We are working on microsystems of how we are able to produce energy and be able to provide it in a highly more efficient manner – and working in partnership with DOE, so it can become the test bed for the rest of the country.

And we’re working with companies like Peoples Natural Gas, who have always been in fossil fuels but realize that a partnership with the city can allow for them to expand their portfolio.

You’ve recently doubled down on Pittsburgh’s ambitious goal to be powered 100 percent by renewable energy by 2035. What steps are you taking to get there?

We’re purchasing our first electric vehicles. We’re purchasing and working with Ford on a new hybrid police cruiser. It will be the first of its kind, and we’ll be purchasing seven of those this year. We’re working with energy companies and tech companies throughout the city to become a testing ground to be able to make our city facilities much more energy efficient.

And we are working as well with the federal and state governments on creating smart corridors, where traffic is going to be improved through the world’s smartest traffic signals. It will improve efficiency by nearly one-third, which will reduce the amount of pollution, idling, and wasted energy. These corridors are also going to become electric corridors, and we are investing in electric busses, to be run on a bus-rapid transit line between our downtown and our university community.

That’s all within the next three years. 

Why the US Leaving the Paris Agreement Isn’t the End of the World

Where do you think the clean energy revolution can take Pittsburgh?

We not only have five different companies that are working on autonomous vehicles, four of which have vehicles on our streets right now, but we’re also working with them on a future where the automobile industry is autonomous, shared, and electric. We’ve really been working with each of the different companies in moving in that direction.

These corridors that I talked about will also be opportunities where we will be working with Carnegie Mellon University on sensors that will be able to help push the direction of transportation in those three directions.

Pittsburgh has become an urban lab where transportation, energy, and technology have converged.

Despite a lot of success, the region still has air quality concerns. How do you think the climate fight and the fight to reduce air pollution can complement each other?

Pittsburgh’s air quality is still something that we constantly are working on. Because of our industrial past, we still have some of the after effects that come with it. However, we’ve traveled farther than any other city. From where we were, where streetlights had to remain on 24 hours a day, to where we are today, is a much greater march than any other city has had to take to clean our environment.

It’s all about how we reduce our carbon footprint. And as we’re reducing our carbon footprint, we’re also making our air quality better and making our water quality better as well.

If you could express one thing to climate deniers, like those in the Trump Administration, what would it be?

That protecting our climate is good for our economy – and that green has two meanings: It’s greening of our environment and it’s greening of our local industries.

As you know, we’re going to be in Pittsburgh for our latest Climate Reality Leadership Corps Training from October 17-19, where hundreds of people will be trained by former Vice President Al Gore and experts in the field to become vocal and effective climate activists. You have been a great agent of change on climate in Pittsburgh – what can our trainees learn from your success?  What’s your secret?

I think that it is the cooperation and coordination of government with corporate with foundation with institution with nonprofit. I think that the thing about Pittsburgh is, we got behind an environmental movement 70 years ago, and we’ve stayed consistent with it. In return, it has allowed us to reemerge after our industry died.

It is only through that cooperative effort that this city was able to come back the way that it has. And it can be used as a model for other cities, for rural areas, for people that are hurting. And the lasting lesson is that your future does not have to be your past.

How Pittsburgh Is Taking Climate Action

If you would like to experience this lesson firsthand, join us in for the next Climate Reality Leadership Corps Training. The program takes great leaders and makes them exceptional, providing training in climate science, communications, and organizing in order to better tell the story of climate change and inspire communities everywhere to take action. 

Give us three days. We’ll give you the tools to change the world.