Pittsburgh-Paris Climate Rhetoric Returns

As is now tradition in American politics, the first days of the Biden administration have brought the initial efforts at reversing Trump-era policy positions. Many of these opening salvos have to do with signaling a recommitment to acknowledging climate change. The president has issued several executive orders related to environmental concerns, and the White House website has reinstated mentions of the climate crisis. These measures have also sparked the return of Pittsburgh-Paris climate rhetoric.

Last week Ted Cruz tweeted that the Biden administration’s climate policies signaled allegiance to the citizens of Paris rather than those of Pittsburgh. In response, Pittsburghers took to social media to lambast Cruz’s pandering, and Greta Thunberg congratulated America for rejoining the “Pittsburgh Agreement.”

This discourse stems from 2017 when president Trump justified his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accords by asserting his responsibility “to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Trump’s invocation of Pittsburgh’s industrial legacy is at odds with the city’s contemporary economy. The city reached its economic and population peak in the industrial era, and this period of the city’s history remains the age most associated with its image and identity. In the 21st century Pittsburgh sought to reinvent itself as a center of post-industrial technological innovation. The city has since attracted technology-oriented entrepreneurial investment and been a site of many smart city policies and technological innovations. Trump’s reference to Pittsburgh had less to do with the actually-existing city than with its place in U.S. urban imaginaries.

(Trump’s evocation of Pittsburgh may ultimately be the result of a speech writer’s inclination toward alliteration, a proclivity to which I am prone myself.)

Back in 2017, I absorbed Trump’s announcement of leaving the Paris accords with mixed emotions. I was visiting New York at the time, and caught the press conference live on TV in my Midtown hotel room. On the one hand, the willful aversion toward any environmental action filled me with an abiding existential dread. Yet when Trump uttered the now infamous “Pittsburgh-not-Paris” bon mot, I jumped for joy: I knew the president’s remarks would make a great anecdote for the Pittsburgh-centric dissertation I was writing.

The resurgence of the Paris-Pittsburgh kerfluffle also gives me occasion to relate my favorite personal anecdote about Pittsburgh mayor William Peduto. Peduto had positioned himself as a progressive mayor pursuing policies of technological innovation, environmental sustainability, and economic modernization throughout his mayoral tenure. His political vision for the city received global attention after Trump’s Paris accords press conference. Trump’s apparent invocation of Pittsburgh’s industrial legacy prompted Peduto to distinguish the city’s modern economy from its polluted past, and to distance his own political commitments from those of the president. In a New York Times interview conducted in the wake of the president’s address Peduto promoted a range of environmental and innovation initiatives in Pittsburgh including the city’s medical centers, research universities, and local renewable energy industry.

That New York Times article also contained an off-hand aside about a neighborhood bar in Shadyside where Peduto reportedly went for a drink every day after work. A few days after the article was published I happened to be running an errand in Shadyside. When I realized that the errand would be finished shortly after 5 PM, I suggested to my partner that we have dinner in that bar so that I could verify the Times’ reporting. Sure enough, there was Peduto sitting at the bar. This must have been a Monday, because the local evening news playing on the bar TV did a story on the previous evening’s John Oliver program, which had dedicated a segment to the Paris-Pittsburgh exchange and to Peduto’s public response. From our table in the corner I watched Peduto watching news coverage of another TV show’s coverage of Peduto…it remains one of my favorite Pittsburgh memories.

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