As the people of Pittsburgh hustled to work on Friday, most everyone had heard the news: to their alarm, Donald Trump had highlighted their revitalized Rust Belt city as he walked out of a global climate pact.
“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” the president declared in the Rose Garden as he announced the United States was backing out of the Paris Agreement because it did not put “America first.”
That raised hackles in this western Pennsylvania city, a onetime industrial juggernaut that has retooled as a new-technology capital — and in many respects is showing the United States a viable pathway to going green.
“He’s speaking (as if) that agreement would stifle heavy manufacturing and production and mining, but that’s not what we do anymore. We haven’t done that in my lifetime,” 36-year-old banker David Sandy, born and raised in Pittsburgh, told AFP near the US Steel Tower downtown.
Pittsburgh, with about 300,000 inhabitants, is framed by majestic steel bridges that cross the two broad rivers intersecting in the city center.
While steel and industry were once the city’s lifeblood, banks, health care companies and research centers now employ its inhabitants, who often ride light rail trains or pedal bike-share bicycles to work.
Many residents tell the same story: in mid-century Pittsburgh, pollution from steel mills was so overwhelming that it turned white shirts dark.
“It used to be dirty as heck,” recalled Daniel Fore, 55, a local corporate attorney.
“They were good jobs, but the pollution was horrible. Now it’s a beautiful city,” added Fore as nearby pedestrians ordered coffee in one of many neighborhood cafes.
From his house on a hill overlooking downtown, across the Monongahela River, retired steel train engineer Bill Bobak too recalled how polluted it was.
“My dad told me when he was younger that you couldn’t see the city from here” due to smog, Bobak said.
The messy industrial hub began shedding residents in the 1970s as steel processing and auto manufacturing jobs dried up. But Pittsburgh embraced industry diversification, designed and beautified riverfront parks and borrowed funding for capital improvements. The population stabilized.
Noelle Ivankevich, 29, came here for school a decade ago and stayed. Today she works for Federated Investors, a major financial institution.
“My father was a steel man but I believe in changing with the times, making the world better,” she said, still upset over Trump’s rejection of the Paris deal.
On the fifth floor of the imposing City-County Building, Mayor Bill Peduto said he did a double take when he heard Trump’s speech.
“I just walked into my chief of staff’s office… and I just said, ‘Pittsburgh?'” Peduto told AFP the day after Trump’s reference delivered a shot of notoriety to his city.
The incredulous mayor fired off a widely-read tweet assuring that “we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement” regardless of Trump’s decision.
“I guess that was a tweet that was heard around the world,” he said.
Peduto said he believes Trump was likely imagining “Pittsburgh maybe 40 years ago, Pittsburgh when it was still a global center for steel production and manufacturing. But that era ended in the 1970s.”
The city rebounded from its turmoil by “planting seeds” of a modern economy, he said.
Carnegie Mellon University opened a robotics lab in 1979. Automakers are building research partnerships, and corporate innovators like Google, Uber and Tesla are developing the technologies of tomorrow.
Regardless of Trump’s declaration, the mayor of this Democratic city says it will pursue the Paris climate goals on a local level, investing in sustainable construction and modern public transportation.
Darlene Harris, a 64-year-old local councilwoman and seventh generation Pittsburgh resident, acknowledged that western Pennsylvania areas outside Pittsburgh have seen little in the way of a high-tech boom.
“I actually believe that the president was clearly talking about the region as a whole, not just the city,” Harris said.
Pittsburgh meanwhile was hosting an environmental and resource economics conference. Between sessions, Marc Hafstead of Resources for the Future sounded perplexed by Trump’s claim that upholding the Paris Agreement would cost the United States $3 trillion in lost GDP.
“They’re grossly overstating the cost,” he said.
But despite promises of renewable energy growth through adhering to the Paris deal, Hafstead warned that anti-carbon regulations will take a toll on the economy, albeit less of a cost than Trump predicts.
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