Prove your humanity

It’s been a year since President Trump proclaimed that he was elected to serve the people of Pittsburgh, not Paris as he announced that the U.S. would pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto fired back with a tweet that made international headlines. 

“It’s now up to cities to lead,” added Peduto in a second tweet.

So what’s happened since then? Are cities like Pittsburgh taking the lead on the climate issue? And what can they accomplish if the federal government decides to do nothing about climate change?

Reporter Oliver Morrison was at a recent conference of cities in Montreal where climate change was front and center. He wrote about it for PublicSource.

Morrison also explored Pittsburgh’s Climate Action Plan in the series, Three Rivers Rising. 

Reid Frazier caught up with him to learn more.

Listen: Reid and Oliver talk about what cities can do about climate change

Reid Frazier: So Bill Peduto was at this meeting in Montreal. Who else was there?

Oliver Morrison: There were mayors and environment ministers from across the globe. There were researchers, and a lot of different experts on what cities are doing around sustainability and climate change.

RF: Climate change has been a big issue for many years for Bill Peduto. And he gained international notoriety for tweeting at the President when the President decided to opt out of the Paris climate agreement. Was he pretty popular there at the conference?

OM: Yeah, he’s a big deal. In fact, he told me that he used to have to pay for these conferences himself. And now he gets invited to three or four of them a month and has to turn most of them down. And people bring up that tweet when they see him.

RF: We have some tape of your interview with Peduto at the conference explaining what impact Trump’s decision to pull out of the climate agreement had on him and other city officials from around the world:

“Yeah, what I’ve got to say about that? Thank you. Donald Trump. He’s forced us to become much more creative on how we can work to create a level of standards to be able to show that we’re actually meeting our goals on a local level.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto spoke on a panel at ICLEI World Congress in Montreal on June 20 with Janet Sanz, the deputy mayor of Barcelona, Spain; Veronica Arias, the environmental secretary of Quito, Ecuador; and Cathy Oke, a city councilor in Melbourne, Australia. Photo: Oliver Morrison/PublicSource

RF: So how are Pittsburgh’s efforts going?

OM: It’s not going that well. We’ve only had three points of measurement. The first one was in 2003, and the most recent in 2013, and during that time greenhouse gas emissions have gone up by about 10 percent.

RF: Why is it going up?

OM: There are a couple of reasons but part of it just has to do with economic growth and part of it has to do with the mix of where the energy is coming from. We know that there are more people over that 10 years that are driving in the car all by themselves.

People are just using a lot more natural gas. If you look at the big macro numbers, there’s more energy coming from natural gas. Sometimes it just it has to with variation in the weather. If it was a colder winter, there might be more natural gas used for heating.

LISTEN: Pittsburghers weigh in on their thoughts about climate change

RF: A big question at meetings like this, and when Bill Peduto and others talk about climate change, is what can cities do?

We have the U.S. federal government basically saying we’re not going to do anything about climate change, at least for the next four years. And it’s maybe noble to say we’re going to stay in the Paris climate agreement but Pittsburgh is like a tiny dot on a big map.

What can cities do?

OM: Hundreds of these mayors across the country like Peduto said we’re going to stick to the Paris agreement. But the question is has anything changed?

Because typically we’ve been looking at the federal government and states to tackle climate change, but have cities since then taking on any extra powers? And by and large the early answer is “no.” There aren’t that many cities that are taking big, bold action.

The things that have made a big difference nationally, like lowering emissions from cars–that was a federal action. Some states like California have also been pushing on that.

One of the other big things that’s made a difference nationally is the rise of natural gas and coal power plants closing. That was more of an economic issue and it wasn’t something that cities had done.

READ: Pittsburgh’s Climate Action Plan 3.0, adopted by city council in May, which plans to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and tackle climate change.

RF: You spoke with Michael Applebaum, a former mayor of Boulder, Colorado. And he told you that cities, especially cities with progressive political cultures, can be incubators to get ideas off the ground:

“Those are exactly the cities that you count on to try new things. And they’re not all going to work, and certainly they’re not all going to fit everybody else. But if they don’t try it, who’s going to try it? Because cities is really where the action is. Frankly, it’s where most of the work is done.”

RF: So what are other cities around the world doing to address climate change? And are they good places to experiment with new ideas about ways to cut emissions?

OM: I talked to a guy from Malmo, Sweden. He talked about how they have such a strong bike culture that about one in every three trips in the city is taken by bike. And that means they are often biking in the snow during the winter. They’ve built out these bike superhighways that have driven that culture.

I talked to a lady in Athens, Greece, and one of their big issues is that it’s so hot there and it’s supposed to get even hotter. They’re just trying to find ways to cool down some of their neighborhoods. And they’ve taken the lead from Los Angeles and they’re painting their blacktop with a white coating to absorb less heat.