It's Not Just Trump's Paris Decision That's Bad for Pittsburgh

The rest of the president's economic platform isn't great for the city either.
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The rest of the president's economic platform isn't great for the city either.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Last week, in a speech announcing the United States' withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, President Donald Trump proudly declared that his decision was motivated by a heartfelt desire to protect the jobs of Americans. "I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris," Trump said. Capitalizing on the alliteration, enterprising Republicans promptly organized a "Pittsburgh Not Paris" rally near the White House in support of Trump's decision.

But Pittsburgh isn't having it. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto quickly responded, via Twitter, that "As the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy & future." On June 2nd, Peduto, joining a group of other "U.S. Climate Mayors" promising to meet their Paris goals, signed an executive order committing the city to the Paris accords, vowing to transition to 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2035. That night, government buildings in the city were lit green in support of the Paris Agreement.

As quite a few people have pointed out, the Pittsburgh of Trump's imagination no longer exists. In recent years, Pittsburgh has come to be known not for its steel mills, which have been in sharp decline for some time, but for its economic reinvention as a mini tech hub. Google, Amazon, Apple, and Disney all have offices there. It's where Uber first tested its self-driving cars. And while the city is still home to manufacturing activity, it's now the high-tech, advanced kind—GE, for example, opened a center focused on the additive manufacturing industry in the city last spring.

"Pittsburgh was so specialized 50 years ago. It's a much more diversified economy today," says Sabina Deitrick, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has been studying the city's economy for years. "Today, the tech, financial, health care, research, and education sectors are all healthy. Manufacturing probably plays a smaller role in our economy today than it does in most U.S. cities."

Perhaps not surprisingly, given its focus on the modern economy, the city also boasts a thriving clean energy sector. According to Environmental Entrepreneurs, a non-partisan organization that advocates for "smart environmental policies that drive economic growth," Allegheny County leads the state in clean energy jobs, boasting over 7,000 of them. All in, there are approximately 70,000 clean energy sector jobs in the state of Pennsylvania—double the number of fossil fuel jobs in the state. What's more, the jobs are diverse, both in terms of the level of skills required and their location.

"We have some jobs that are very technical and require advanced degrees, and others that are available to people right out of high school," says Sharon Pillar, Environmental Entrepreneurs' Pennsylvania consultant. "And our wind industry is primarily located in the mountains outside Pittsburgh, so this industry is bringing jobs to rural areas as well."

"If you look at the Pittsburgh economy, it's driven by federal investments in innovation and research. These investments are as American as planting the flag on the moon."

Until recently, leaders in the clean energy sector were bullish about their growth prospects, anticipating more hiring in the future. Pillar says that Pittsburgh's clean energy sector is now looking to local and state leaders to enact policies to mitigate the damage of Trump's decision. Failure to act could be devastating to the local clean energy industry.

"Think about it: We've got less than 5 percent of our energy right now coming from renewable energy, and we already have 70,000 jobs," Pillar says. "That just speaks to the potential growth that's there. This is a missed opportunity. A president who has run a campaign around creating jobs is being really completely reckless with the jobs that exist and also the potential jobs that are going to be missed by not going down this path."

It's not just the president's Paris decision that's been harmful to Pittsburgh. As Scott Andes, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, points out, the Trump administration's budget proposals retreat from many of the federal programs and policies that made Pittsburgh great again. For example, research breakthroughs at the city's institutions of higher education (which receive federal funding that would be cut under Trump's budget) have spawned countless start-ups in fields like robotics and clean energy. Likewise, the University of Pittsburgh is the country's fifth-largest recipient of funding from the National Institutes of Health—Trump's budget proposes reducing funding for that agency by $5 billion. The city also benefits from organizations like Catalyst Connections, which works with local universities to link advancements in robotics with small manufacturers around the region; the organization is funded by the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which Trump's budget proposes eliminating.

A technician sits in an Uber self-driving car on September 13th, 2016, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

A technician sits in an Uber self-driving car on September 13th, 2016, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

"If all these cuts were to actually happen, it would decimate the Pittsburgh innovation economy," Andes says. "Pittsburgh is the exact example of why these programs are essential, and saying that Paris is somehow hurting Pittsburgh, while on the other hand eliminating the programs and funding that very clearly help the city, it's just nonsense."

Contrary to the current economic narrative, there are other Pittsburghs all around the country—places like Charlotte, North Carolina, or Buffalo, New York, that have reinvented themselves to be better positioned for the economy of the future. Their growth stories are not always perfect; many of these cities are still trying to figure out how to make sure that economic growth is shared equitably, with equal access to education and affordable housing. Many of these very cities would be deeply harmed by some of the president's policy proposals.

"Pittsburgh, while a great story and an example and how a city can recreate itself, still needs a lot from the federal government. If we walk away from the kinds of things that have aided and abetted the city's development, there's a real concern that Pittsburgh and other cities like it—Atlanta, Charlotte, Durham—will lose their competitive positions," Andes says. "The real bottom line is that if you look at the Pittsburgh economy, it's driven, by a non-trivial amount, by federal investments in innovation and research. These investments are as American as planting the flag on the moon."