Opinion

Indira A.R. Lakshmanan

Mr. Trump, you don’t know Pittsburgh like I know Pittsburgh

In this Aug. 18, 2009, aerial photo is downtown Pittsburgh located at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers on the north side of Pittsburgh. Like Detroit, Pittsburgh was a community defined by its dependence on a single industry. But as steelmaking crumbled under pressure from foreign imports and the decline of the U.S. auto industry, the city’s population dropped by more than 40 percent between 1970 and 2006, according to a 2013 report from the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. But during those years, Pittsburgh also forged a new identity around health care and technology. Detroit's bankruptcy can't be blamed solely on the city's reliance on one industry that itself buckled. Some point to the city’s political leadership and its reluctance over the years to make tough decisions. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press/File
Downtown Pittsburgh, at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers.

When President Trump justified withdrawing from the global climate deal by saying, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” my ears perked up. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh.

To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: I know Pittsburgh. Mr. President, you weren’t elected by Pittsburgh. Mayor Bill Peduto tweeted Thursday night that 80 percent of the city voted for Hillary Clinton. Most Pittsburghers believe global warming is caused by human activities and are worried about it, according to Yale data — and like the vast majority of Americans, they support regulations on carbon emissions and strict limits on coal-fired power plants.

By turning back the clock to revive fossil fuels that endanger our physical and financial future for some fanciful notion of “making America great again,” Trump is not representing the citizens of Pittsburgh, who have moved on to a more prosperous, post-industrial, 21st century economy. They are doing much better for it too, with a real per capita income that’s seven percent higher than the national average.

Advertisement

Since Trump and his speechwriters didn’t do their homework before citing Pittsburgh, let me educate them.

Get Today in Opinion in your inbox:
Globe Opinion's must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday-Friday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

It isn’t some hellscape of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones” that Trump described in his bleak inaugural. It’s the poster child of the reverse: a reinvented Rust Belt hub that’s now a diversified, high-tech, knowledge-based economy. Factories and warehouses have been redeveloped into waterfront shopping centers, office parks and luxury lofts. So much so that G-20 industrialized leaders chose Pittsburgh to host their 2009 summit, to showcase its clean energy innovations as a model for post-industrial cities.

I grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s and ’80s as mills that once produced half the nation’s steel were shuttering under pressure from foreign competition and deindustrialization, hemorrhaging jobs. In 1983, the adjusted unemployment rate in metropolitan Pittsburgh hit 17 percent. It was grim.

But just as they came together after World War II to clean up the soot-filled air that once blacked out the sun, becoming a model for environmental campaigns elsewhere, civic leaders steadily transformed the economy into a hub for higher education, medicine, high-tech, advanced manufacturing and — wait for it — green energy, which now accounts for 21 percent of jobs.

Since hitting rock bottom in 1983, Pittsburgh now has 45,000 more jobs than at the steel industry’s peak. The biggest employer is University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, whose logo sits atop the old US Steel building, literally capping the city’s transformation. Google has more than doubled its local engineering workforce since 2014. Uber inaugurated self-driving cars there. It’s been ranked the most livable city in the continental US by The Economist, Forbes and others.

Advertisement

Trump doesn’t just insult Pittsburgh when he assumes the city wants or needs dirty, outdated steel, iron and coal jobs. He misunderstands economic forces.

According to 2017 Department of Energy figures, 2.2 million Americans work in energy efficiency. Another 800,000 work in low-carbon electricity, including renewable energy, nuclear energy and low emission natural gas. Clean energy jobs outnumber coal and gas jobs in America by 5 to 1.

Yet Trump is dumping a global accord intended to save the planet from extreme weather, coastal destruction, and conflicts over resources to bring back an imaginary halcyon past. Let me say, it must have been hard to whistle on the way to work when the soot was so thick a writer famously described the Pittsburgh of yore as “hell with the lid taken off.”

Ironically, coal jobs on which Trump has so fixated have been in decline for a century. The founder of the largest private coal firm in America admits Trump can’t bring the jobs back because the market doesn’t want them. Coal employs just 51,000 people nationwide – fewer than theme parks, used car dealerships or Whole Foods. Yet I doubt we’ll hear Trump clamoring for more jobs in the arugula aisle.

Thursday night, 83 American mayors representing 40 million Americans pledged to uphold the commitments of the Paris deal, intensifying efforts to meet each of their city’s goals to “create a 21st century clean energy economy,” whose jobs, by the way, are higher-paying than the old ones.

Advertisement

Tesla founder Elon Musk and Walt Disney Corp. CEO Bob Iger quit Trump’s jobs panel in protest. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein tweeted for the first time, calling Trump’s withdrawal “a setback for the environment and for the US’s leadership.”

Instead of glorifying an obsolete era, if Trump wants to make America 21st-century great, innovating well-paid jobs in a global green energy market that’s growing, he could learn something from Pittsburgh.

Indira A.R. Lakshmanan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.