Mayor Bill Peduto. Photo by TH Carlisle.

Mayor Bill Peduto had a surprise for those attending the Pittsburgh Climate Action Summit on Wednesday. He started by talking about the recent UN Climate Action Summit and the role Pittsburgh played in it, and the vital need for everyone to buy into the UN Sustainable Development Goals (USDG). And then he followed with this:

“I can’t find a corporate partner to stand with me — none, zero — to talk about the USDG across the board. The best we can do is find organizations that will pick and choose which of the 17 different Sustainable Development Goals they can support,” he told the audience. “And if we stay within that culture, this region will be left behind economically and we will find ourselves back in the days of the ’80s and ’90s when the rest of the world moves forward and we stay dead where we are.”

His urgency was clear: “The issues that are being discussed are for the very survival and advancement of Western Pennsylvania,” Peduto said. “We must be able to be a part of what is probably the greatest economic investment that we will see in our lifetime in renewable energy: green tech and the ability to transform our environment in the process.

“Presently as described in New York [at the UN Climate Action Summit], there is $1 trillion worth of investment that is on the books in the United States based around green energy and clean energy — $1 trillion. And on a global basis, $56 trillion over the next 10 years. And the question is, do we sit at that table? Do we work to build the companies that will bring that type of investment in those types of jobs and opportunity to Western Pennsylvania? Or do we bury our head in the sand and say ‘the problem doesn’t exist. Go away. You’re bad for business.’”

Peduto also spoke about the “direct opportunity cost when we continue to invest in 19th-century industry that costs us the opportunity to bring 21st-century industry to this region.”

“Companies want to be in an environment where they can prosper, and where people understand the challenges our planet is facing,” Peduto said. “I talk with business executives every week — people from around the country and from around the world,” he added. “And what they say is very clear: ‘Clean your air and clean your water.’ … “Let me be the first politician to say publicly, I oppose any additional petrochemical companies coming to Western Pennsylvania.”

Peduto acknowledged the political and social complexity about cleaning up our air and water, as local people are struggling without jobs in industries like coal that once supported families throughout this region.

“I’ll be political for a minute,” he said. “In 2016, we completely got it wrong. When we went into towns that had not been a part of the economic change that’s occurring, and we said we’re going to make these pillars. It was tone-deaf or insulting,” the Mayor told the crowd.

When there’s no hope, “when you don’t see where do you belong in the future, or where your children belong in the future, and then somebody else comes around and says, ‘I’m going to open the mills. I’m going to open the mines. We’re going to deregulate, you’re going to have great jobs’ … they’ll choose false hope over no hope every time.

“You want to turn a coal miner into an environmentalist? Put a paycheck in his hand. Show him where his daughter’s going to be able to be in their own community in 40 years raising her family. Give them an opportunity to say, if we were able to build this country once we can build it again, and then put the emphasis on the building out and clean energy jobs.”

His message was all about the value of looking forward, not backward: “It makes sense. It’s an American Marshall Plan. You look at the areas that have been left behind economically, whether they’re in rural areas or urban areas, and you provide the tax incentives in order to be able to build out the jobs of tomorrow, built around this industrial revolution of clean energy.”

It’s happening, he said: “There’s a whole new batch of young political leaders that are coming up or have risen recently that are making that message very well heard in Harrisburg and in Washington. We’re doing it on our university campuses.”

But, “we’re missing it with our corporate community. The idea that the corporate leaders can say that climate change is not real and that anyone who tries to bring about the changes that are needed is an enemy to the economy of Western Pennsylvania — that narrative has to end. What I would like to see as we get these partners who are also adopting the UN SDGs is to see the corporate leadership, from the old economy of Pittsburgh to the new economy. I don’t want to just have Luis from Duolingo on board. I want to have the leaders of our banks, the leaders of our industries that helped to build this city and this country, on board as well.”

He spoke about the need for partnerships and pilot programs, and summed up with this:

“I ask you, how do we get our community to work together as one? To be able to end the nonsense of debating whether or not climate change is real, and whether man is responsible; to end the nonsense of being able to say that our economy in the future is based on fracking and petrochemicals, to be able to say that those who profess that, are the ones who will endanger our economy for the 21st century, because there are opportunity costs. And to be able to come together with a common goal around the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals at the sub-national level in order to be able to see the changes that we want to see in the world.

“Imagine if we were there. Imagine Pittsburgh was singing in a chorus, and being able to say that we respect our past, but we build for our future. Could you imagine the companies lining up to be a part of that, to be able to say, ‘We understand the legacies of an industrial city and the challenges that you face with air quality and water quality, but we recognize the work you are doing in order to be able to resolve those issues and to be able to become a world leader once again on the stage — not by reopening the mines to mills but by opening minds in order to be able to recognize where your future is. I can assure you, from the conversations that I have on a weekly basis, that it would be probably the single greatest thing we could do to improve our economy.

“But we’re not there. We’re not there. We’re not even close. I would love to see the heads of industry follow me on the stage and be able to say, ‘We are going to work for the future. We will respect and build upon our past. We will put people first in this transition. But we also recognize where the world is going.’”

Surveying the crowd, Peduto said “there’s a lot of power in this room. An incredible amount of power. The power to change this region for the generation that we live in and the generation that will come after us. If we only play defense, we will lose.”

His request was clear: “We’re looking for partners. We’re looking for you to help bring more partners to the table.”

Today, the Allegheny Conference issued this response:

“At yesterday’s Climate Action Summit, we were disturbed by City of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s remarks challenging the further development of downstream petrochemical manufacturing in southwestern Pennsylvania and questioning the business community’s commitment to sustainability.

Mayor Peduto’s statement was misguided and unnecessarily creates a false choice. A strong economy is essential to provide prosperity for everyone who lives here while we work together to improve our environment and quality of life. Leveraging the region’s natural and human resources in a responsible way is part of our diverse economic development strategy. Over the past decade our region has benefited from billions of dollars of capital investment, the creation of thousands of jobs and a growing advanced materials innovation ecosystem. The mayor’s comments will discourage not only investment by the petrochemical industry but by all industries, with implications for communities, workers and opportunity across our 10-county region.”

Tracy Certo

Tracy is the founder and Editor at Large of NEXTpittsburgh which she started in March 2014 and sold in December 2020. She is passionate about making Pittsburgh a better place for all and connecting people...