In announcing that he would withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement on climate change, President Donald Trump invoked the Midwest manufacturing base that helped deliver him to the White House. “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Trump said.

The phrase spawned a “Pittsburgh not Paris” rally in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, while in Pittsburgh protesters marched in defiance, carrying signs reading “Pittsburgh stands with Paris.” And the city’s mayor, Bill Peduto, fired back at Trump’s remarks on Twitter, writing, “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.”

Grant Ervin, chief resilience officer for the City of Pittsburgh
Courtesy Grant Ervin

ARCHITECT talked to Grant Ervin, Pittsburgh’s chief resilience officer, who says that his city’s actions to fight climate change rebuff Trump’s characterization of the issue as a concern only of coastal and global elites. As mayors and governors across the country pledge to carry the torch of climate action while the federal government retreats, Ervin says the nation can look to Pittsburgh for leadership.

What was your initial reaction when Trump called out Pittsburgh in his Paris Agreement exit speech?
My first reaction was that I was pretty shocked he connected Pittsburgh to that conversation. He's trying to work more for alliteration than effect. It's definitely not true of the current realities here in Pittsburgh, in terms of things that we’re working on, or over the last 30 years of things we've implemented as part of our both economic and environmental transition.

Do you think the U.S. withdrawing from the Paris Agreement will have any impact on your work?
I think the impact will be the loss of a federal partner. Our goals and objectives don't change. Our climate plan, which we’re developing right now, is based upon the framework that was created within the Clean Power Plan. Mayor Peduto represented us, along with a host of other mayors, at the Paris climate summit in 2015, so not only were we signatories to being supportive of it, but he was actually in attendance and a part of the conversation there. And the work that we're doing isn't going to change, because the work we're doing directly benefits the residents of the city of Pittsburgh.

What was changing before even the president's announcement to leave Paris is a lot of those framework activities. Whether it's denouncing the Clean Power Plan or changing CAFE standards for vehicles, or dismantling (through the budget process) the Environmental Protection Agency and other important infrastructure investment tools that the federal government provides, all of that is going to effectively change the calculus with regards to how we operate with a federal partner.

Your mayor has said he’ll remain committed to the Paris agreement even if the president isn’t. What does that mean exactly? What can one city like Pittsburgh do to execute or uphold the Paris agreement on its own?
At the high level, it's being committed to the idea that we have a shared responsibility to address the challenge that is climate change. Whether it's how we manage our fleet, [monitor] energy within our facilities, or encourage the design of infrastructure in our roadways or water systems, it's really about resource optimization and providing a framework for using those resources responsibly. Local governments have to be good stewards of those assets and we will continue to do that.

In terms of the agreement itself, the Paris agreement is all voluntary. Nations came together and said, “We recognize that climate change is probably the most pressing challenge facing the world today: Are we going to dedicate the resources to stand up to the challenge of climate change?”

Within that [larger recognition], there are a couple of direct actions that we're taking. One is the mayors’ climate compact. In the climate action plan we’re crafting, we use the Architecture 2030 standards and we benchmark emissions performance through tools like the Carbon Disclosure Project. We just completed our third-generation greenhouse gas emissions inventory, so that information is something that we collect, benchmark, and work with our local utility partner to look at how we [can] improve performance and buildings and transportation systems.

How is climate change affecting Pittsburgh? What impacts are you dealing with today and what are you expecting?
The two big areas where we've seen probably the biggest impacts are around high-level issues related to air quality and water. Even though we've made some significant strides and continue to improve air quality, a lot of our biggest stresses in Pittsburgh are because of continuations in point-source industrial pollution and transportation-related emissions.

This is one of the key things where we have the ability to pull a lever [so to speak] and make some enhancements. Our Smart Cities Program is incorporating things like artificial intelligence and data management to help better coordinate traffic signals, and we're starting to see a 20 to 30 percent reduction in transportation-borne emissions.

In water quality, one of the big issues that we're facing is a combined sewer overflow challenge. Some recent modeling that we've done with the RAND Corporation shows increasing precipitation due to climate change, and that really affects things like green infrastructure design and land-use planning.

Those are two really critical things that are facing Pittsburgh residents today.

President Trump’s budget proposal calls for deep cuts to the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal agencies that fund and coordinate a lot of the kind of work you’re talking about. You could see a lot of environmental grants pulled back. How are you planning for that?
There's definitely concern about the federal government no longer investing in its communities and its people. One of the ways we're starting to hedge against that, however, is starting to think about how to use the resources that we have locally to help create what we call “co-benefits.” So, for example, how do we integrate existing utility budgets and existing public works budgets? How do we take those capital investments and create emissions reductions and improve operations efficiencies?

The city has gone through a great transition in the last 25 to 30 years. While we definitely respect our heritage of heavy industry and manufacturing, that image has really evolved. I mean, we have companies here that are still in that manufacturing space, but they're developing clean technologies that improve and enhance environmental quality.

That’s kind of what President Trump was invoking when he name-checked Pittsburgh during his speech last week—I think to a lot of people Pittsburgh still means steel, coal, and heavy manufacturing, even though that hasn’t been the main driver of the city’s economy in decades. Is there an alternate vision of the city that you think more accurately reflects the reality there today?
Had we not experienced that significant economic shock 30 years ago, we wouldn't be seeing the resurgence that we're experiencing right now. If you look at the economic makeup of Pittsburgh, the majority of folks now work in the educational, medical, and financial spaces. There is huge growth happening in robotics and artificial intelligence. We just met with a company this afternoon called RoadRunner Recycling, that's developing an algorithmic tool to connect waste providers with recycling companies.

The idea that Pittsburgh is all grit and grime is somewhat contrary to what's actually happening here on the ground. We have a neighborhood called the Strip District adjacent to downtown where you have companies like Epiphany Solar Water Systems that are using solar power to purify water. You have Arconic— a spinoff of Alcoa—that is now finding new uses for aluminum in a carbon-negative scenario.

These are all tools that are being designed and manufactured here, but the myth that manufacturing is all a big slab of steel is a day gone past.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.