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‘Paris to Pittsburgh’ documentary shows what dramatic climate action might look like

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The new film portrays a U.S. economy fueled by renewable energy jobs

Faith Lutat is pursuing a career in wind energy at Iowa Lakes Community College’s Sustainable Energy Resources and Technology program.
Faith Lutat is pursuing a career in wind energy at Iowa Lakes Community College’s Sustainable Energy Resources and Technology program.
Photo courtesy Paris to Pittsburgh

Minutes after President Donald Trump vowed to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord in 2017, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto received an alert on his phone. The president had name-checked Pittsburgh as a way to rationalize his decision: “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”

Peduto took to Twitter to counter the president’s statement, and within a few hours, dozens—then hundreds—of mayors had rallied around him, pledging to uphold the climate agreement even without federal support.

That famous tweet, and the collective action that followed, inspired Paris to Pittsburgh, a National Geographic documentary that premiered late last year.

I enjoyed the film when I watched it in early December—it’s now free to watch online—but after the events of the last few weeks, I realized the documentary’s message is far more powerful now. The film, which was produced by Radical Media in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies, shows what the country might look like under the Green New Deal—a plan championed by incoming members of Congress to reduce emissions while rebuilding the U.S. economy.

Climate change films have been debuting at an accelerated rate over the last few years—An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Floodso viewers might not flinch at the animated charts of ocean temperatures set against imagery of hurricanes and wildfires.

But by highlighting the severity of the past year’s climate disasters against the industries that have undergone tremendous transformation in the face of that destruction, Paris to Pittsburgh provides a more hopeful outlook.

What is particularly striking about Paris to Pittsburgh, and what stuck with me weeks after watching it, is the film’s vivid portrayal of jobs in renewable-energy industries.

I was most entranced with a group of women working on wind turbines in Iowa, 25 stories above rolling green farmland. The women were enrolled at a local community college, essentially guaranteed employment after graduation, and poised to enter a field experiencing 100 percent job growth. They were being granted a type of career security that doesn’t really exist anywhere else.

Perhaps most inspiringly, the women said they were empowered by their choice to pioneer new roles in a new industry. “It’s all about working smarter, not harder,” says Faith Lutat, one of the women in the group.

The promise of the Green New Deal is what the film really hits home—the movement to remake the systems that deliver our energy, food, and water is already underway. And it’s fueled by young, idealistic Americans who will stop at nothing to remake society.

Some industries are noticeably absent in this vision. Although there are plenty of pretty shots of LA’s Gold Line train twirling through skyscrapers, hardly any of the discussion is focused around the change needed in the transportation industry, which, as Los Angeles’ chief sustainability officer Lauren Faber O’Connor notes in the film, creates one-third of the U.S.’s emissions. It would have been nice to see a profile of a bike-share operator or electric-bus manufacturer instead of so much focus on renewable-energy generation (there were two segments focused on solar energy—it seems like one could have focused on something else).

But the shift to renewable energy is perhaps the most symbolic, as the film highlights one of the biggest conundrums for states and cities pledging to clean up their economies: The fact that so many of them are still profiting off gas and oil.

In a compelling section, Vox’s David Roberts calls California’s role as a climate leader into question for setting lofty goals—like becoming carbon-neutral by 2045—that seem to ignore the fact that the state’s economy is bankrolled by the extraction of fossil fuels. Maybe a sequel, Katowice to California, can focus on how the state, and the country, weaned itself off fossil fuel production for good.

Pittsburgh’s story comes in at the end, carrying one of the film’s most poignant messages. When Trump’s speechwriters picked Pittsburgh to play against Paris as a simple alliterative device, they clearly chose the wrong city.

It was only a few decades ago, before the Pennsylvania city became a shining example of civic renewal, that Pittsburgh itself was nearly destroyed by the impacts of fossil fuels. Peduto, who grew up in the city, recounts a time when office workers would have to change their shirts at lunch, after the first one became drenched with soot.

Regulations had just started to clean up the city when the steel industry collapsed in the 1980s. Pittsburgh was now forced to confront an economic disaster that was in many ways precipitated by the environmental one. The city snapped into action, pouring resources into its research institutions, luring innovative new industries, and transforming brownfields into vibrant public spaces. The city still has a ways to go, Peduto says in the film. “But if we look at it as an American Marshall Plan, we can exceed the goals of the Paris agreement.”

Pittsburgh has already rebuilt its economy once in an effort to safeguard its future. As the film reiterates, nothing is going to stop that progress. But the astonishing speed at which one city implemented what was essentially its own Green New Deal should be held up as inspiration to any American wondering just how fast radical change can and should occur.