Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States is withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords was framed as his obligation to “represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” The line conjures an image that a reindustrialized Pittsburgh will return to its smokestack roots, becoming once again the center of the nation’s steel production, fueled by Appalachian coal, and delivering raw material to vastly expanded American manufacturing industries. And it seems to suggest that this blessed future awaits not just Pittsburgh, but virtually all of the American Rust Belt, once crippling environmental regulations have been vanquished.
But Pittsburgh is not muddling through a post-industrial funk. In fact, it is a leading example of a city, and a region, that has rebuilt itself to compete in the post-industrial 21st century economy. Much of that transformation has only been possible because of the concerted efforts to clean the land, air and waterways damaged by virtually unregulated industrial use for over a century. Yet Pittsburgh has been able to generate new jobs, attract new workers and successfully compete against the world.
This truth got lost in the 2016 election which radically oversimplified the debate about how to strengthen America’s manufacturing industries and declining regions. Somewhere along the way, Joe Magarac, Pittsburgh’s mythical patron of steelworkers, has replaced the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal as the bedrock of the American economy. But an idealized view of the past overlooks not only the many reasons steel production declined in Pittsburgh, but the concerted effort both the city and region of Pittsburgh have made to build a postindustrial competitiveness.
Three decades ago, a handful of macro-economic forces—the mass obsolescence of industrial capital, contractionary monetary policy, global over-capacity and disruptive technology within the steel industry—came together to eviscerate Pittsburgh’s historic advantages in producing steel. Until then, few regions had fought harder, or failed more dramatically, to retain their industrial base than Pittsburgh. Moving forward was made all the more difficult by the scale of the collapse that the region endured in the 1980s. Over 150,000 manufacturing jobs permanently disappeared from southwestern Pennsylvania, and the Pittsburgh metropolitan region contracted by 176,000 people—the single largest population loss of any metropolitan region over the decade.
A lot has happened in Pittsburgh in three decades that followed the worst of the job destruction. Pittsburgh has been forced to redefine itself, a transformation that started with its workforce. Where once Pittsburgh was possibly the most blue-collar city in the nation, the region today relies on a workforce that is one of the most educated in the nation. At their peak, Pittsburgh’s manufacturing industries employed over 380,000 regional workers in the 1950s, but what’s left of those industries employ 83,000 today. The share of Pittsburgh workers employed in manufacturing industries has dropped below 7.1 percent of all nonfarm jobs, an all-time low, and even lower than a comparable 8.4 percent of workers across the nation. Once dependent on a singular industry, Pittsburgh has created new jobs across a range of industries. Building upon a core of stability in both the health and education sectors, employment has been shifting into finance and a broad range of professional service industries. Of late, Pittsburgh has attracted new technology-based investment by the likes of Google and Uber and looks to become a center of self-driving cars.
For Pittsburgh’s legacy industries, whatever economic gains can be made, if any, from a retreat from global climate efforts are offset many times over by the impact expected on other regional industries. One pole of the city’s growth has been the expansion of both academic research and enrollment at Pittsburgh’s universities and colleges. Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh—the city’s two largest universities—together expanded their annual research and development expenditures to over $1 billion dollars for the first time in 2010. Much of that growth has been fueled by federal research funding that appears to be at risk in the new priorities coming from Washington. Take into account that Pittsburgh’s university-based research is focused in the fields most agree are economic drivers for the nation: life sciences, information technology, robotics and more, the potential harm of diminished research funding is even greater.
More than anything else, the public has been told relaxed environmental regulations will aide a beleaguered coal industry. Yet, peak employment in the coal industry in both Pennsylvania and West Virginia came a full century ago. Today, less than a thousand coal miners are still employed across the Pittsburgh metropolitan region. Fewer than 6,000 coal miners are employed across Pennsylvania, and this is less than were employed in the state before the Civil War. Ironically, several thousand Pittsburgh workers are directly employed in the nuclear power industry, and their jobs are now at much greater risk because of an American retreat from global environmental standards.
Even the most historic coal firms of Pittsburgh do not look to their past. Consol Energy, one of Pittsburgh’s largest coal companies which traces its corporate roots to 1860—is currently completing its divestment of all of its coal assets. The company knows that its future will be determined far more by natural gas and the new unconventional shale development that has emerged across Pennsylvania. Counterintuitively, prospects for new coal jobs are put at risk by a weakening of environmental regulations. Pittsburgh and nearby Morgantown, West Virginia host the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL,) a federal lab long in the forefront of developing clean coal technology, now facing an uncertain future.
The hope that a reinvigorated coal industry will in the long run help Pittsburgh, or its neighbors across northern Appalachia is a false one. Regulation is easy to blame for coal’s continuing decline as a fuel choice, but new domestic supplies of natural gas have put coal at a competitive disadvantage that will be almost impossible to offset short of direct subsidies. This is not to say that regions dependent on coal production should be abandoned by federal policy the way Pittsburgh once was. What federal policy has long lacked is serious structural adjustment policies that could assist regions going through wrenching economic transformations.
There was no easy button to push for Pittsburgh that could painlessly reset its economy over the past 30 years. And there is no way the region—even if it wanted to—could return its economy to its pre-1980s state. Any serious attempt to make manufacturing again the core of Pittsburgh’s economy would take decades to rebuild the industrial networks that once existed there, and there is no reason to believe the result would not again lead to a future collapse. Make no mistake, Pittsburgh’s transformation is incomplete, uneven and ongoing, but there is no rational reason for the region to turn back on the progress it has made.