John Fetterman is not easy to miss. He’s 6’8”, 325 pounds, and usually dressed in a black work shirt and boots. He sports two large tattoos on his forearms, a shaved head, and a goatee. You might mistake him for a steelworker at first glance, but he’s actually the 40-year-old, Harvard-educated mayor of Braddock, Pa.
Fetterman has become a poster boy for the clean-energy revolution, thanks to an Environmental Defense Fund ad campaign that features him calling for climate and clean-energy legislation to help revitalize former steel towns like Braddock. He’s appeared before Congress twice to testify in support of the Waxman-Markey climate bill, arguing that a cap on carbon will help towns like his recover.
Braddock was once a thriving steel town along the Monongahela River, the place where Andrew Carnegie made his fortune in steel. The town’s population was over 20,000 in the 1950s, but the bottom began to fall out soon thereafter. Steel jobs left, and with them, the town’s prosperity and population. The town now has fewer than 3,000 residents, and empty houses and vacant lots line the streets. Unemployment runs about three times the national average, and the median household income is just $18,473.
Fetterman, a native of York, Pa., moved to the town in 2001 after graduate school at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, to start a program for young adults. He was elected mayor of the city in 2005, and since then has made revitalizing the town his top priority. He has Braddock’s zip code, 15104, tattooed on one arm, and on the other are the dates of killings that have occurred during his time in office, along with the words “I will make you hurt.”
In the past four years, the town has launched a green-jobs summer program for youth, created a green space for the community, and brought a small alternative energy company, Fossil Free Fuel, to the downtown area. Plans are underway for a community center powered by geothermal energy.
Earlier this year, Fetterman and his town were featured in a New York Times article; it caught the attention of the Environmental Defense Fund, which enlisted Fetterman in its ad campaign in support of the House climate bill. The ads show the abandoned streets of Braddock and unemployed steelworkers from the region, with Fetterman calling for “a cap on carbon pollution” to “create jobs making things like solar panels and wind turbines.”
Grist caught up with Fetterman in Pittsburgh, Pa., recently to talk about his town and the hope for a green-job revolution. “At the end of the day, we need to build pragmatic solutions in environmental stewardship, of course, but we also have to make sure we’re taking care of the other side of the socioeconomic coin, [those who] don’t have the luxury of being able to care which kind of heirloom tomato they buy,” he told Grist.
Q. Where did the green-jobs idea come from? What was the inspiration for your work on that?
A. Braddock and Pittsburgh need to continually be progressive and advance that frontier. That’s something that I’ve always been involved in and believed in strongly. Urban agriculture, for example. Braddock has this enormously large inventory of vacant lots. What’s the best way to marry the needs of the community with the realities we have in town?
We have kids that don’t have summer jobs. We don’t have any grocery stores in town, and we’ve got this large number of lots. Well, let’s build a small-scale urban farm. That way we create jobs. We create fresh organic produce. We use and beautify a lot that looked like it was a research-and-development lab for different weeds—they were waist high! It serves the community, and also does it in a way that is consistent with a sustainable, more progressive lifestyle. So from my perspective it’s a win-win.
It’s not a matter of having this fetish saying, I compost, so I can pat myself on the back. It’s saying what can we do as a community that improves the quality of life for our residents—and that we’re able to do it in a way that’s sustainable and adheres to these principles, that’s just icing on the cake.
Q. Are folks in Braddock receptive to talk about passing a climate bill?
A. Most people are like, “What the hell is cap-and-trade?” It’s kind of like derivatives, where these economists can’t explain what it is. So there’s a lot of esoteric things involved. But when you explain that this is the kind of thing that helped get lead out of paint and acid rain and these other things, and how it can create the demand for steel, they get that. There are 250 tons of steel in a windmill. If we build a million windmills, that’s 250 million tons of steel. They understand that, that gels for folks.
When you say global warming in 75 years will raise the average temperature by a degree and a half, that doesn’t mean anything to me. I’ve got to eat. My house if falling apart. So not playing to people’s concern for the environment, but [being] pragmatic—you want a job again, let’s pass this bill.
And as an added benefit, whether you care about it or not, it’s going to reduce our carbon footprint and make us a leader in the world, as we should be, in terms of reducing our carbon output, and also make us the leaders in technology that we can export to these countries like India and China that have no sustainable manufacturing principles.