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The Age of Climate Industrialism
If you ever read anything we write, it should be this.
(Quick) Story Time:
In 1872, Edgar Thomson Steel Works began construction on Pittsburgh's first steel mill, which was producing rails by 1874. A decade later, New York City's first electric lights illuminated Pearl Street Station, the world's first central power station. Detroit saw the manufacturing of the first Ford Model T in 1908, and then the first Ford assembly line in 1913. In 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge was opened to the public in San Francisco after only four years of construction.
It was the Age of the American Industrial Revolution. The workforce was on the ground and in factories, building our cities, the infrastructure that connects them, and the technologies that define our lives to this day. Industrialization and urbanization went hand-in-hand, with steady wages and benefits fueling investments in housing, urban development, and thriving local economies.
But since the 1950s, we've seemed stuck in a rut. Much of manufacturing and production has moved overseas, and it can often feel impossible to actually build in American cities — whether it's homes, transit, or new infrastructure. De-industrialization decimated many once-thriving industrial hubs, and made it difficult to deploy technologies that can improve our built environments and lives. And in the era of climate change, that has meant that we often can't put our adaptation and mitigation technologies to work where we need them most.
But in the last few years, things have started to stir. People are starting to reject and push back against the stasism that's dammed up our innovation, and climate change has been a major motivator in that awakening.
New talent, innovation, founders, funders, and government action have all mobilized to develop the real solutions that we need to respond to climate change. We've once again become motivated to build our way towards a brighter future by developing and deploying physical and material technologies.
We've entered the Age of Climate Industrialism.
Ok, so what is Climate Industrialism?
Climate Industrialism is our term for the optimistic, action-oriented response to climate doom and gloom. It's a rejection of the idea that climate solutions have to be rooted in scarcity and sacrifice. Instead, it's a bet that climate solutions rooted in abundance and progress can and will create value for people in their daily lives, homes, communities, and cities. (And no, this wasn't a term before. But it is now!)
Alright, let's dig into how Climate Industrialism functions as a virtuous cycle of value creation, urbanization, and climate action.
Cities are the labs where we develop and test climate solutions.
Or at least, they can and should be. We're seeing cities embrace their role in promoting the development, manufacturing, and uptake of climate technologies around the world — it's not just a branding exercise. This trend is central to the Climate Industrialism thesis.
Few cities currently have the companies and technologies they need to achieve their ambitious climate goals, but they're the perfect hubs for experimentation and implementation of these new technologies. To act as urban labs for climate solutions, cities are taking real policy and budgetary action. Here are some examples of what's already happening across the globe:
🗽 New York City is creating a leading Center for Climate Solutions at Governors Island in partnership with a consortium of universities, transforming the former 172-acre army base into a cross-disciplinary hub for climate research, innovation, and policymaking.
💷 The London Cleantech Cluster is facilitating the deployment of climate technologies through a "Meet the Buyer" program, where they link innovators working on sustainability solutions with purchasers in government and at large corporations.
🌱 Bringing together the oft-siloed climate policy, technology, and justice movements, the Barcelona Lab for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability puts the needs of socially vulnerable groups at the center of sustainable urban land use practices and planning decisions in Barcelona and across the EU.
🌊 Anchorage, Alaska is home to the Alaska Ocean Cluster, a startup accelerator for technologies that benefit the ocean ecosystem and Alaska's maritime economy across the state’s 34,000 miles of shoreline, with an exciting focus on physical products.
All of these policies, such as setting up advanced purchasing agreements; partnering with start-ups and industry from idea stage all the way to product-market fit and commercialization; and simplifying permitting, zoning, and procurement processes set cities up for success in the Age of Climate Industrialism. Because we think cities should be rolling out the red carpet for climate tech, rather than putting up red tape (to borrow some words of wisdom from Pittsburgh's former mayor, Bill Peduto).
Putting the "industry" in Climate Industrialism.
A lot of today's climate innovation is rooted in software or knowledge work (which is absolutely critical). But vulnerability assessments, strategic plans, and resource optimization won't solve climate change if we don't act on that information in the real world. We'll need real technologies — the products of tomorrow's climate industries — doing their thing on the ground and in our streets to actually make a difference. We're exploring many of these in earlier (and upcoming) Street Notes, but here are some examples of the high-growth, high-impact climate industries we have in mind:
And then putting those industries in cities.
Cities' role in the Age of Climate Industrialism will be to not only foster the development of new climate industries, but also to adopt and deploy new technologies. Certain cities will be especially primed to play both of these roles, and they'll see the benefits of both industrialization and urbanization.
Take the Rust Belt or Appalachian coal towns. These once-thriving urban cores experienced industrial booms and explosive urbanization throughout the American Industrial Revolution. But as de-industrialization took hold of the American economy, so did suburbanization and ex-urbanization. The result was that cities like Detroit, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh — which saw huge economic growth in the mid-1900s due to steel, auto, and other industries — are now shells of their former selves. In recent years, they've been trying to re-energize their urban cores and rebrand themselves in what some are calling Rust Belt Urbanism, which capitalizes on cities' existing infrastructure and history in their evolution for the modern economy.
While some cities are turning to conferences or tourism, we think that the truest form of this transformation is Climate Industrialism. It offers a beautiful way to honor industrial cities' history through dynamism and progress. Rather than trying to entomb these cities in a static industrial past, Climate Industrialism gives us an opportunity to maintain the character and soul of communities while seeding economic opportunity, drawing talent, and building resilience to our changing environment. Here are early examples in action:
⚡️Toledo, Ohio has submitted a Department of Energy proposal for a "pink hydrogen hub" — promising to use nuclear and solar energy to generate hydrogen that will power manufacturing and transport in the area.
🏘 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has established an EcoInnovation District that is implementing everything from walkable neighborhoods to autonomous vehicle pilots to solar EV charging infrastructure.
🔋 Baltimore, Maryland is home to a Talen Energy power plant that is transitioning from coal power to batteries in partnership with Key Capture Energy. Rather than shutting down the plant, this transition is protecting jobs and the local economy. This project has enjoyed a streamlined approval process and will be live within a year!
🚗 Lansing, Michigan is the soon-to-be home of a new GM plant to manufacture EV batteries, creating 1700 new jobs along the way. School retrofit startup Greenlight is not only making the city’s school buildings more sustainable, but they are also designing a training curriculum to ensure students have the right skills to take on these new opportunities.
Amongst our team, we all have very different views on the idea of Startup Cities (coined by our friend Zach Caceres). But one thing is clear: we need to add an equivalent of a new Paris every 5 days to accommodate urbanization. This is happening both in greenfield projects and historic metropolises, and startup cities can take the form of new neighborhoods and communities building on the fabric of existing urban agglomerations. We believe that these new urban initiatives should optimize for climate technologies, density, mixed use developments, and climate-friendly transportation. Climate Industrialism aligns with these needs, and creates physical workplaces and requires real infrastructure. It creates jobs for people from a variety of educational and social backgrounds, and it could lead to natural, organic growth with a strong business case for investment.
Oil and Gas Towns.
The dark horse candidates for Climate Industrialism are cities who currently have strong industrial economies, but rely on sectors that lack staying power. With the mass movement of government and private sector towards decarbonization, it's hard to deny that oil and natural gas are operating on a ticking clock. There are cities across the world (we're looking at you, Houston, Caracas, and Riyadh) whose entire economies are at risk due to the move away from oil and gas. By embracing Climate Industrialism now, they might be able to avoid a fate similar to the Rust Belt, and just skip to the good part. And this isn't just a pie-in-the-sky vision; there's already a groundswell of this type of action. For example, Houston mayor Sylvester Turner recently brought a new Greentown Labs cleantech incubator branch to his shores to help with the clean energy transition — and the resulting economic transition of the city.
Longstanding Centers of Commerce and Culture.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. It takes time to create great, beautiful, people-centric places and the history of cities tells us this story time and again. The capitals of the Mughal empire in Mumbai, the Chinese dynasties in Beijing, or the Greek empires in Athens have survived millennia of ups and downs. In every case after a downturn, they picked back up and leveraged the latest innovations in commerce and technology to rebuild their economies and thrive.
These same places are now in the early innings of the next transformation based on climate solutions and investing in the ideas, policies, and technologies of the 21st century. Mumbai became the first city in India to release a climate action plan, setting net zero targets for 2050 (a full 20 years ahead of promises made by the Indian national government). Beijing has doled out $15 billion of incentives to become the EV battery king of the world, and Athens was the world’s first city to hire a Chief Heat Officer, who has gone on a building spree to put solar panels and greenery on every rooftop in the city to keep it cool. These are the types of ambitious investments that these global centers of commerce will need to continue to make to help them adapt to their next big challenge.
But most importantly, this is for people.
During the American Industrial Revolution of the 1870s - 1950s, nearly 40% of American jobs were in manufacturing. These blue-collar jobs provided good wages and benefits, which led to bustling, thriving local economies. Steady industrial jobs for people of all educational and social backgrounds created vibrant, resilient cities for everyone.
Even though we've seen sharp declines in these types of jobs with de-industrialization over the last 50 years, we believe that industrialism as a whole is going to be a significant driver of economic growth over the next decade. We see it in everything from the American Dynamism movement to Ezra Klein's call for a "liberalism that builds", and we're witnessing the emergence of Climate Industrialism as part of that trend.
Part of the appeal is that Climate (or any) Industrialism doesn't just create high flying software jobs for those sitting behind zoom screens; it's the boots-on-the-ground jobs that help us truly decarbonize and adapt our society to climate change. The growth of blue-collar jobs in climate industries — or green collar jobs — will characterize this era's workforce. These jobs, and the new ones that we'll see as a result of industrial growth, have many of the same benefits that we saw in the American Industrial Revolution: stability, salaries, benefits, training, and more.
If the American Industrial Revolution is any indicator, these types of jobs will create healthier cities and allow everyone to participate in the new wave of industrialization. And this labor transition is already happening. We particularly want to highlight the work that several new companies are doing to train the boots-on-the-ground workforce of tomorrow:
👷🏼 Greenwork is training thousands of field staff to install everything from solar panels to HVAC systems, helping to solve a significant skilled labor shortage
🚗 ChargerHelp!, a startup based at the LA Cleantech Incubator, is a platform that trains, connects, and dispatches technicians to fix EV charging stations — critical components of our clean transport infrastructure buildout.
🏢 BlocPower’s Civilian Climate Corps program provides training and job opportunities to New Yorkers in neighborhoods impacted by gun violence, while helping NYC tackle its largest source of GHG emissions: buildings.
💡 Terra.do's mission is to get 100 million people to work directly on climate in this decade. They do this through online courses, career fairs and job opportunities, and a community of climate enthusiasts.
These are all perfect examples of the type of professional development that's going to transform the landscape of cities, the workforce, and technology uptake and deployment at scale.
Finally, there's the matter of paying for it.
The foundations for equitably tackling the climate challenge are finally in place. First, the technologies we started investing in during the cleantech 1.0 era like solar and wind are hitting unit economics that make them cost competitive — and even cheaper — than their fossil fuel counterparts. In fact, a rapid shift to clean energy is predicted to save the world $12 trillion.
Second, there's a whole-of-government effort to support and invest in a whole-of-economy transformation. In the past year, our oft-dysfunctional national political apparatus miraculously passed over a trillion dollars of federal investment in infrastructure, manufacturing, and energy transition through the IIJA, CHIPS, and IRA, respectively. Even the investments at the heyday of the American Industrial Revolution pale in comparison!
And third, government investment catalyzes private investment: the IRA alone could result in over $1.7 trillion of spending across the economy over the next 10 years according to a widely cited analysis by Credit Suisse. We’re not just mitigating risk. We're capturing opportunities, and you don't want to be on the sidelines.
This money is targeting frontline communities impacted by climate change in cities large and small across our country. Through the Biden Administration’s Justice40 Initiative, 40% of the overall benefits of these federal investments will flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and have borne the brunt of the climate crisis. That's a stark difference from the American Industrial Revolution, which was built on the backs of slaves and low-cost workers and resulted in the racial and gender wealth gaps we see today. Climate Industrialism — if we get it right — will be the opposite.
The Age of Climate Industrialism has just begun.
This piece isn't a prescription for Climate Industrialism; rather, it's our way of putting a name to a trend that's already organically happening.
This is the ultimate opportunity for cities, companies, and communities to come together and build more beautiful, liveable, and resilient places to call home. That’s the whole point of Parachute x Streetlife, after all. The hard work of implementation lies ahead of us. That’s what the Age of Climate Industrialism is all about.
If your city or company is working on a project that fits into the Climate Industrialism theme, we want to hear from you and share your story! Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.