'Paris to Pittsburgh' Is a Visual Testament to Horror and Hope

The climate change documentary premieres Wednesday.

Mayor Bill Peduto works for the people of Pittsburgh, but on Monday his duties took him to Poland. He was chosen to represent the United States at the Global Covenant of Mayors during the COP24, an annual United Nations conference that addresses the impact of climate change. The majority of the mayors attending this year are working together to implement the Paris Agreement, from which President Donald Trump withdrew the United States in 2017.

This did not sit well with Peduto, especially when his city was pulled into it.

In the new documentary, Paris to Pittsburgh, which premieres Wednesday on the National Geographic channel, Peduto describes the moment it all went down: On June 1, 2017, Trump announced in the Rose Garden that the U.S. was exiting from the most important united action against climate change to date, with the alliteration that he was “elected to represent the citizen the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Peduto read the news alert twice, walked into his chief of staff’s office, and bellowed “Pittsburgh?!”

That’s because Pittsburgh is committed to a clean energy future and, Peduto emphasizes, is one of the hundreds of cities across the country that is doing its part to still stick by the Paris Agreement. After Trump’s withdrawal, Peduto announced that the city would be powered by 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. Pittsburgh, not Paris? Both cities wanted the same thing.

wind turbine
The film focuses on initiatives to create clean energy.

Sidney Beaumont, who directed Paris to Pittsburgh alongside Michael Bonfiglio, tells Inverse that the film’s team saw the Rose Garden speech as a moment that represented a stark contrast to what the rest of the world seemed to be saying. In the aftermath, when they saw a groundswell of people who stood up and decried what the president said, they knew they needed to tell that story as quickly as they could.

“It was an opportunity to tell a story concerning, what we consider, the biggest challenge of the day,” Beaumont says. “It was important for us to show that, even as challenges continue to mount, there is a passionate commitment by so many people, even in the absence of federal leadership, to tackle this issue and bring about the kinds of policies, practices, and technologies that are going to move the needle.”

The framework of the documentary mirrors in many ways the issue of climate change. The voices of the documentary belong to citizens, scientists, industrialists, capitalists, and politicians across the aisle. The common thread is that they are affected by climate change, and wish to do something about it. While climate-deniers speak loudly in the United States, the universalism at the heart of the documentary is what it’s like when the conversation moves past borders: Pew Research Centers found in 2016 that the majority of people across 40 nations not only think climate change is a “very serious problem,” they agree that it is “already harming people around the world.”

flood, Iowa
Flooding in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The harm is visually demonstrated in Paris to Pittsburgh but paired with an element of hope: The film travels across U.S. states and territories documenting hardships wrought by climate change, and the people living in the same regions actively responding to those hardships with initiatives and ingenuity.

In a hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, we visit the community of Casa Pueblo that’s thriving amid the wreckage — because of solar power. We also see their willingness to spread that power across the island. In Iowa, viewers can see the damage inflicted by “500-year floods” that now come every two years, in the very same state that is leading the charge in wind turbine-charged clean energy.

“We’re dealing with issues that may feel distant and perhaps challenging for people to really digest if they aren’t an expert or directly impacted,” Beaumont says. “For us — to be able to go into communities and be invited to see first-hand how they’ve been impacted — was a privilege.

“The projects and initiatives that we saw, I think truly embody the spirit of humans and our ability to not only address problems but create change.”

Inspiring people who feel unaffected to care about climate change has historically been something at which Americans have failed. But I’d challenge one not to feel moved by Paris to Pittsburgh. It’s easy to turn away from stories about tragedy, and this film has it’s fair share. There are people who lost their homes and health to pollution, fire, and flooding. Portions of Paris to Pittsburgh aren’t exactly entertainment.

And that’s largely why this documentary is peppered with so many stories of people who are actually fighting back, despite the lack of federal support. The result is a sometimes disjointed documentary, that moves forward with a give-and-take momentum, but that’s climate change itself, a dichotomy between horror and hope. Perhaps because of visual testaments like Paris to Pittsburgh, we’ll eventually have more of the latter.

Paris to Pittsburgh airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. Eastern on National Geographic.

Media via National Geographic, National Geographic,  Radical Media