The City Insider Proving that Mayors Can Lead on Climate

Chris Wheat, who helped make Chicago a greener place from inside its city hall, is now helping empower city governments across the country to realize their many climate ambitions.
Chris Wheat (right) and former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel

Courtesy of Chris Wheat

Chris Wheat doesn’t know exactly how he became a self-described “weird political geek,” but it happened early on in life. At five years old, he was reading newspapers, watching C-SPAN, and begging his parents for an encyclopedia set for their Little Rock, Arkansas, home. By age 10, he’d scored an interview with his governor, Bill Clinton, and the following year joined the volunteer corps for the Clinton-Gore presidential campaign, making copies and sending faxes in the War Room. In high school, Wheat was a two-time state champion debater and, after graduation, became the first in his family to go to college.

Later, Wheat would go on to earn his MBA from the University of Chicago, and after a brief stint in the consulting world, reignited his passion for politics. He joined the staff of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office in 2012, first as part of Chicago’s Innovation Delivery team, then as chief sustainability officer, and, finally, as chief of policy. “I left the private sector a lot earlier in my career than I thought I would, but I knew that I needed my work to be about more than what I was doing,” Wheat says. “I needed it to be about something larger.”

Flash forward to January 2019, when—after Mayor Emanuel announced he would not seek reelection for a third term—Wheat would harness that experience to become director of city strategy and engagement for the American Cities Climate Challenge. The two-year, $70 million program is currently helping 25 U.S. cities meet their near-term carbon reduction goals.

Wheat speaking at the 2017 Chicago Community Climate Forum at the Field Museum

Spoon Photo & Design

It was a natural fit for Wheat, whose work in the Chicago city government had included a host of sustainability initiatives, from tightening recycling ordinances to getting a disposable bag tax passed to overseeing energy efficiency projects. He’d seen how these efforts made a big impact not just on the city itself but also in the lives of individual Chicagoans. He remembers one grandmother on the South Side who was excited to have her house retrofitted because it would finally be warm enough for her grandkids to play there in the winter months. “That's not something that shows up in an emissions inventory or a press release,” he says. “But it is something that manifests itself directly in that woman's life and really shows the cross benefits of this work.”

And after Wheat organized the North American Climate Summit in late 2017, an event that brought together close to 50 prominent mayors from around the world, he truly realized the indispensable role that cities can, and must, play in tackling the climate crisis. Cities, he notes, are feeling the oversize impact of climate change, but they are also promising incubators of innovation.

Wheat’s faith in the power of cities to make a difference is part of the reason why he’s been such an effective advocate, notes Nora Mango, who oversees NRDC’s strategic communications for the American Cities Climate Challenge. What’s more, she adds, “Chris possesses a unique combination of tenacity, humor, and humility that makes him both easy to collaborate with and a strong leader. His ability to motivate action from city hall to city streets is incredibly valuable.”

As the director of strategy and city engagement for the Climate Challenge at NRDC, Wheat’s job is threefold. First, he helps manage a team of regional city strategists and climate advisors who are embedded in city halls and helping sustainability directors and mayors’ offices reach ambitious carbon emissions reduction goals. Second, he works with his NRDC colleagues to help address the political and communications challenges the cities face. And lastly, he serves as a city hall “old hand,” working with many of his former counterparts, helping to think through issues and solve problems related to the challenge.

“We're actually seeing the ambition of cities grow as part of the Climate Challenge,” Wheat says. “Cities are looking to do more expansive and deeper work. So often for us it’s a matter of just keeping up with them.”

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And sometimes, Wheat’s job is to slow them down, lest governments barrel right through without adequately considering the perspectives of their constituents. After all, it’s on NRDC and the Climate Challenge to consider who is at the table and help ensure a seat for those who have not necessarily had a voice in these climate conversations before. “There is often an inherent tension between the speed at which cities want to move, because mayors are inherently impatient people, and the need to stop and reflect, in terms of how communities are being engaged,” he says.

Wheat notes his own experience as a person of color—he’s the son of a Korean immigrant mother and an African-American father from rural eastern Arkansas—doesn't necessarily inform this work because “it is a part of every moment of my being,” he says. He does, however, feel a responsibility to ensure that the places he works and the people he works with are prioritizing issues of equity for communities that have been historically marginalized. “It’s an ongoing challenge for those of us committed to the fight around climate change. We must consider and act upon these issues at the forefront, not [see them] as a nice-to-have,” he says.

And, of course, this work becomes even more urgent in the context of our current federal administration’s inaction on addressing the climate crisis. Wheat isn’t an activist by training, or even inclination. He isn’t the type to go to rallies. Instead, he’s harnessing his childhood “political geek” energy, learning as much as he can, and trying to make changes from within the system.

“The way I channel my anger about what's happening at the federal level is by trying to be good at my job,” Wheat says. “If I'm good at my job and the Climate Challenge is successful, then I have supreme confidence that it will make a difference not only in terms of reducing emissions, not only ensuring political momentum around this issue, but also just in giving hope to individuals and communities around the country that, yes, the problem is real, but solutions are possible.”

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