“Solutions that Make Sense for Chicago:” An Interview with Chris Wheat

By Caitlin Moroney

October 26th, 2016

On October 26, International House at the University of Chicago hosted an event called “Climate Change Forum: A North American Perspective.” Building on last June’s North American Leaders’ Summit in Ottawa, where President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto agreed to coordinated action to fight climate change, this forum brought together government representatives from the United States, Canada, and Mexico, as well as representatives from environmental organizations from across Chicago, to discuss local and international strategies to fight climate change.

Before the event, Global Voices Metcalf Fellow Caitlin Moroney spoke with one of the Forum’s guests, UChicago alumnus Chris Wheat, about his work as chief sustainability officer and senior policy advisor for the office of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. This interveiw has also been published in the Gate, the partner student publication of the Global Voices Interview Series. 

The Gate/Global Voices: How have your former positions as an investment banking analyst and a financial consultant informed your work as Chicago’s Chief Sustainability Officer?

Chris Wheat: I think that my previous time in finance and also in consulting help in terms of thinking through problems from a quantitative lens. We are at the University of Chicago, so everything goes through a quantitative lens, and that really helps in terms of thinking through the problem-solving aspect. So, we are not going directly to the answer, but asking, “How do we actually determine, when we have a problem, what the various causes of that are? How do we think through a solution? What are the implications of those solutions today, tomorrow, and on down the road?” I actually think that my management education here at the University of Chicago has come in handy quite a bit—particularly the classes I took on psychology, cognitive behavior, and behavioral economics—because the thing that I spend a lot of my time on today in my job is working with people. As individuals sometimes we agree, sometimes we don’t agree, and so how do we come to a mutual agreement on solutions and ideas and philosophies and try to move the city’s sustainability agenda forward?

Gate/Global Voices: What drew you to a career in sustainability?

Wheat: When I joined the mayor’s office roughly five years ago, I joined an internal consulting and implementation team called the Innovation Delivery Team. It was funded by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. The premise of the team was, “How do we develop, in city halls all around the country, organized teams that are using data-driven, thoughtful processes to develop, to come up with solutions?”

One of the areas that Mayor Emanuel was really passionate about was energy efficiency. He thinks about it not only in terms of helping landlords, single-family homeowners, and business owners reduce their costs—reduce the cost of living, and reduce the cost of conducting business—but also because of the economic engine that it creates. Studies show that for every $1 million that is invested in energy efficiency, we create 11 jobs, and those jobs are not only for engineers and architects, but also for folks who are installing insulation into walls and folks putting windows into homes. Those are the kind of jobs that my parents had when I was growing up. So being able to be a part of something that not only has long-term benefits for our environment, but also has short-term benefits for Chicago’s economy, seemed to be a really great opportunity.

Gate/Global Voices: Which of Chicago’s sustainability-oriented projects do you think have been the most successful so far?

Wheat: Thinking about building energy, I think the city has made tremendous progress, and we need to do that. Our last inventory of greenhouse gas emissions shows that the vast majority of our emissions come from building energy use. The mayor has put together a comprehensive strategy on building energy use, reducing energy use of city buildings, through an interesting initiative from the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, where we are using private capital to invest dollars to reduce energy use in public buildings. Through the residential partnership which brings together non-profits and utilities, we have created a one-stop shop for landlords and single-family homeowners who are interested in reducing their energy use. That program has touched over a hundred thousand homes and units around the city over the last four years and has retrofitted over twenty-two thousand. We also have what we call the Retrofit Chicago Energy Challenge, and that really works with large buildings, many of which are commercial, but they include the library here on campus, cultural institutions, religious institutions, to work with those buildings where they make a commitment to reduce their energy use by 20 percent over five years. Then utilities and architects and engineers work with them to figure out how best to get that energy use down. We have sixty-two buildings in the program today, and 43 million square feet. We are seeing significant savings coming from these buildings.

Gate/Global Voices: Is there any push to collaborate or implement programs that have worked well in other cities here in Chicago?

Wheat: I think that we are always looking to learn from other cities and our counterparts around the country and the world. Chicago is an active member of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which is a partnership of large cities from around the world to share best practices and information and stories about what works and sometimes what doesn’t. I think a perfect example of that was when I was recently talking to one of my counterparts in New York. Much like we do, they have an energy benchmarking ordinance where they require buildings to track, report, and verify their energy use to the city—very large buildings, fifty thousand square feet and above. We took a lot of what New York put together for that ordinance and put it into ours, and we were talking about how New York actually took a lot of our work around voluntary commitments for different types of buildings and creating wrap-around services for those buildings. So they took a lot of that work from Chicago, and they have done that for universities, healthcare institutions, and the like. There’s an active dialogue with cities around the world, and also with cities here like Detroit, Cleveland, and Cincinnati.

Gate/Global Voices: How is your sustainability agenda for Chicago influenced by the national sustainability agenda or by multinational agreements such as the Paris Climate Conference?

Wheat: We are grateful for the leadership that President Obama and the global community have shown around the importance of reducing emissions through the Paris Agreement and through the work of the State Department and others on COP21. Setting that framework and setting those ambitious targets makes it easier to operate and also shines a light at a national and global level on the importance of this issue. At the city level, we know that it’s not only about emissions but also about quality of life, and even when President Obama talks about these initiatives, you hear some of the things from Mayor Emanuel about things like air pollution. How do we reduce the number of asthma attacks? How do we create a twenty-first-century economy? I think it is very important for the president and world leaders to really be banging the drum on these issues. The responsibility that falls to cities then is to create innovative concepts, ideas, and policies that make sense for our city in particular. We are not going to do everything that Kyoto does, we are not going to do everything Jakarta does, we are not going to do everything that Seoul does. We can learn from each other, but we ultimately have to craft solutions that make sense for Chicago.

Gate/Global Voices: What is on the mayor’s sustainability agenda, and what goals do you have for the next year?

Wheat: We have a few things going on right now in a lot of different areas. I talked about energy—we are looking at expansion of our residential and commercial energy programs. Also, the Chicago Infrastructure Trust has been working on a very large project to retrofit the city streetlights to convert them to LED. You are looking at almost three hundred thousand lights to be converted over the next four to five years. That’s a significant capital project and a significant lift. In regard to parks and open spaces, the mayor has set an ambitious agenda for increasing the amount of natural acreage here in the city so that all Chicagoans can enjoy nature. We also have the “Great Rivers Chicago” plan, which talks about the work that needs to happen to make the entirety of the Chicago River accessible. On transportation, the Divvy program has really been a tremendous success. I think that over the next year there will be a continued push to expand that program to the South and West Sides. Already two-thirds of Chicago can access the program. We know that we need more people to have access to it as well. Also, working on creating more protected bike lanes, the “Divvy For Everyone” program that works with low-income individuals who do not have a credit card (which is a critical part of using a Divvy bike) and giving them access as well. There is a lot going on—it has been a busy 2016, and we suspect it will be a busy 2017 as well.

The Climate Change Forum, where Moroney spoke with Wheat, was co-sponsored by the International House Global Voices Program, the Government of Canada, the Consulate General of Mexico in Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the University of Chicago Office of Sustainability, the Program on the Global Environment, the Environmental Law & Policy Center, the Shedd Aquarium, Chicago Booth Energy Group, Phoenix Sustainability Initiative, Blacks in Green and the Collegiate Scholars Program.