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Chris Wheat, Director of Strategy and City Engagement for the American Cities Climate Challenge

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Chris Wheat graduated from WashU in 2004 with a degree in Political Science. Today, he serves as Director of Strategy and City Engagement for the American Cities Climate Challenge in Chicago, Illinois. As a part of our Alumni Series, communications intern Selaam Dollisso spoke with Chris to learn more about his journey to a career in sustainability.

Chris’ career began in finance, where he spent five years working for a brokerage firm in his hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas. Chris said he was drawn to the quantitative work that finance offered him but was looking to develop his skills further. To pursue this goal, Chris moved to Chicago, where he attended the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, receiving his MBA in 2010.

“I went to business school thinking I would go back into finance, and then discovered that I actually really enjoyed the problem-solving aspects of consulting,” said Chris. “After business school I knew I wanted to get involved with public service at some point, I just wasn’t sure when.”

After graduating from the Booth School, Chris had a brief stint in management consulting, but when the opportunity arose to join the staff in the office of the mayor for Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, he jumped on it. During his seven years in the mayor’s office, Chris took on various roles, including that of internal consultant. Chris eventually became Chief Sustainability Officer and Senior Policy Advisor for the mayor’s office; he held that role for two years before transitioning into his final role in the mayor’s office as Chief of Policy.

“It wasn’t until I went to the mayor’s office that I really started getting interested and active in climate and sustainability issues,” said Chris.

In September of 2018, Chris said that Mayor Emanuel announced that he was not going to run for reelection: “I had to think long and hard about what I wanted to do and the impact I wanted to have.” As Chris pored over potential career paths, he found himself returning to work around climate and sustainability. Climate issues, Chris said, have a disparate impact on our most vulnerable communities, and he wants to be part of the solution.

What does your current position as Director of Strategy and City Engagement for the American Cities Climate Challenge entail?

“We know carbon emissions are created by people in cities” said Chris. “With the level of inaction of the federal government on climate change issues, it has become paramount for cities to take a more proactive role in this work. The climate challenge is designed to help cities do just that.”

Chris said he works to accelerate the progress of the twenty-five major U.S. cities to “develop bold, innovative, policies and initiatives to help reduce the cities’ impact on carbon emissions, in a more aggressive and faster way,” said Chris.

Launched in June of 2018 by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the American Cities Climate Challenge provides U.S cities with a two-year acceleration program including powerful new resources and access to cutting-edge support to help them meet – or beat – their near-term carbon reduction goals. Last fall, the cities selection was announced, designating Chicago and St. Louis as winning cities of the challenge, among twenty-three other U.S. cities.

How do you think this resource allocation will influence the way the City of St. Louis addresses climate change? And more generally, what role do you think should local governments play?

“It’s critical that local governments play a role in climate change only because that’s where the population is.” Chris applauds Mayor Krewson in St. Louis for “stepping up and being aggressive with her climate change goals in the challenge,” as well as building upon the work of the USGBC Missouri Gateway  on green buildings.

“Local governments are incubators for democracy that generate ideas and policies that ultimately can be taken up to the federal level,” said Chris. “Local governments often have more flexibility to test and pilot and really be innovative in this work in a way that maybe states, or in particular, national governments can not be.”

Among the many projects you worked on as the Chief of Sustainability in the mayor’s office, which one did you find to be the most impactful and why?

“Early in the Trump administration the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided to take the climate change section of the EPA website down and much of the data associated with it. A few weeks after they took the data down, we took that data and put it up on the City of Chicago website,” said Chris.

“Ultimately, almost twenty cities did the same thing. I think it spoke to the importance of facts and the importance of data and how at times we feel like we live in a world where you can make up your own facts and information,” said Chris. “It was a signal to the country and the world that you can’t just erase data.”

In cities like St. Louis or Chicago, how can policy making help foster more inclusive, diverse and sustainable communities?

“It is incumbent on policy makers and advocacy groups like Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to fight to make incremental change that ultimately ensures that as we develop this twenty-first century economy, we are not leaving individuals or communities behind,” said Chris.

Chris spoke about Chicago’s efforts to develop solar farm projects on city land. “It’s an example of how we’re moving the nature of the economy. The City of Chicago is sending an important signal about the significance of things like renewable energies,” said Chris.

In addition, Chris mentioned the significant requirements around local hiring, particularly in ensuring minority and women-owned businesses would receive an adequate share of the work associated with those projects. He said that he finds it critical for the benefits of that new economy to be felt in all parts of the city.

“My hope for all of the climate work around cities builds political momentum to ensure that states are doing what’s necessary to combat this significant crisis that’s in front of us. And that we’re doing it in a way that lifts up and provides voice—and provides benefit—for communities that have historically not seen the benefits of changes in the economy.”

How can students effectively get involved in the city’s efforts to bring forth positive change on the environment? What’s your advice for WashU students?

“WashU is a really vibrant and engaged sustainability community,” said Chris. “I would encourage students to look for clubs and organizations and be active on campus.”

“In addition, democracy is not a spectator sport. It is important for students who care about these issues to get in the game and support candidates that align with their values,” said Chris.

“Decisions on climate are often made in city halls, state houses, the halls of Congress and the White House. Helping those people get elected and giving them a chance to give power and voice to this issue is very important,” said Chris. “I would encourage all students to participate in the democratic process as possible.”

Interested in connecting personally with more WashU alumni involved with sustainability work? Join the WashU Sustainability Network LinkedIn Group–an online networking and resource group that brings together alumni, students, parents, staff, and faculty to network, explore, discuss trends, and share technology, business, and market information in all areas of sustainability.