How to Emotionally Survive Climate Change

One evening last summer, at a loft event in Brooklyn, attendees were asked to set down their drinks, lie on the floor, and close their eyes. As the recorded hums of cicadas and crickets filled the room, two women walked around brushing flowers against the cheeks of the supine people. Afterwards, participants took turns visiting an altar, which was lit by candles and piled with ripe fruit, hunks of honeycomb, and a heap of dead insects.

Part group therapy, part performance art, and part party, the gathering had a pointed goal: to make people feel something about climate change. That is the work of Nocturnal Medicine, a two-year-old project by a pair of New York City landscape architects. Through live events, online installations, and self-published texts, founders Larissa Belcic and Michelle Shofet act as elicitors of and guides to the difficult feelings created by climate change.

“There is no infrastructure in our society to process the emotional responses coming up around the changes that are happening constantly and every day,” Shofet said on a phone call. “We’re bombarded with them and we might feel bad, but we don’t have a set practice for holding the feelings and letting ourselves process them.”

At Nocturnal Medicine’s “Elegy for Insects” event in Brooklyn, attendees visit an altar covered in dead insects. (Nocturnal Medicine)

The Brooklyn soirée was designed to be such a practice, in this case a confrontation of the climate-abetted phenomenon of catastrophic insect population decline. By prodding people onto the floor, washing them in a sensory bath of pollinator stuff, and inviting them towards an open-casket viewing of arthropods, Shofet and Belcic hoped to send participants over an arc of nostalgia, discomfort, confusion, and grief—but as part of a gentle, shared experience.

And it does seem to do something. Some visitors laugh or cry; some move silently through the process. But almost everyone at least starts talking about climate change. “A lot of people have come up after and told me, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know how badly I needed this,’” said Belcic.

Ian Crowe, a 31-year-old product designer who attended a second Nocturnal Medicine event held at a plant nursery in L.A., said he felt a catharsis afterwards. “It felt like I was attending earth’s funeral.”

An eco-conscious ritual for outer-borough creatives may sound a bit like a Portlandia sketch, particularly when many millions of global citizens are far more directly impacted by the droughts, storms, and human conflicts that the heating planet has already contributed to. But the drumbeat of doom still takes a psychic toll on those watching from the sidelines. A 2017 report by the American Psychological Association on the mental health effects of climate change found that “gradual, long-term changes in climate can … surface a number of different emotions, including fear, anger, feelings of powerlessness, or exhaustion.” Growing shares of the American public report experiencing negative emotions about the issue: The 2019 edition of an annual survey by Yale University found 46 percent of Americans said they feel “outraged,” 45 percent said they feel “afraid,” and 66 percent said they feel “worried” about climate change, a ten percent point increase since 2014. More than half also reported feeling “helpless.”

Fear and paralysis might be normal reactions to vast, terrifying threats, but few of us explore the depths of the feelings themselves. After hearing of the latest climate horror—mass species die-offs, blackened forests, apocalyptic global temperature forecasts—overwhelmed news consumers might shake their heads and move on with their lives, while activists hammer onward with political action. At either end of the engagement spectrum, the emotional cocktail that comes with watching the world burn is often left untouched, said Renee Lertzman, a research psychologist and author specializing in environmental communications. That’s partly because this is such a new phenomenon.

“It’s not like the kind of anger, sadness, and grief that we normally think about when someone passes away,” Lertzman said. “This is a whole different category: There’s an actual loss and sadness when you hear about a billion animals killed in a wildfire, plus an anticipatory loss. We’re already grieving what we understand is going to be gone, based on science’s predictions.”

“Elegy for Insects” attendees listen to insect sounds and receive flower brushings. (Nocturnal Medicine)

Lertzman argues that our inability to process these latent feelings has consequences for the planet. Without reflection and mourning, people can become inhibited from taking meaningful action: After all, behaviors like denial, disassociation, and even paralysis that arise in the face of climate change all stem from real feelings about it. This is a problem on the individual level, as well as for governments, NGOs, and other organizations urging people to alter behaviors or advocate for change, often relying on frightening imagery and statistics to instigate action.

“They’re jumping over the ‘pause,’ where people need to be able to say, ‘What the fuck; I need to process this,’” Lertzman said. “Folks need to figure out what this stuff means and how they feel, and the quickest way to get there is to get people talking and relating to each other.”

Attention towards the affective dimensions of climate change is expanding, alongside the scale of the global crisis. Google search interest for the term “climate grief” has tripled since 2018, and a growing cohort of psychologists, therapists, and amateur practitioners is working on it.

Apart from Nocturnal Medicine, another project offering an artistic response to environmental trauma is Kate Schapira’s climate anxiety counseling booth. Every summer since 2014, the Brown University poet and lecturer has set up a Peanuts-style advisory table in a local public square, and tries to talk through the climate angst of the strangers who walk up. The goal is to break down big fears into concrete questions and bite-sized actions, which can be as small as Googling what happens if my daughter’s apartment floods? or how will seniors evacuate? “I give people little cards written with prescriptions, because for a lot of people, there is a too-muchness to this problem,” Schapira said. “Climate change affects everything that there is, so how are you supposed to think about that?”  

At Nocturnal Medicine’s “Momentary Chapel” event in Los Angeles, an altar heaped with dead bees, fruit, and honey invites attendees to look, taste, and smell. (Nocturnal Medicine)

An eco-grief circle called We Heal For All offers a self-care-themed approach to climate resilience. Liz Moyer, a former climate policy and sustainable development professional, started the project when she found her own psyche heavily taxed by fighting for the planet. Now, once a month, she opens a 90-minute video chat to a mixture of NGO workers, activists, and anyone else who wants to talk about how their hearts are faring in the face of climate change. “In our society, there are many opportunities to talk about science, advocacy, and strategy,” she said. “My intention is to offer something complementary. It’s a place to come into our bodies and our hearts, share from that place, and hold space for each other.”

All of these practitioners said that they view the act of emotional processing as a requisite for meaningful activism. Perhaps the eco-horror pageantry of Extinction Rebellion, an international climate activist group known for die-ins, face paint, and elaborately costumed protests, is an example of what can happen when attunement to pathos turns into action.

Activists from the Extinction Rebellion protest movement in London in October. (Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term “solastalgia” in 2005 to describe the grief triggered by environmental loss or destruction. It may be a new phenomenon for wealthy people in wealthy nations, but it’s familiar to indigenous communities whose lands were long ago seized by colonizers or degraded by resource extraction. Thanks to global climate change, Albrecht writes, “we face a pandemic of solastalgia.” And yet, treating this outbreak is likely to be just as inequitable as everything else associated with this era’s disbursement of resources, as the emerging field of climate grief counseling already shows: While poor communities around the world are most affected by the ravages of global warming, they are also least likely to have the time or funds to access therapy or other interventions.

That curative gap can delay critical preparations and community actions, experts argue. For example, Colette Pichon Battle, the executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, frequently talks about how the lasting trauma of Hurricane Katrina continues to act as a barrier to political mobilization against climate change among communities of color in Louisiana. “We’re not like some other communities where something bad is happening, and the response is, ‘Let’s all galvanize,’” Pichon Battle said in an interview in 2014. “We’re actually in a different place: ‘Something bad is happening, let’s deal with everyone’s trauma first.’” In a 2019 TED talk, she called for more resources for healing the psychological trauma experienced by climate survivors.

For their part, Belcic and Shofet would like to find ways to extend their work outside their familiar network of creative professionals; they’re currently making inroads with the New York City rave scene to see how climate grief might intersect with the euphoria of dance. Meanwhile, they’re gathering anecdotal evidence of how their offbeat climate ceremonies, filled with sounds, sights, touches, and tastes, can jump-start healing for those who attend.

“When people show up, they are sometimes uncomfortable or they don’t know how to act,” said Belcic. “There’s a hesitancy to be serious and sink in or even just access what they think or feel about this topic. But I think it helps to watch other people open up. Then they’re able to start talking. It helps give other people permission to feel something.”

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CityLab Daily: America After Climate Change, Mapped

What We’re Following

At last: You don’t have to use too much imagination to predict the fundamental weather impacts of climate change in the U.S. by the end of the 21st century. Estimates show the temperature will increase an average of 9.3 degrees Fahrenheit, leading to more extreme weather events, from heatwaves to wildfires to floods.

But lots of other potential impacts are less inevitable, according to Billy Fleming, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s

(McHarg Center)

While the broad takeaways are unsurprisingly dire, there is reason for some optimism that ambitious policy proposals could make a difference. “We get the future we build for ourselves,” Fleming tells CityLab’s Sarah Holder. Read her story: America After Climate Change, Mapped

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Change Comes to a Suburb That Loved Sprawl

Oakland County, Michigan, has long spurned transit and kept Detroit at arm’s length. But new county executive David Coulter isn’t afraid of density.

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What We’re Reading

“Mayors for Mike”: How Bloomberg’s money built a 2020 political network (New York Times)

Inside the post-apocalyptic underground future (The Guardian)

This clever bus stop features rotating pods to shield passengers from the wind (Curbed)

California is spending big on the 2020 census, while Texas decided not to devote any money to the job (New York Times)

This GPS-based haiku generator writes poems about your current location (Fast Company)

Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to

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Change Comes to a Suburb That Loved Sprawl

An almost perfect square just over 30 miles on a side, Oakland County, Michigan, is a patchwork of 62 different municipalities. They range from historic streetcar suburbs bordering the city of Detroit to rural townships dotted with centennial farms and horse stables. Oakland is also home to posh subdivisions where metro Detroit’s business elite come home to tennis courts and swimming pools: The county boasts seven of the ten wealthiest zip codes in Michigan, and despite a slight post-recession slip, it has made a perennial appearance among the richest counties with a population over 1 million in the United States, alongside heavyweights like Fairfax County, Virginia.

Between 1950 and 2000, as Detroit’s population fell by half, Oakland County tripled in size. Fueled by white flight and auto industry wealth, its growth spread outward along multilane thoroughfares lined with gas stations and shopping centers (including what by one definition was America’s first mall). This archetypical American suburban pattern is something that its longtime county executive, L. Brooks Patterson, was famous for celebrating. The idea that sprawl made the American dream possible served not only as Patterson’s personal philosophy, but as a mission statement for the entire county. “One man’s sprawl,” Patterson was fond of saying, “is another man’s economic development.”

Patterson was a colorful, controversial figure who dominated Oakland County politics for more than a quarter century, and his death this past August (in office, at age 80) left a gaping power vacuum. But after what the Detroit Free Press called “a tumultuous two weeks of backroom politics,” the county’s Board of Commissioners appointed Democrat David Coulter, mayor of the inner-ring suburb of Ferndale, to succeed him.

Coulter is not only the first Democrat but also the first openly gay person to hold the office of Oakland county executive. And while he’s far from a ban-all-cars radical, he does see sprawl very differently from Patterson, who defended highway expansion, opposed regional planning, and resisted asking exurban communities to help fund transit projects. This changing of the guard could be the first step toward a different Oakland County, and a sign that even the most stubbornly suburban of suburbs can adapt to a more dense and urban future.

“Over the past three decades, cities [in Oakland County] with the most people have felt left out of a lot of policies,” says David Woodward, chair of the county board of commissioners. A Democrat who represents the cities of Berkeley and Royal Oak, Woodward is part of a slim majority that backed Coulter’s appointment (although he initially made his own bid for the top job). “Brooks was a barrier to regional cooperation, to transit. Now a lot of things that looked impossible a year ago are not only possible, but we’re making real progress.”

Coulter is a slim, polite 59-year old who is as much the abrasive Patterson’s opposite in temperament as he is politically. He began an interview with CityLab by avowing that “the new exec is not a fan of sprawl.” Instead, he said, “I think that it’s in our interest to make sure that our policies help promote denser growth. We have a lot of great older communities. I’m a free market guy, and if people want to live elsewhere, I don’t think we should penalize that. But I don’t think that we should subsidize it either.”

Despite Patterson’s larger-than-life persona, county executive is not an all-powerful position. In Michigan, education, zoning and many other key services are controlled at a more local level, with counties in charge of courts and public health, as well as some roads, certain parks, and the sheriff’s department. But Oakland County has an annual budget of more than $900 million, and its deep pockets and planning expertise can be deployed to assist legacy cities with infrastructure programs—or put toward subsidizing development in the exurbs, such as by expanding county roads. And it’s the executive who sets the tone for Oakland’s relationship with the city of Detroit, which under Patterson was often antagonistic and poisoned by racism. Patterson declined, for example, to be part of a new Detroit Regional Partnership; Coulter joined the board immediately.

“Metro Detroit isn’t growing as a region—it’s just shifting,” says Coulter, who spent his first few months in office shuttling around the county, meeting with officials and holding listening sessions with constituents. Oakland County’s fate is connected to that of the struggling city to the southeast. Since its 2013 bankruptcy, Detroit has experienced a much-heralded “comeback” that has succeeded in making headlines and drawing jobs and investment downtown. But that revival has not boosted the whole metro. Recent census data has shown that the region’s exurbs have continued to grow, while Detroit and many neighboring cities have continued to shrink. “It’s a zero-sum game,” says Coulter. “I’m much more interested in how to bring more people to the region.”

One way to do that may be to finally build more robust regional transit system. In 2016, voters narrowly rejected a $4.6 billion bus rapid transit and rail plan that would have connected Detroit’s Wayne County with neighboring Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw counties. Like 237 other cities in 2017, Detroit made a play for Amazon’s second headquarters, with a scheme that would have involved substantial investment in Oakland County. When the HQ2 bid failed, some Detroit-area business leaders and politicians blamed the transit shortfall, calling this a “wake-up call” for a Detroit metro that had gone all-in on suburban sprawl. But a 2018 plan never made it before voters: Patterson argued that Oakland’s outlying townships neither needed, wanted, nor could afford to pay for “a tax machine from which they can expect little or no return on their investment.”

In contrast, Coulter has declared that he will be a “champion” of regional transit—and given how narrow the initial defeat was, that could make all the difference. In November, he appeared with other regional leaders to announce legislation that would give Wayne, Oakland, and Washtenaw counties the power to negotiate a transit plan among themselves—a first step toward putting a revised plan before voters in 2020.

Like his predecessor once argued of sprawl, Coulter touts better regional transit as an economic development tool: “If we’re going to try to keep our young talent here, we’re going to have to compete with other regions in the country.”

The change in leadership has Detroit’s transit boosters thinking positively. “I am pretty optimistic,” says Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, a local advocacy group. “When Brooks Patterson passed away and Dave Coulter was appointed executive, that was a watershed moment and a huge opportunity for regional transit. Dave Coulter understands what regional transit could mean—not only for urbanized communities, but for the county as a whole.”

In that way, she says, Coulter is more in-step with changing suburban demographics and preferences in a region where immigrant communities are growing, populations are aging, and young professionals are more likely to want to live in walkable communities. “We look back 20 years ago, and there was much more of an attitude of, ‘Transit? Who cares! We’re the Motor City!’” Owens says. “Now, the conversation is more about, ‘What kind of transit?’”

The county commission appointed Coulter under the assumption that he would not run for a full term, but at the end of October he changed his mind, announcing a run in 2020. The fact that he is hitching his candidacy to regional transit suggests Coulter sees no political danger in championing a more urbanist, less sprawling future. He’s also aware that Oakland—which has the largest economy in Michigan, and which has long been known among those who follow county governments for its sound fiscal management and sterling AAA bond rating—is in the position to set an example not only in Southeast Michigan but for suburbs nationwide.

“There’s this curious transition period after a legend who was running the county for decades has—unfortunately—passed,” Coulter says. “There’s a lot of interest in what might happen here. A lot of folks are looking at me and my administration to say, ‘What’s going to change?’ Well, I’d like Oakland to be more sustainable. That’s the vision that I have for the county, and it seems to be resonating. I think people here are ready for that.”

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America After Climate Change, Mapped

In 100 years, what will a United States transformed by climate change look like? At this point, you don’t have to use much imagination to predict what’s coming: Temperatures will continue to climb; sea levels will continue to rise. And, by the 2060s, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that global migration patterns will bring 100 million new people into the country, who will settle from coast to coast.

Almost everything else about the climate of tomorrow and the nation’s ability to survive it is less inevitable, however, says Billy Fleming, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology. “There are certain general things we’re certain about, but the shape and content of the future is not one of them,” he said. “We get the future we build for ourselves.”

With other researchers from the McHarg Center, he designed a series of maps of the U.S. for an online collection dubbed The 2100 Project: An Atlas for A Green New Deal. The website use a variety of projected and current data sources to sketch out the country’s possible fate, displaying its geography in economic, ecological, agricultural, and ideological terms. Climate models vary, as do timelines and confidence intervals for each map. But collectively, Fleming says the images provide visual evidence that it’s not too late for grand interventions to make a fundamental difference. Ambitious proposals like the Green New Deal—which involves a dramatic overhaul of the nation’s energy and building infrastructure—could be the key, he said.

“By the end of 21st century, the temperature will increase an average 9.3 degrees Fahrenheit.” (Courtesy McHarg Center)

The broad takeaways are dire, as usual. Heat-related deaths in the southern U.S. could grow—but so could cold-related deaths in northern areas. Workers exposed to outdoor temperatures in Texas and the Gulf Coast would be most at risk for heat-related deaths, but everyone’s risk could be heightened.

The southern U.S. can expect to see spikes in climate-related mortality. (Courtesy McHarg Center)

According to GDP projections through 2099, more than three quarters of U.S. counties will be suffering economically because of the damage climate change wreaks; about a quarter will benefit. “The losses are largest in the regions that are already poorer on average (Southern, Central, and Mid-Atlantic), increasing inequality as value transfers to the Pacific Northwest, Great Lakes Region, and New England,” the report finds. Rural, non-coastal regions like Arkansas, where Fleming grew up, are often left out of serious conversations about climate change despite their dependence on crops and livestock that can be damaged by drought, heat, and heavy rains, along with the accompanying risk of soil erosion.

“Economic damage is considered as the combined value of market and non-market damage across the agriculture, crime, coastal storms, energy, human mortality, and labor sectors.” (Courtesy McHarg Center)

No corner of the U.S. will be spared by the effects of climate change: Sea-level rise could displace up to 13.1 million people by the end of the 21st century. But adaptations will have to look different everywhere, Fleming said. High-poverty Mississippi will contend with coastal flooding, variations in agriculture viability, and huge energy expenditure demands as a result of extreme heat. As a result, many residents could become climate migrants. In Manhattan, the most urgent concern may be flooding; up by the Great Lakes and the Canadian border, the threats center around industry and farming. Northern cities like Duluth and Buffalo may indeed transform into some form of “climate refuge,” thanks to abundant fresh water and cooler temperatures. But they could also be vulnerable to other, less desirable impacts from mass migration.

“We both can and have to expand the definition of frontline community,” said Fleming.

(Courtesy McHarg Center)

An estimated 100 million people will migrate into and around the country seeking refuge from the various climate impacts. And as they do, more energy resources, water, and density will be needed. “Most demographers expect an increasing share of these people to live in major American cities like New York, Chicago, and Phoenix,” the project reads. To accommodate them in high-density places like New York City, we’ll need 12 new NYC-sized cities; the same population will require 68 lower-density places like Phoenix.

The planet-saving power of density. (Courtesy McHarg Center)

Such findings resonate with proposals like Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ Green New Deal for Public Housing, which calls for billions of investment in upgrading existing public housing stock and a nationwide emphasis on building more dense, transit-friendly communities.

The sweeping scale of such proposals may seem daunting, especially given the current political climate, but the project makes a point of acknowledging America’s legacy of infrastructural transformation. There’s a “History of Big Ideas” map that traces earlier planning initiatives and mass mobilization efforts that are “[v]ariously inspiring and cautionary,” like the Garden City and Greenbelt projects and Tennessee Valley Authority of the original New Deal. We’ve done it before, it implies. We can do it again.

“These are things that the country can take on together if and when it decides to make the climate crisis the sort of generational investment it deserves to be,” said Fleming.

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Rethinking Coastal Property in an Era of Climate Change

The country has provided hundreds of billions of dollars to recover from recent coastal storms but done little to rethink the existing policies and programs that contribute to coastal property losses, or to define new measures that account for the new realities of more damaging storms and rising sea levels.

A key first step toward smarter policies is to improve disclosure of risk associated with coastal properties. This will require better mapping of areas at risk of both storms and rising seas. National standards are needed for disclosure of coastal flood risk prior to sale. Lenders and supporting agencies need to evaluate and disclose coastal flood risk.

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CityLab Daily: Will Buffalo Become a Climate Change Haven?

This is a second version of today’s newsletter that corrects two nonworking links in the original. Thanks to those who sent feedback.

What We’re Following

Buffalo chills: As many cities begin to see what a warming world looks like and gear up to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change, Buffalo, New York, is unusually well-insulated from the problem. Rising temperatures have yet to produce more heat waves or extreme rainfall in Western New York and the city had only one 90-degree day in 2019. Experts say the region’s cool climate and ample fresh water could make it an attractive destination as the planet heats up.

What’s more, the city has plenty of space to take in more people after seeing its population decline since the 1950s. The city’s mayor even called it a “Climate Refuge City” in his February 2019 State of the City address. As one SUNY Buffalo State climate scientist put it, “With climate change, the world is going to suck, but Buffalo may suck less.” On CityLab, Jeremy Deaton explores whether the city will be prepared for a potential migrant influx: Will Buffalo Become a Climate Change Haven?

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Time Capsule

(Madison Johnson/CityLab)

Loyal CityLab readers, we want hear from you! The last ten years have seen cities and metropolitan areas transformed in fundamental ways, while other predictions and promises about urban life haven’t come to pass.

As we reflect on the legacy of the decade, Team CityLab wants your input on what we should be covering and what you saw change in the places where you live. Send a few lines our way in this quick survey: What Defined the Decade From 2010-2020 in Cities?

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Uber says 3,045 sexual assaults were reported in U.S. rides last year (New York Times)

How America’s second-tier cities can catch the superstars (Bloomberg)

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U.S. cities plans for worsening heatwaves fail to protect the vulnerable (The Guardian)

The parenting tax of school choice (JSTOR Daily)

Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to

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Will Buffalo Become a Climate Change Haven?

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Maria Robles saw rainfall so severe that it punched a hole through her roof and flooded her home in San Juan. “We lost everything inside the house,” she said. “Everything, everything, everything.”

The storm marked the beginning of a long journey that took her from the convention center in San Juan to a hotel in Florida to an airport in Philadelphia, concluding with an 11-hour bus ride to Buffalo, New York — her husband had once visited the city as a teenager and remembered liking it. She arrived with two of her four children in tow. It didn’t take long for Robles and her family to settle into their new home. She landed a job in a factory that makes face cream, lip balm, and other personal care products, while her husband found a job in a plastics factory. Robles said she still struggles with the frigid weather, but she would gladly take a snowstorm over a hurricane any day.

Robles may not have known it when she moved in, but Buffalo is unusually well-insulated against climate change. Rising temperatures have yet to produce more heat waves or extreme rainfall in Western New York. Experts say the region’s cool climate and ample fresh water could make it an attractive destination as the planet heats up. And Buffalo has room to grow — the city’s population has dropped by half over the last 70 years of industrial decline.

These facts have not gone unnoticed. In his 2019 State of the City address, the mayor dubbed Buffalo a “Climate Refuge City.” Civic leaders are hopeful that the coming wave of climate refugees will revive Buffalo, filling its vacant lots and abandoned storefronts.

“Buffalo is stepping up and preparing to welcome this new type of refugee,” said the city’s mayor, Byron Brown. “We believe that we can accommodate people who have experienced displacement due to harsh weather and natural disaster.”

As Buffalo becomes a more appealing place to migrate, can it remain a haven for refugees like Robles, who come in search of affordable housing and a decent job? Or will Buffalo become a cold-weather haven for the professional class? With ample space for newcomers, Buffalo doesn’t look like cities typically at risk for gentrifying. But what happens if high earners from vulnerable cities like Miami and New York flock to the shores of Lake Erie? Will Buffalo be prepared?

“With climate change, the world is going to suck, but Buffalo may suck less.”

In 2016, SUNY Buffalo climate scientist Stephen Vermette set out to show how climate change had made life harder in western New York with the hope of galvanizing locals to take up arms against the carbon crisis. He scoured weather records going back to 1965 and found that temperatures have risen a little more than 2 degrees Farenheit over that time, roughly consistent with the rest of the Lower 48.

But that’s where the similarities ended. While warmer weather has fueled fires in California, hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, and flooding in the Midwest, climate change has left western New York mostly untouched. Vermette found no evidence that rainfall has grown more severe, or that heat waves have grown more frequent — Buffalo had only one 90-degree day in 2019. He said the breeze off of Lake Erie acts like a natural air conditioner, helping to keep the city cool.

“When I would present this data, I was somewhat apologetic, because I couldn’t find some of the trends that we would expect to be seeing in western New York,” said Vermette, author of The Face of WNY’s Weather. “It’s bad news if you’re trying to demonstrate that the climate is changing.”

Vermette thought there must be a gap in the data or a flaw in his analysis, so he crunched the numbers again and again, every time arriving at the same result — a flat line. It was only after repeated attempts to find evidence of worsening weather that Vermette started to think that western New York might be responding to rising temperatures differently than the rest of the country. This was a revelation, and one he would see corroborated by other experts.

“The way I described it at a meeting once was, ‘With climate change, the world is going to suck, but Buffalo may suck less,’” he said. “We may not only be able to adapt. We may actually thrive as a region in a world where the climate is changing.”

In a city now said to have only two seasons — winter and the Fourth of July — climate change will mean longer summers and shorter, milder winters. And where other cities like Los Angeles and San Diego will be plagued by drought, Buffalo will have a steady supply of water. The Great Lakes region is home to around 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater, much of it flowing past Buffalo’s doorstep along the Niagara River, which connects Lake Erie with Lake Ontario.

Experts expect these facts will drive people to move to Buffalo, and they say the city will have room to accommodate them. Since the population of Buffalo peaked in the 1950s at around 580,000 people, residents have steadily left the city, bringing the current population to around 260,000. As a result, Buffalo has enough land, housing, sewer infrastructure, and water infrastructure to support hundreds of thousands of additional people.

Vivek Shandas, a professor of urban planning at Portland State University, is currently undertaking a wide-ranging analysis of factors like temperature, sea-level rise, historical migration patterns, and other variables to predict how the populations of 82 U.S. counties will shift as the planet warms. He said that Erie County, home of Buffalo, is among the counties projected to see the biggest increase.

“By the end of the century, we’re going to see a massive relocation and redistribution of urban populations,” he said. “Buffalo is really well situated in many ways.”

“You can’t just declare yourself a climate refuge, you know.”

In September of 2018, Harvard climate adaptation expert Jesse Keenan told The Guardian that, as the planet warmed, Americans might find refuge in northern cities, naming Duluth and Buffalo. The article caught the eye of Mayor Brown, who named Buffalo a “Climate Refuge City” in his February 2019 State of the City address.

Notably that speech included no mention of what the city was doing to prepare for the expected influx of climate refugees — no new blue-ribbon committees, no new policy announcements.

“I heard that line, and I was waiting for something else to come out of his comment, and there was nothing,” Vermette said. “There is no initiative by the city. There is no embracing what we’ve done here. It was just a thing to say.”

In April, the New York Times picked up the thread, scribing a story on how Duluth and Buffalo had positioned themselves as climate havens. While Vermette and his collaborator, sustainability expert George Besch, spoke to the Times for the story, the mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment because, according to a spokesperson, the mayor had no progress to report.

Downtown Buffalo. (Nexus Media)

“I did everything I could to get a meeting with the mayor just to prepare him,” Besch said. “He never even bothered.”

When interviewed for this story in October, Mayor Brown had several achievements to list. He touted Buffalo’s recent designation as a Climate Smart Community, which is conferred on cities that take steps to cut carbon pollution and prepare for extreme weather. He said that Buffalo is installing LED street lights, placing solar panels on city buildings, planting trees, and upgrading the sewer system to better guard against flooding — laudable goals, to be sure, but not the kind of initiatives experts say are needed to make Buffalo a bona fide climate refuge.

Vermette, for instance, is seeking funding to run a high-resolution climate model, one that accounts for the effects of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, to better understand what rising temperatures will mean for western New York. While Buffalo may be protected from the worst ravages of climate change, it is not invulnerable, he said, and the city needs to know what to expect.

The Liberty Building in downtown Buffalo features two replicas of the Statue of Liberty. (Nexus Media)

Besch wants to ensure that Buffalo continues to be a refuge for people of modest means and not just a haven for high earners. He and other experts interviewed for this story recommended planning for more high-density affordable housing in areas with access to public transportation. They also said the city should plan to preserve green spaces, including many currently empty lots, to help keep Buffalo cool.

“If they’re rhetorically saying, ‘Yes, come here, come here,’ I would like to see what’s actually happening on the ground,” Shandas said. “I think it might be pretty premature for us to be saying that it’s an ideal place, in part because we haven’t really seen the preparation necessary for larger numbers of people.”

Besch was more emphatic.

“You can’t just declare yourself a climate refuge, you know. You’ve got to work and earn it,” he said. “I could declare myself a millionaire, but the bank would not cash my checks accordingly. I would need to earn it.”

“Will we essentially recreate what I call the ‘White City’?”

In the weeks after the Robles family arrived in Buffalo, their new neighbors welcomed them with gifts. They received coats from a local dry cleaner and food from a nearby pantry. WIVB, the local CBS affiliate, ran a news story about Robles and her children spending their first Thanksgiving in Buffalo. After that, she said, people started calling into the station to ask how they could help. Some donated food, clothes, or presents for the children. One woman even bought them a brand new washer and dryer. “New, new, new, I tell you. New,” she said. “I was the first one who used it.”

Maria Robles (middle) with her four children. (Nexus Media)

This is the spirit that pervades Buffalo. “Buffalo is a very giving city, a very compassionate city,” said Casimiro Rodriguez, head of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York. After Hurricane Maria, he traveled to Puerto Rico to help with the relief effort. While there, he went on radio and TV programs to encourage people to move to Buffalo. He helped many newcomers, including Robles, find housing and enroll in schools once they arrived.

For Buffalo to remain affordable and accessible for people like Robles, the city may have to enact smart housing policies to help support climate refugees.

Besch draws a distinction between climate refugees and climate migrants. The former would include those like Maria Robles, who came to Buffalo with what she could pack in a suitcase after a natural disaster. The latter would include those like software developer Lindsay Tropf.

Tropf moved to the city as part of 43North, an initiative funded by New York state that awards money to select startups that relocate to Buffalo. The program has drawn entrepreneurs in growing fields like clean energy and biotech. Tropf is the CEO of Immersed Games, which make educational software to teach students about climate change.

“We needed to leave Florida and find a new home for our startup, and I had been doing a little research to try to figure out what is going to be the safest place in the country to live in the future,” she said. “That was one of the initial things that they told us about — the research on Buffalo being recommended as a safe haven for climate change.”

Lindsay Tropf at the offices of 43North. (Nexus Media)

After living through Hurricane Irma, Tropf said, this was significant. “I don’t have to shut down my office for two weeks every year fleeing for our lives from hurricanes,” she said.

The only thing more attractive was the cost of living. As she likes to tell recruits, someone earning $100,000 in Manhattan could enjoy the same standard of living in Buffalo for around $39,000 a year, according to NerdWallet. That fact has sent many young, white-collar workers like Tropf packing for Buffalo.

Mayor Brown said that in next year’s census, for the first time in decades, the city expects to see a small measure of population growth. Many hope that new workers and businesses will help revitalize the local economy. But a growing population could also present new challenges—the recent influx of millennials has reportedly spurred gentrification and led to an uptick in property values.

Brown believes that gentrification has not yet taken hold in Buffalo, saying that the challenge for the city isn’t high housing costs, but low incomes, which is why City Hall is focused on initiatives that create jobs and raise wages. But experts fear such policies won’t be enough to protect Buffalo’s working class in the longer term, especially as climate change draws more high earners to the city. They say civic leaders need a plan to prevent future gentrification.

“Say Buffalo becomes this magnet that’s attracting everybody that’s looking for a good place to live. It will become the East Coast version of San Francisco,” said Henry Louis Taylor Jr., director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning. “Will we essentially recreate what I call the ‘White City’? The White City is a city for white people and other groups who can manage to afford to live there.”

Keenan, the Harvard climate adaptation expert, said Buffalo could become another example of climate gentrification, a phenomenon already underway in Miami, for example, where property values are rising faster in high-elevation, low-income neighborhoods that are better protected against sea-level rise. Keenan said that climate gentrification exists on both the small and large scale.

“It isn’t just people moving from one neighborhood to another neighborhood. It’s a kind of trans-state and, you could even argue, transnational proposition,” he said. “You can either get ahead of this, or you can sit back and observe it.”

A mural of Buffalo in downtown Buffalo. (Nexus Media)

Taylor said that parts of downtown Buffalo with new offices and apartments have already seen an exodus of black residents. He believes that, rather than focusing on luring developers to build loft apartments and boutique office buildings, what he referred to as “the San Francisco model,” the city needs to be willing to preserve affordable housing.

“The San Francisco, the Chicago model, the Washington, D.C., model, the New York City model — that’s the model that they’re using here. And they are caught between this idea that there is either this model that they’re using, or death,” Taylor said. “They’re frustrated because they can’t figure out how to get this square peg called ‘equity, equality, justice’ into this round hole called ‘the market.’”

“They have this wide-right mentality.”

There is perhaps no better moment that captured the spirit of Buffalo than Super Bowl XXV on January 27, 1991. The Buffalo Bills, who were favored to win by seven points, trailed the New York Giants in the final minutes. With eight seconds left, kicker Scott Norwood had the chance to clinch the win with a difficult 47-yard field goal attempt. In a heartbreaking turn, he sent the ball sailing wide right. The Bills lost that game and the next three consecutive Super Bowls, and the phrase “wide right” became synonymous with the team and, to some extent, the city.

“One of the things that I have said about Buffalo is that they have this ‘wide right’ mentality,” Taylor said. “They have this mentality where they are always kind of there, but never there.” The defining feature of the city, he said, is that it never seems to live up to its potential.

That being said, Buffalo is nothing if not resilient. After losing that first Super Bowl, the Bills’ head coach Marv Levy roused his players by appealing to their toughness, famously posting the text of the 14th century poem “Sir Andrew Barton” in the locker room.

‘Fight on, my men,’ Sir Andrew said,
‘A little I’m hurt, but not yet slain;
I’ll just lie down and bleed awhile,
And then I’ll rise and fight again.’

Levy was speaking to the character of the team, but he might as well have been talking about the city and its people.

“You can’t have a working-class town like Buffalo without a strong union tradition, without workers fighting for their rights, a place where the soil is drenched with the blood of native people fighting for their lands and their rights, where the Underground Railroad took blacks from slavery to freedom,” Taylor said. “That’s the foundation upon which the city is built.”

The challenge for Buffalo, he said, is that it must not model itself after San Francisco and New York City, attracting white-collar migrants who displace working-class natives. If it is going to be a climate refuge, he says, it needs to do better than the gilded coastal metropolises.

“Do you want to emulate them? Or do you want them to emulate us? Do you want to travel their road to greatness, or do you want to take another road to greatness?” he said. “It won’t happen naturally. We’ll have to fight to make that occur.”

This work is supported by a grant from the International Center for Journalists funded by Microsoft News.

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How AI Could Change the Highly-Skilled Job Market

When most people think of the connection between technology and jobs, they think of robots and automation taking over relatively unskilled jobs like factory work. And thus, the biggest toll from these technological advances would be on already hard-hit manufacturing regions of the Rust Belt. But a new wave of developments in artificial intelligence may have a greater effect on high-skilled jobs and high-tech knowledge regions.

That’s the key takeaway from a new study out today from the Brookings Institution. The study by Mark Muro, Jacob Whiton, and Robert Maxim takes a close look at the potential of artificial intelligence—or AI—to automate tasks that until now have required human intelligence and decision-making. As they put it: “Unlike robotics (associated with the factory floor) and computers (associated with routine office activities), AI has a distinctly white-collar bent.”

The Brookings study bases its analysis on a set of “exposure scores,” developed by Michael Webb, a doctoral student at Stanford University, which essentially gauge the potential effects of AI on different jobs. In fact, Webb uses AI to study AI, using machine learning to search all U.S. patents to identify the capabilities of AI, and to connect that data to jobs and tasks that could be taken over by AI technology—tasks like certain medical diagnoses that doctors perform today. Brookings, in turn, uses those scores to assess how AI will affect occupations and places. In doing that, Brookings’ analysis quantifies degree of potential exposure but not whether it will be positive or negative.

What does the Brookings study find? First, while A.I. will likely affect a wide array of work and jobs, its largest effects will be confined to a much smaller segment of jobs. Overall, AI will, in some way, influence more than 95 percent of jobs. As the study notes: “Fully 740 out of the 769 occupational descriptions Michael Webb analyzed contain a capability pair match with AI patent language, meaning at least one or more of its tasks could potentially be exposed to, complemented by, or completed by AI.”

But, as the chart below shows, less than a fifth (just under 18 percent) of U.S. jobs, 25 million or so, are threatened by high exposure to AI. Roughly a third (34 percent or 48 million jobs) face a medium level of exposure; and a little fewer than half (48 percent or 67 million jobs) face low or no exposure to AI.

Share of jobs by AI exposure, 2017

But, AI is different from automation or robots in that it is more likely to affect higher-skilled work. This can be seen in the chart below, which shows that while AI is likely to affect manufacturing and agricultural work, it is much more likely than robotics or automation to affect higher-wage, higher-skill occupations done by college graduates, and people with advanced or professional degrees.

Average standardized AI exposure by education level, 2017

The next chart drills down further into the more fine-grained categories of jobs that will likely be affected most by AI. A number of lower-skilled occupations rank highly, like farming, manufacturing, mining, and construction. But also exposed are high-skill jobs like professional, scientific and technical services; information; and finance and insurance.

“High-tech digital services such as software publishing and computer system design—that before had low automation susceptibility—exhibit quite high exposure, as AI tools and applications pervade the technology sector,” the study points out. The jobs that are least exposed include educational services and arts and entertainment, alongside lower-skilled jobs in retail and accommodation and food service, that are personal services.

AI is also more likely to affect male, white, and Asian-American workers, because of their over-representation in professional and technical occupations, as well as prime-age workers (25-64), according to the study.

Average standardized AI exposure by sex, age, and race-ethnicity; 2017

AI is likely to hit hardest at a combination of leading tech hubs and older manufacturing regions. San Jose—the heart of Silicon Valley—tops the list of metros that are most exposed to AI. Seattle is fifth; Salt Lake City is eighth; Ogden, 10th; and Durham in the North Carolina Research Triangle, 12th.

Smaller high-tech hubs like Boulder and Huntsville, Alabama, are also highly exposed. Manufacturing metros like Detroit; Grand Rapids; Louisville; and Greensboro-High Point, North Carolina, face a high level of exposure, as well as smaller manufacturing centers like Elkhart-Goshen, Indiana; and Dalton, Georgia. And the Sun Belt metros Nashville, Atlanta, and Charlotte have high levels of AI exposure due to the significant presence of management and finance occupations, as well as some manufacturing.

Service economy and recreational metros—both large ones like Las Vegas; Cape Coral-Fort Meyers and Deltona-Daytona Beach, Florida; and smaller ones like Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Ocean City, New Jersey; and El Paso and McAllen, Texas, have among the lowest levels of AI exposure. AI is significantly less of a threat to smaller and more rural places than other forms of automation and robots, the study notes.

Top 15 and bottom five metro areas and NECTAs by average standardized AI exposure, 2017

History shows us the introduction of new labor-replacing technology does not occur in a vacuum. Not only is it typically associated with increasing worker anxiety, but also with a potent political backlash. In the early 19th century, the introduction of machinery in British factories fueled the Luddite revolution. The last wave of robotics and automation technology hit hardest at manufacturing jobs and regions, helping to fuel the populist backlash that elected Donald Trump.

The coming widespread use of AI could extend the kind of fear and anxiety felt by lower-skilled manufacturing workers and regions to more affluent and educated professional and technical workers living in many leading tech hubs. These workers and places have, to date, largely been spared by the previous wave of automation and robotics. Might an even larger political earthquake be in the offing?

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To Survive Climate Change, We’ll Need a Better Story

Preparing humanity for a carbon-neutral future is a daunting task. And based on our progress, we’re not doing a great job.

As the effects of climate change become more impossible to ignore, public understanding of the crisis is rising. Across national borders and political ideologies, a growing number of people accept the fundamentals: We need to make radical changes in our daily habits if we are to have a sustainable future—or, to put it frankly, even a survivable one. In Europe, public support has long been secured for the current E.U. commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent of 1990 levels (though there’s also a growing awareness that this will not be sufficient). In the U.S., even as the Trump administration pulls out of the Paris Agreement, the number of people supporting aggressive action to combat climate change has risen to nearly 70 percent.

But there the consensus ends. What, exactly, does a survivable future look and feel like? And why have we so far proved unwilling to adapt our lifestyles and demand the policies that are needed to achieve it?  

In part, this represents a failure to communicate. The scientific community may understand the mechanics of greenhouse gases, but for those without backgrounds in climate science, it can be hard to connect a planet-scale atmospheric calamity with the reality of daily life. An ambitious new project in Sweden is nonetheless developing an unexpected tool that could enable the public to grasp the practical steps that would lead to more sustainable societies: storytelling.

Viable Cities is a strategic innovation program now working with nine Swedish cities—including the three largest: Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmo—to help them reach their goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030. Such an ambitious target will be hard to meet unless all citizens are actively invested. To make this possible, the program hired writer Per Grankvist to fill the unusually lyrical-sounding role of Chief Storyteller.

Telling tales might seem an odd priority in a fast-transforming climate but, talking to CityLab by telephone, Grankvist insisted that such an approach was vital, for the simple reason that facts alone are not something people engage with. “We need storytellers because generally when scientists come up with conclusions, they are very non-personalized,” he says, “When you take research out into the public and you want people to connect with it, you have to involve an ‘I,’ a ‘we.’ My job is helping people to emotionally connect. When they emotionally connect with an issue, then they engage.”

Grankvist is in a pretty good position to know about this connection. The author of four books (including one translated into English) on civic engagement and technology, he been billed as “a Scandinavian Malcolm Gladwell” and is a fixture across Swedish media. Accessible, narrative-driven engagement, as Grankvist explained in this recent Medium post, is needed if we are to move away from broad-brush portrayals of a carbon-neutral future to something more anchored in ordinary people’s current day-to-day experience. “Stories have the power to engage people in a way scientific facts seldom can,” he writes. “To reach the program’s mission, storytelling is believed a key to get people engaged enough to change their behaviour and norms.”

To Grankvist, that doesn’t mean pushing fanciful renderings of utopian post-carbon cities as a counter to the catastrophism of the prevailing climate narrative: Such futuristic visions aren’t necessarily a helpful way to make people think about what they need to do, right now. “When you look at how the future of cities is often portrayed, you have all these sketches that come from architecture firms: elegant drawings where everyone is slim, and there are lots of cars swimming around,” he says. Instead, he counsels “keeping focus on the human experience of a what a sustainable city will look like.”

When it comes to saying exactly what that is, Viable Cities is still in beta mode, developing individual solutions for each participating Swedish city. The ultimate vehicle for their storytelling plans could be interactive campaigns on social media, outdoor exhibitions, or even through traditional publishing. But they will all be grounded in practical solutions and existing technologies.  

“You can use approaches such as [portraying] the story of someone’s day—something pretty normal, like taking your bike to kindergarten, dropping your kids off, and then jumping on an electric bus to work,” he says. “When you look closer, however, there’s a whole bunch of sustainable, climate neutral solutions going on. That tells the inhabitants of Malmo that the future isn’t entirely frightening. We won’t have flying cars. It will be fairly similar, even though we have to make some fundamental changes.”

That needn’t mean giving the impression that business will continue as usual: “We also don’t want to give the impression that things will happen sort of automatically, that people don’t have to change their lives. [But] a few people are already living this kind of [carbon-neutral] life, and it doesn’t look like a horrible one. We should have the same quality of life, although our way of life will be different.”

The key, Grankvist says, is to be aware that while we all have to move forward, personal climate action will mean different things to different people. “You have to connect to what people want, their reasons for getting engaged. Some people passionately want to save the planet. Others are concerned, but still want to continue driving and eating some meat. We need storytelling to address both those groups. If you have a city website simply stating, ‘Everyone should stop driving and eat plants instead of beef’—that isn’t storytelling. That’s advertising, which doesn’t work any longer.”

Such an emphasis on continuity may be reassuring for urban Swedes, but then they generally already live in well-insulated homes, in relatively compact cities that are well connected by public transit; it’s easier to emotionally connect with a future lifestyle whose contours still remain broadly similar. Would the same approach prepare a citizen for the future in places that require more drastic adaptation—say, the sprawling, car-dependent, and thirsty cities of Arizona?

Grankvist believes so: The trick, he says, is to make your climate adaptation storytelling as specific to each setting as it can possibly be.

“All stories have to be locally anchored. You can’t show someone the story of Malmo and expect it to work in Phoenix. It might not even be right for Stockholm. At the same time, there are many people in Phoenix who already drive round in Teslas or electric BMWs, or want to, and who buy organic food and live sustainable lives. It’s about finding those people, and then building a story around that.”

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The Link Between Climate Change & Water

When thinking about conserving water, we should also be focusing on how more efficient water use correlates with energy savings. Studies show that when households participate in water savings programs, they also conserve energy and reduce strain on the power grid during peak demand periods while saving consumers money on their utility bills.

Water utilities can also dramatically increase their energy efficiency and reduce overall energy usage by adopting locally based solutions. For many municipal governments, drinking water and wastewater treatment plants are typically the largest energy consumers, often accounting for 30 to 40 percent of total energy consumed. Overall, drinking water and wastewater systems account for approximately two percent of energy use in the United States, adding over 45 million tons of greenhouse gases annually.

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