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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
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
More on CityLab
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)
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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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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?
More on 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?
What We’re Reading
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)
Toronto’s secret success: Suburban buses (The Globe and Mail)
U.S. cities plans for worsening heatwaves fail to protect the vulnerable (The Guardian)
The parenting tax of school choice (JSTOR Daily)
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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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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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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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What We’re Following
Weather the storm: Mayor Pete Buttigieg knows that climate change isn’t just a threat to coastal cities. Over the span of 18 months, his city of South Bend, Indiana, was struck by two historic floods—the kind of low-probability events that have become more common in a warming world. The 37-year-old presidential candidate’s approach to the climate crisis is “a mix of the urgent and the politically practical,” highlighting rural and non-coastal issues of environmental adaptation to bring more people into the possible solutions.
In an interview with CityLab’s Sarah Holder airing on television as part of a Weather Channel special this week, Buttigieg emphasized practical actions that might circumvent a partisan battle, pointing to the examples of local initiatives that have already progressed because officials “got tired of waiting for Washington.” Said Buttigieg: “There’s no time to argue over whether climate change is real. We’ve got to get to work on making something happen.” On CityLab: Pete Buttigieg’s Climate Vision: Local Fixes for a Planet in Crisis
More on CityLab
On the Fly
Who among us hasn’t killed time at 30,000 feet tracing the lines of an airline network map in an in-flight magazine? These maps are descendants of a cartographic genre that historically stretched the limits of what maps are for. Less a tool for navigation and more an introduction to a new means of transportation, the maps never had to incorporate real flight paths, so designers were completely free to define air travel imagery. Benjamin Schneider interviewed the authors of a new book detailing how these maps evolved over the past century. On CityLab: The Rise and Fall of the Exuberant Airline Map
What We’re Reading
Can “nests” and eco bikes reduce the environmental impact of parcel service in cities? (The Guardian)
Apple pledges $2.5 billion to combat California’s housing crisis (NPR)
A pumpkin-protected bike lane (Streetsblog)
Airbnb says it is banning “party house” listings in response to a Halloween shooting that killed five people (BuzzFeed News)
The immigrants Trump denounces have helped revive the cities he scorns (New York Times)
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Over the span of 18 months, in August 2016 and February 2018, South Bend, Indiana, was struck by a pair of historic floods—the kind of low-probability catastrophes that have become terrifyingly common in a warming world. The small Midwestern city is still dealing with the consequences.
For its mayor, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, those floods serve as a tangible reminder of the environmental challenge the world faces, and the inspiration for the climate plan he released in September.
Buttigieg’s scheme isn’t the most ambitious: Compared to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ $16.3 trillion estimate, Buttigieg wants to spend closer to $2 trillion, and sets a longer timeline for pollution reduction. But the 37-year-old candidate’s approach to the crisis reflects both his creeping centrism and his youth: It’s a mix of the urgent and the politically practical. Emphasizing the rural and non-coastal interests that are often dismissed in issues of environmental adaptation, Buttigieg wants to set up and fund regional resilience hubs, push for greener agricultural methods, and retrain workers in fossil-fuel industries like coal mining.
Last month, CityLab sat down with Buttigieg on the banks of the St. Joseph River in South Bend—one of the sites of the recent flooding. Parts of our conversation will appear on the upcoming Climate Desk/Weather Channel special “2020: Race to Save the Planet” (airing November 7), in which nine presidential candidates discuss their plans for confronting the climate crisis. Our interview has been condensed and edited.
For a lot of people, climate change still can seem like an ideological or an abstract problem. I’m wondering if you could paint a picture—what does climate change look like currently, and what might it look like in 30 years, when you’re in your 60s?
When I think about climate change, I think about neighborhoods like the one we’re in right now. Too often, I think our imagination around climate change is confined to the North and the South Pole. But I see it happening right here in the middle of America, including in my own neighborhood.
Twice in the space of two years, we had extreme weather events—floods that are only supposed to come along every few hundred years. It’s a sign to me that the predictions and warnings that we’ve been seeing from the scientific community for years are coming true on an accelerated basis. What that means is that by 30 years from now, this could be the dominant fact of American life. It could be holding back opportunities for a new generation, transforming and destroying our economy.
Or we could get ahead of it. The way I would prefer to envision climate change is as a major national challenge that we rose to as a national project, and led the world in dealing with, and stood taller because we did it.
That’s why my vision on addressing climate change is not just about all of the technical changes we need to make, the investments we need to have, and the need to hold companies accountable for doing the right thing. It’s also about making sure we’ve invited everybody to be part of the solution: from volunteers in a national service program to the agricultural sector, which we should be funding and supporting in sustainable agriculture practices.
If we get this right, it doesn’t have to be partisan. This is too important, too serious, and too urgent an issue for us to allow it to continue to be viewed through a partisan lens. There’s no time to argue over whether climate change is real. We’ve got to get to work on making something happen.
How do you think cities should think about the often-emotional decision of whether to rebuild or to retreat? And how would you incentivize those retreats and fund those rebuilding?
A good example of this comes from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which experienced a very destructive flood. People have decided to move on, but it wasn’t forced. It was supported. The families were made whole. So how does our future planning accommodate the fact that a 100-year flood isn’t what it used to be? That means making sure that we have adequate resources from an insurance perspective and from a planning perspective to ensure that our future communities are more resilient and are built with these extreme weather events in mind.
Along with rejoining the Paris Climate Accords, you’ve pledged to convene a “Pittsburgh Climate Summit” in your first 100 days in office. I’m wondering what the significance of that global and local pairing is, and what you hope to accomplish at that summit.
The idea behind the Pittsburgh summit is that so many local governments, cities, mayors, counties, sometimes states are acting on their own because they got tired of waiting for Washington. Some of the best ideas on sustainability—from installing a local electric-vehicle charging system, to ensuring that community standards rise higher and meet the Paris Accords—are going on across this country and across the world in a network of cities that aren’t waiting for their national governments to catch up. I want the White House to be an ally for those kinds of communities. Convening them in Pittsburgh will be an opportunity to share the best of what’s going on in those cities and towns, and working on ways that the federal government could be supporting them.
Many cities and states are trying to push people into a less car-centric lifestyle. That’s a challenge for cities with inadequate public transportation systems, or whose built environments are very sprawling and car-centric. How would you encourage people to turn away from personal vehicles and to build more connected and more green cities?
Well, you know, design in cities, especially through the 20th century, really revolved around the car. I’m trying to make sure that design for the future revolves around the human being. Sometimes that means car transportation and sometimes that means walking, biking, or public transit.
We can’t expect people to move beyond personally owned vehicles if there’s not a good alternative. So we’ve got to make sure that between ride-sharing, public transportation, and just good old fashioned walking and biking, we’ve got an array of options right now. The United States subsidizes driving a tremendous amount. We’re more reluctant to support transit or things like trains. When I’m president, I envision making that a greater balance and supporting cities that are trying to do that, too, because if we get it right, it’s also more sustainable, more healthy, and more economically friendly.
For example, when we transformed the heart of [South Bend], including calming down our traffic instead of just getting cars through it as quickly as possible, it led to growth in small business, because we have a more vibrant core in our downtown. When we change our mentality, it’s amazing what possibilities can be unlocked.
Communities of color are being disproportionately impacted by climate change. But they’re also often left out of conversations in Washington, D.C. How would you help communities of color be more prioritized in the future?
One of the things we’ve seen is that neighborhoods and communities of color are always disproportionately harmed when we have these extreme weather events. It’s why, first of all, there needs to be more economic and political empowerment for people of color. That’s a focus in my Douglass Plan, an agenda to deal with the impacts of institutional racism in this country.
We also need to look at how our neighborhoods are set up. Many of them were segregated by design. I’m proposing a twist on the Homestead Act—a 21st-century version of that—that supports people living in historically redlined neighborhoods that are now beginning to get gentrified.
We also just need to make sure that we have a political system that is capable of hearing the voices of those who have been excluded. In many ways, local processes can lead the way toward what we need more of in our national government.
You differ from others in the presidential race, like Senator Sanders, in calling for a tax on carbon. We saw in the Yellow Vest protests in France how anger over fuel taxes helped trigger a populist revolt. How would you structure a carbon tax so that everyday Americans won’t feel the economic effects?
The key to making a carbon tax work for everyday Americans is to rebate out the value to the American people every year, and do it with a progressive formula so that most people are better off than before. The idea of a carbon tax is not to suck money out of the economy and bring it into the government—at least not for me. For me, the idea is to make sure that our prices more accurately reflect the true cost, including the cost to our own future, of things like fossil fuels. We can do that without making most Americans worse off economically if we have a rebate—a dividend, if you will—that goes out to every American based on what’s been collected.
In September, you visited Conway, South Carolina, to release a federal disaster relief plan. How will that plan account for some of the mistakes made in past administrations with regard to hurricane recovery?
One thing that we’ve learned from recent disasters, including the one where we’re sitting right now, is that there is a complex, overlapping bureaucracy when it comes to getting disaster relief. The last thing you want somebody to have to do when they’ve been put out of their home by a disaster is have to navigate all of these different agencies to figure out how to get help. I’m going to set up a disaster commission tasked with simplifying that process and making sure that we secure the funding sources for relief. Right now, all too often we see administrations dipping into [these funds] for other purposes.
You mentioned holding companies accountable for their role in climate change as well. At tech companies like Amazon, some workers are staging protests and walkouts to draw attention to their employers’ inaction. How would you as president think about galvanizing companies and the private industry?
Well, the beauty of the carbon tax and dividend is it does a lot of that work in terms of realigning the signals in our economy. We also have to make sure that there is a strong Environmental Protection Agency, run by somebody who actually believes in environmental protection and in climate change. This doesn’t have to be anti-business. What I want to do is recruit businesses to ensure they’re doing the right thing and to recognize how private-sector growth is a big part of how we reach the clean energy economy that we need. But that means making sure that we’re honest about the long-term costs of inaction when it comes to what carbon emissions are doing to our very ability to live in the communities that we have built over these last decades and centuries.
You’ve also talked about how rural voters could soon be the future of climate-change voters. I’m wondering how you mobilize that cohort?
I’m excited about the possibility of inviting agriculture to be a big part of the solution. Science tells us that with cover crops and soil management, we could be taking in as much carbon on farms around the world as the entire global transportation sector is putting out right now.
We have the science to tell us it can be done. We need to not only invest in research, but also support the farmers, so if the [costs] are not quite penciling out, we make them whole. If we’re willing to do that over a trade war, we should absolutely be willing to do that as a way to incentivize and reward farmers who are on the cutting edge of the quest for the zero-emissions farm. If we can do that here in America, that achievement will spread around the world and be a tremendous part of the solution.
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