A week in America | 23 September 2022

This week Martin, looks at how climate change is affecting the U.S. and how it has brought unlikely opportunities for some communities across the country.

Martin Liptrot

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I am not a conventional tree hugger.

As I write this, I’m sat on my porch with the doors open, the a/c is on inside the house, and I am drinking freeze-dried instant coffee shipped from one side of the world and sold for pennies at a major US retailer.

That said, I am concerned about the looming climate crisis, especially as I live in Florida.

Listening to the news, I am reminded of the volatile weather systems we live with here.

Much as Brits have football updates or Prime Ministerial changes pinging on their phones, we have 24-hour rolling weather news and alerts sent to our devices during Hurricane Season, warning us when storms are close by and what emergency measures we should take.

Our Governor is not a tree hugger either, by any means.

But he too is awake to the reality that his state’s highest point is only 430 feet above sea level and we are surrounded by 1400 miles of coastline.

He will be aware that 76% of the state’s population lives in coastal counties which contain the thousands of kilometres of sandy beaches which support important recreation and tourism businesses.

Florida’s coastal waters generate more than $30 billion in revenue per year, hosting the largest number of recreational boats and saltwater fishermen in the country, as well as important marine mineral resources and unique ecosystems.

From the Panhandle to the Keys, climate change puts all that at risk.

So, whether our motivation is merely self-preservation or self-interest, it doesn’t really matter, just so long as some action is taken.

Florida is at least alive to the danger, and now has an emergency bureau aimed at averting the crisis. I spent this afternoon in the company of the State’s Chief Resilience Officer, a newish position established to help us prevent the impending crisis, as he explained to me and my clients about the billions of dollars being invested to tackle the challenge of floods, storms, sea-level rise and droughts.

But that isn’t the case across the entire US.

In some communities their leaders see climate change as a great opportunity, one they aren’t going to pass up for some ecological or environmental ideal.

For those who don’t know, Buffalo, in upstate New York, has some of the least pleasant weather anywhere in the US.

It sits on Lake Ontario across from Canada and with Niagara Falls as its near neighbour. It records regular annual snow fall of 94 inches and blasted by icy wind off the lake, temperatures between December and March rarely rise above freezing.

But now, civic leaders in Buffalo are declaring their city to be a climate change winner, heralding great times ahead.

“Buffalo – thanks to our fresh water, mild temperatures, low-risk of disaster, and more – is a climate change refuge,” said Greg Pokriki, Public Relations Specialist at InvestBuffalo.

“Coastal cities can’t claim this. The Sunbelt and South can’t claim this. And so, we’re excited to share yet another great and unique reason to be in Buffalo” he gleefully claims.

NBCNEWS reported, in his 2019 State of the City address, Mayor Byron Brown dubbed Buffalo a “Climate Refuge City.”

He is hopeful that a coming wave of climate refugees will revive Buffalo’s economic fortunes, filling its vacant lots and abandoned storefronts.

Intrigued by this, State University New York, Buffalo climate scientist Stephen Vermette looked at the available data.

He pored over weather records since 1965 and concluded that temperatures have risen just over 2 degrees Fahrenheit in that time – and while the results weren’t spread uniformly across the US – it roughly matched with the data coming out of the rest of the Lower 48.

So as climate change has wreaked havoc elsewhere – California is ablaze, the MidWest and Mid-Atlantic states are drenched by torrential floods and my insurance premiums spiral ever upwards as Gulf Coast storms become more violent and frequent – Buffalo is looking forward to milder, shorter winters and warmer summers.

It has to be said, neither the Mayor nor the researchers were exactly celebrating climate change or hoping for global warming, but they are excited by the possibilities of the change which increasingly seems irreversible unless significant policy and behaviour change occurs.

In the 1950s, the population of Buffalo peaked at around 580,000 people. Since then, residents have left the city in droves bringing the current population to under 260,000.

Consequently, The Mayor’s claim that Buffalo may be a good choice for those fleeing climate emergencies might stack up – the city has enough land, housing, sewer and water infrastructure to support hundreds of thousands new residents.

It is also true that Buffalo, being poor, hasn’t done much to prepare itself for the ‘unique reason to be in Buffalo’ that Pokriki claims, but some entrepreneurs have taken notice.

According to a Bloomberg report, Lindsay Tropf moved to the city as part of a New York state initiative that awards money to start ups which relocate to Buffalo.

Tropf is the CEO of Immersed Games, which makes educational software to teach students about climate change.

“We needed to leave Florida and find a new home for our start-up, 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.

“Now I don’t have to shut down my office for two weeks every year fleeing for our lives from hurricanes,” she told reporters.

I’m not sure thousands of young professionals are racing to Buffalo, though it has reported sensational rises in residential rents over the past couple of years.

But if this story about the potential exodus of taxpayers and businesses  prompts the new Florida Chief Resilience Officer, his boss the Governor, and the local and state regulators to stop turning a blind eye to unprecedented levels of urbanisation and development on Florida’s coasts and delicate wetland environments, it might not be a bad thing.

Perhaps I can urge the rest of the nation to join me in launching a destination brand campaign for their friends in western New York – Keep Buffalo Cool.

Martin Liptrot

Martin Liptrot is a Public Affairs, PR and Marketing consultant working with UK, US and Global clients to try and ‘make good ideas happen’.

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