Some Northern Cities Could Be Reborn as 'Climate Havens'
By Marcello Rossi
As extreme storms, flooding rains and devastating wildfires make some parts of the U.S. more challenging to live in, what Americans consider a nice place to call home is shifting — and with that some Americans are moving, too.
That's why cities like Duluth, Minnesota, Buffalo, New York and Cincinnati, Ohio, are launching efforts to brand themselves as enticing relocation destinations for those seeking to escape the brunt of a warming climate.
Jesse Keenan, a social scientist and lecturer at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, said that Duluth and Buffalo have plenty of advantages in a warming world.
"These cities are well-positioned, as they have a cool climate that will remain relatively mild even as temperatures increase and easy freshwater access via the Great Lakes – and also face minimum risk of wildfires and coastal storms," he said.
Like some other cities in the industrialized northern U.S., often dismissed as "rust belt," all three urban areas have lost jobs in the past few decades as demand for manufacturing collapsed. And their populations declined as people moved on in search of better opportunities.
Keenan, recently the subject of a New York Times article on the issue, said attracting new residents from regions hard-hit by climate change could help the cities regain some lost economic strength.
But such a gambit would come with challenges. The cities have among the lowest in-migration rates in the U.S. And attracting people to a cold and snowy climate is no easy task.
Advertising themselves as "climate resilient" is only the first step, Keenan said. To appeal to those in other regions, the cities need to address major problems like the lack of jobs and affordable housing.
Earlier this year, Duluth hosted a conference where Keenan presented his concept for the city.
To show how vacant buildings and under-used infrastructure might be repurposed — Duluth is home to 86,000 but can accommodate double that — Keenan showed renderings of the city with 45,000 new housing units, an expanded hospital, a new train station, and a light-rail system. He even suggested a new slogan for the city: climate-proof Duluth.
"The idea of Duluth as a climate refuge is so new to us that we wanted to start a conversation dealing with the potential ramifications of being a climate refuge," said Patrick Schoff, a research associate at the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. "I think there's a lot of potential here, including an economic upswing."
But some Duluthians are not convinced. City councilman Gary Anderson sees the potential development as a good thing, but he expresses concerns that inflows of climate migrants may exacerbate the city's struggle to provide affordable housing.
Karen Diver, a faculty fellow at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, points out that the city has struggled in the past to embrace people from diverse backgrounds, and adds that the area still has to make progress to be ready to meet changing needs.
Keenan, who is credited with inventing the phrase "climate gentrification," said those issues were all considered as he crafted his presentation.
"My plan doesn't cater only to those who are financially able to move," he said. "The whole idea is meant to be an opportunity for Duluth to repopulate and redevelop with affordable housing, better access to mass transportation, and other services and amenities."
Buffalo Is Known for Snow
Buffalo's identity is already tightly interwoven with its climate.
"Buffalo is known nationally and globally for snow," said Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of the mayor's office of strategic planning. "This reputation has had an impact on the desire for people and business to relocate to Buffalo."
But though Buffalo's climate has historically been a liability for growth, climate change has the potential to make it an asset for the former steel powerhouse.
"Buffalo and western New York [are] certain to be one of the most livable regions in the country as climate change continues to wreak havoc," said Crystal Surdyk, executive director of Designing to Live Sustainably, a local climate-focused nonprofit.
In February 2019, Mayor Byron W. Brown declared the city "a climate refuge" during his annual state-of-the-city address.
The city has already welcomed some who might be described as climate migrants, providing shelter to thousands of Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in fall 2017.
"Many of these families have chosen to remain in Buffalo as they were warmly received and given support that has allowed them to make a life for their families here," Surdyk said.
Still, the prospect of accommodating Americans fleeing climate pressures brings some worries.
Surdyk is concerned that outside developers and investors already are buying-up urban and suburban properties in greater Buffalo. And while housing costs continue to grow — Buffalo ranks No. 7 in the nation for fast-rising rent — household income and the median hourly wage have not kept pace, she said.
"We are already experiencing the negative effects of rising rent levels," said Mike Riegel, the president of Belmont Housing Resources, a housing assistance agency in Buffalo. "Our Section 8 voucher-holders are taking a lot more time than in the past to find suitable housing in which to utilize their rental assistance."
Buffalo's historic building stock — what some consider among the best-preserved architecture in the U.S. — could also prove problematic, Riegel added.
"Energy costs in older housing units are very high, and upgrading to meet energy-efficiency requirements would exacerbate the rent-burden problem for low-income renters," he said.
Surdyk remains confident that encouraging climate migrants would help the city grow, but warns: "If we do not prepare for the potentially massive number of climate migrants and refugees, we will not only miss the opportunity to bounce back but the result could be catastrophic."
Choosing Cincinnati Could Be Savvy
Climate resiliency is also a growing focus for Cincinnati. The city's 2018 Green Plan notes that while Cincinnati isn't immune from climate change, it's "located outside the likely disaster areas" and is therefore "well situated to become a climate haven."
The plan highlights the importance of offering affordable housing, opportunities, and services to individuals who choose to relocate to the city, noting the "economic opportunities if Cincinnati is prepared to market itself" to businesses seeking to move from disaster-prone locations.
Oliver Kroner, Cincinnati's sustainability coordinator, says the idea to promote the city as a climate refuge came about with the recognition that some of the thousands of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 had moved there.
Like Buffalo and Duluth, Cincinnati has space for new arrivals. While the worst of its population decline seems to be over, the city has dropped to 300,000 residents, 40 percent less than its population in the 1950s. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are up to 48,000 vacant housing units across the greater metropolitan area.
Yet while climate change is likely to prompt some people living in risky locations to move elsewhere, they will not necessarily end up filling those empty houses. And the same goes for Buffalo and Duluth.
Vivek Shandas, a professor of urban studies at Portland State University, says those with the capacity to move will look to places with strong economic opportunities, presence of family or friends, and high quality of life — consistent with existing mobility patterns.
"These 'Rust Belt' cities are well-situated," he said. "But if they want to attract those who are electing to move, then we need to see empirical evidence – not marketing and general claims – of how they intend to address a surge in population and avert the challenge of higher temperatures and other climate-induced stressors."
Marcello Rossi is a science and freelance writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Smithsonian, Reuters, Quartz, and Outside, among other publications.
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Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced legislation to ban some of the most toxic pesticides currently in use in the U.S. D-Keine / E+ / Getty Images
By Jake Johnson
Democrats in the House and Senate on Tuesday introduced sweeping legislation that would ban some of the most toxic pesticides currently in use in the U.S. and institute stronger protections for farmworkers and communities that have been exposed to damaging chemicals by the agriculture industry.
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BP, the energy giant that grew from oil and gas production, is taking its business in a new direction, announcing Tuesday that it will slash its oil and gas production by 40 percent and increase its annual investment in low-carbon technology to $5 billion, a ten-fold increase over its current level, according to CNN.
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By Alex Thornton
The Australian government has announced a A$190 million (US$130 million) investment in the nation's first Recycling Modernization Fund, with the aim of transforming the country's waste and recycling industry. The hope is that as many as 10,000 jobs can be created in what is being called a "once in a generation" opportunity to remodel the way Australia deals with its waste.
Waste Mountain<p>The need for a dramatic increase in Australia's recycling capacity pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic. <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-27/where-does-all-australias-waste-go/11755424" target="_blank">Australians create approximately 67 million tons of waste a year</a>, and like in many wealthy countries, much of that was sent overseas. That all changed when China announced it was <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/10/china-has-banned-foreign-waste-so-whats-the-future-of-world-recycling" target="_blank">banning the import of a huge range of foreign waste</a> and recyclables. Soon <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/malaysia-flooded-with-plastic-waste-to-send-back-some-scrap-to-source" target="_blank">other countries followed suit</a>, and Australia was forced to look for alternative solutions.</p>
Biggest exporters of plastic. Statista
Waste Export Ban<p>Australia has adopted a strategy of taking responsibility for its own waste. Starting in January 2021, it is phasing in <a href="http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/waste-export-ban" target="_blank">bans on the export of different forms of waste</a>. By mid 2024, Australia's home-grown recycling industry will have to deal with an extra 650,000 tons of waste plastic, paper, glass and tires.</p><p>"As we cease shipping our waste overseas, the waste and recycling transformation will reshape our domestic waste industry, driving job creation and putting valuable materials back into the economy," federal environment minister Sussan Ley said in a <a href="https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-australia-waste/australia-to-set-up-132-million-fund-to-boost-recycling-following-export-curbs-idUKKBN247060" target="_blank">statement to Reuters</a>.</p>
Timeline for Australia's waste export ban. Australian Government
Trash Into Treasure<p>The benefits to the environment of boosting recycling rates are well known – less landfill, less plastic in our ocean, reduced need for virgin materials, and lower carbon emissions. The Recycling Modernization Fund initiative aims to divert more than 10 million tons of waste from landfill, part of an <a href="http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/publications/national-waste-policy-action-plan" target="_blank">overall strategy to reduce the total waste generated per person by 10%</a>, and push <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/7381c1de-31d0-429b-912c-91a6dbc83af7/files/national-waste-report-2018.pdf" target="_blank">Australia's total resource recovery rate from 58% in 2017</a> to 80% by 2030.</p><p>But like many countries, Australia is focusing on the economic benefits of better waste management as well.</p><p>"This will mean Australia converts more waste into higher valued resources ready for reuse locally by manufacturers and brands in their packaging and products," Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council, <a href="https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-australia-waste/australia-to-set-up-132-million-fund-to-boost-recycling-following-export-curbs-idUKKBN247060" target="_blank">told Reuters</a>.</p>
Green Jobs<p>The great potential of the circular economy to create green jobs is being recognized across the world.</p><p>In the UK, the Waste and Resources Action Program has launched a <a href="https://wrap.org.uk/buildbackbetter" target="_blank">six-point plan which it claims could add $90 billion to the economy, and create 500,000 new jobs</a>. Investment in the circular economy forms a significant part of the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/us/politics/biden-climate-plan.html" target="_blank">$2 trillion climate plan that Democratic candidate Joe Biden</a> is taking into November's US presidential election. And the <a href="https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_940" target="_blank">European Union has put its Green New Deal at the heart of its plans for recovery</a> from the economic shock of COVID-19.</p><p>The World Economic Forum's <a href="http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_Future_Of_Nature_And_Business_2020.pdf" target="_blank">Future of Nature and Business</a> report identifies 15 systemic transitions with annual business opportunities worth $10 billion a year that could create 395 million jobs by 2030.</p><p>As is the case with Australia's Recycling Modernization Fund, a combination of private enterprise and government investment can offer ways to get people back to work by building a more environmentally sustainable economy.</p>
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The Great American Outdoors Act is now the law of the land.
<div id="e0008" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ffc07febbf5d2d585ad06d3f43e2be56"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1290667833999929344" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🚨Breaking News: The President has just signed the bipartisan #GreatAmericanOutdoorsAct. It will help: 🏗️ Restore… https://t.co/RPefKPMn7S</div> — Fix Our Parks (@Fix Our Parks)<a href="https://twitter.com/FixOurParksUS/statuses/1290667833999929344">1596554165.0</a></blockquote></div>
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By Andrew J. Whelton and Caitlin R. Proctor
In recent years wildfires have entered urban areas, causing breathtaking destruction.
Survivors left everything to flee the Camp Fire's path. Andrew Whelton / Purdue University
Wildfires and Water<p>Both the Tubbs and Camp fires destroyed fire hydrants, water pipes and meter boxes. Water leaks and ruptured hydrants were common. The Camp Fire inferno spread at a speed of one football field per second, chasing everyone – including water system operators – out of town.</p><p>After the fires passed, testing ultimately revealed widespread hazardous drinking water contamination. Evidence suggests that the toxic chemicals originated from a combination of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/aws2.1183" target="_blank">burning vegetation, structures and plastic materials</a>.</p>
Pipes, water meters and meter covers after wildfires destroyed them. Caitlin Proctor, Amisha Shah, David Yu, and Andrew Whelton/Purdue University
Dangerous Contamination Levels<p>Benzene was found at concentrations of 40,000 parts per billion (ppb) in drinking water after the Tubbs Fire and at more than 2,217 ppb after the Camp Fire. According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, children exposed to benzene for a single day can suffer <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/resources/Benzene-Levels-in-Water.pdf" target="_blank">harm at levels as low as 26 ppb</a>.</p><p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends limiting children's short-term acute exposure to <a href="https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-03/documents/dwtable2018.pdf" target="_blank">200 ppb</a>, and long-term exposure to less than <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/national-primary-drinking-water-regulations" target="_blank">5 ppb</a>. The EPA regulatory level for what constitutes a hazardous waste is <a href="https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-06/documents/tclp.pdf" target="_blank">500 ppb</a>.</p><p>In early 2019, California conducted contaminated water testing on humans by taking contaminated water from the Paradise Irrigation District and asking persons to smell it. The state found that even when people smelled contaminated water that had less than 200 ppb benzene, <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/resources/Dissipatiion-of-Burn-Related-VOC-From-Water.pdf" target="_blank">at least one person reported nausea and throat irritation</a>. The test also showed that water contained a variety of other benzene-like compounds that first responders had not sampled for.</p><p>The officials who carried out this small-scale test did not appear to realize the significance of what they had done, until we asked whether they had had their action approved in advance by an institutional review board. In response, they asserted that such a review was not needed.</p><p>In our view, this episode is telling for two reasons. First, one subject reported an adverse health effect after being exposed to water that contained benzene at a level below the EPA's recommended one-day limit for children. Second, doing this kind of test without proper oversight suggests that officials greatly underestimated the potential for serious contamination of local water supplies and public harm. After the Camp Fire, together with the EPA, we estimated that some plastic pipes needed <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/opinions/Final-HDPE-Service-Line-Decontamination-2019-03-18.pdf" target="_blank">more than 280 days</a> of flushing to make them safe again.</p>
Plastic pipes can be damaged by heat and fire contact. Andrew Whelton / Purdue University
Building Codes Could Make Areas Disaster-Ready<p>Our research underscores that community building codes are inadequate to prevent wildfire-caused pollution of drinking water and homes.</p><p>Installing one-way valves, called backflow prevention devices, at each water meter can prevent contamination rushing out of the damaged building from flowing into the larger buried pipe network.</p><p>Adopting codes that required builders to install fire-resistant meter boxes and place them farther from vegetation would help prevent infrastructure from burning so readily in wildfires. Concrete meter boxes and water meters with minimal plastic components would be less likely to ignite. Some plastics may be practically impossible to make safe again, since all types are susceptible to fire and heat.</p><p>Water main shutoff valves and water sampling taps should exist at every water meter box. Sample taps can help responders quickly determine water safety.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9540d7e271306ed417112042a3efc9a4"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GnlrzI1wdAI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Smell Test Doesn’t Work<p>Under no circumstance should people be told to <a href="https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/press_room/press_releases/2018/pr122418_voc.pdf" target="_blank">smell the water</a> to determine its safety, as was recommended for months after the Camp Fire. Many chemicals have no odor when they are harmful. Only testing can determine safety.</p><p>Ordering people to boil their water will not make it safe if it contains toxic chemicals that enter the air. Boiling just transmits those substances into the air faster. "Do not use" orders can keep people safe until agencies can test the water. Before such advisories are lifted or modified, regulators should be required to carry out a full chemical screen of the water systems. Yet, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/aws2.1183" target="_blank">disaster</a> after <a href="https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2017/ew/c5ew00294j" target="_blank">disaster</a>, government agencies have failed to take this step.</p><p>Buildings should be tested to find contamination. <a href="https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2020/Q1/study-your-homes-water-quality-could-vary-by-the-room-and-the-season.html" target="_blank">Home drinking water quality can differ from room to room</a>, so reliable testing should sample both cold and hot water at many locations within each building.</p><p>While infrastructure is being repaired, survivors need a safe water supply. Water treatment devices sold for home use, such as refrigerator and faucet water filters, are not approved for extremely contaminated water, although product sales representatives and government officials may <a href="https://undark.org/2019/09/19/camp-fire-california-drinking-water-carcinogens/" target="_blank">mistakenly think</a> the devices can be used for that purpose.</p><p>To avoid this kind of confusion, external technical experts should be called in assist local public health departments, which can quickly become overwhelmed after disasters.</p>
<div id="71cf9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e059d199e8368d282a31601e372e4dda"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1204068265980547075" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">The Los Angeles City Council's Planning and Land Use Committee signed off on an effort to expand the city's fire-re… https://t.co/fP8Z8mUq7R</div> — IntlCodeCouncil (@IntlCodeCouncil)<a href="https://twitter.com/IntlCodeCouncil/statuses/1204068265980547075">1575907219.0</a></blockquote></div>
Preparing for Future Fires<p>The damage that the Tubbs and Camp fires caused to local water systems was preventable. We believe that urban and rural communities, as well as state legislatures, should establish codes and lists of authorized construction materials for high-risk areas. They also should establish rapid methods to assess health, prepare for water testing and decontamination, and set aside emergency water supplies.</p><p>Wildfires are coming to urban areas. Protecting drinking water systems, buried underground or in buildings, is one thing communities can do to prepare for that reality.</p>
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By Zulfikar Abbany
"We don't have a definition of life," says Kevin Peter Hand, one early California morning when we speak via video. "We don't actually know what life is."