Buffalo climate group doesn’t plan to stay quiet: ‘Not enough people are as afraid as they should be’

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Trees blossom near the Unisphere, a spherical stainless steel representation of the Earth, in Flushing Meadows Corona Park on Earth Day, April 22, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s a scene near the end of the movie “Dr. Strangelove” where a character named Major Kong sits atop a falling H-bomb, happily hooting and hollering as he hurtles to certain doom. 

“That’s me,” said Patrick Whitford, who leads the Buffalo-Niagara chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a global, non-partisan organization working to educate citizens on climate solutions. 

“We might perish,” he said. “But I’m going to do a damn good job and try my best to make people understand what’s going on.”

He doesn’t mean to be fatalistic about it. But like many climate change activists, Whitford realizes the urgency of the issue. The evidence is everywhere around the globe, from forest fires to floods to hurricanes to record temperatures and rising sea levels. 

That’s why Whitford, 24, is fighting the climate change battle, which he describes as a “mix of fear, hope and determination.” The planet might be in serious peril, but the alternative is to do nothing. He says he has dedicated his entire life to the cause.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Whitford said “This is very important to me. Climate activism is at the forefront of everything I do. The planet is dying rapidly. … We’re starting to see some of the more detrimental effects of anthropogenic climate change.

Patrick Whitford describes the climate change battle as a “mix of fear, hope and determination.” (Jerry Sullivan/WIVB)

“This is the hottest summer on record. I’ve been sweating every day. This is not just about me. This is about future generations to come. I know a lot of young people have the same sentiments that I do. But not enough people are as afraid as they should be. It’s far more dire than a lot of people want to realize, I’ve noticed.”

Whitford is the son of environmental activists. His father was a lawyer in New York City at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. He had an office in the World Trade Center, but wasn’t in the building when the planes hit. Patrick was 4 years old. All he remembers was Sesame Street going suddenly off the air.

His mother was so upset, the family moved to Florida. Whitford took up his folks’ concern for the environment at a young age and went to the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, where he got a degree in sustainability and management.

It was while at college that he first became involved in the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which was started by a hunger activist named Marshall Saunders in 2007 and now has 590 chapters in 70 countries around the world. 

“I think that’s what brought him to Syracuse,” said Dylan Howatt, who became friends with Whitford at ESF and is now his roommate and business partner in Buffalo. “We did a bunch of stuff together, but the Citizens Climate Lobby was something he took on himself. He volunteered, did some tabling. He gave out letters to local politicians, lobbying for a carbon tax.”

At ESF, Whitford learned about environmentally sustainable construction — building or renovating homes that are highly efficient and powered by renewable energy. He and Howatt were on a team that won a “Solar Decathlon Design Challenge” at the college.

After graduation, Whitford got a dream job offer as assistant project manager at C & R Housing Inc., located in an old warehouse on Pratt Street in Buffalo. “Empower New York” is a state-funded initiative that provides energy and safety upgrades to low-income families, free of charge, on the city’s East Side.

“It’s been a fantastic experience,” Whitford said. “I’ve learned a lot about the environment, how it interacts with buildings and people, how people interact with their environment.”

Essentially, Whitford and his people go to existing homes on the East Side and show residents how to reduce their energy use, which includes carbon emissions, making their dwellings safer and more economically affordable.

Traffic moves through Brooklyn on Aug. 9. A climate report released this month by the United Nation’s (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), predicts that unless humans make immediate changes to limit methane emissions, carbon dioxides and other heat trapping gases, the earth will continue to warm with devastating effects on human and animal life. The report is based on the analysis of more than 14,000 studies and comes at a time when America is experiencing record high temperatures, droughts and spreading wildfires. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“I don’t know if you realize this,” he said, “but Buffalo wastes more heat than any other city in America.” 

Well, it isn’t the most environmentally conscious place in the country, either. When Whitford moved to Buffalo last May, he reached out to his national contacts in the Citizens’ Climate Lobby to find out what was happening in Western New York.

“I said, ‘Is there anything going on in Buffalo? Are there activities for CCL?’ They said, ‘Not really. The last chapter leader is stepping down’. They said, “Do you want to take over?’”

How could he say no? There were only two or three active members in the Buffalo-Niagara chapter at the time. There are now about a dozen. Whitford got advice from Kyle Thomas, who had groomed him in the Syracuse chapter. He got insight from Sarah Mittiga, who leads the Rochester chapter and is one of the state coordinators for CCL.

“Oh, we’re so lucky! It was perfect timing,” Mittiga said. “The chapter was dormant and he contacted me out of the blue. He’s been a fantastic asset, reaching out to people and kind of building things from the ground up.”

Andrew Hartley, who has been a volunteer in the Buffalo-Niagara CCL for about four years, said the pandemic put a crimp in the chapter’s activities. It also set them back when the previous leader left to devote more time to her family. 

“We had gone for a little while without a leader, so we were especially glad to have Patrick step in,” said Hartley, who writes letters to local media and conducts the monthly calling campaign to representatives in the 27th Congressional District, the reddest in New York State. 

“He’s a super guy,” Hartley said. “I especially appreciate his enthusiasm. He’s definitely fired up about doing something good for the climate and the environment. I’m very impressed.”

Things have picked up steam since Whitford took over. He conducts monthly Zoom meetings with the national leaders. Two weekends ago, they teamed with PUSH-Buffalo on a climate carnival. 

A worker stands near heavy machinery used to dump sand on the shoreline of Miami Beach, Florida, on January 16, 2020. Dozens of trucks have started dumping hundreds of thousands of tons of sand on Miami Beach as part of US government measures to protect Florida’s tourist destinations against the effects of climate change. (Photo by EVA MARIE UZCATEGUI/AFP via Getty Images)

Whitford said he’s excited about two upcoming events: CCL has some “prime real estate” for a display at the Borderland music festival at the Knox Farm. They have an event with Buffalo Niagara Water Keeper, an organization dedicated to protecting the fresh water and surrounding ecosystems in Western New York.

Howatt and Whitford founded an apparel company — Aldila del Mare or “Beyond the Sea” — which utilizes organ fibers and non-toxic, petroleum-free inks in its clothing to minimize environmental impact. That means no plastics, which are major ocean polluters. 

Whitford said he’s devoted his life to climate activism, in its various manifestations. The most vital is the CCL’s campaign to get Congress to pass a carbon pricing bill, which would require companies to pay a tax — or dividend — on carbon emissions, with the revenue going to Americans in a transition to clean energy.

“It’s not a simple concept,” Whitford said. “It relies heavily on market and economic principles. We’re trying to get a bill passed in Congress that would use market forces to drive the price of carbon emissions up. There’s a lot of nuances with that that make it kind of boring.”

Climate activists are hoping the carbon pricing bill will be included in the reconciliation package being pushed by President Biden. They believe time is short, and there’s an urgent need for action. They’re hopeful but have grown accustomed to resistance from people who think climate change is exaggerated, or in the case of the last President, even a hoax.

“I am extremely aware,” Whitford said. “I am concerned that we have reached the tipping point already. So sometimes it feels that my efforts are going to be fruitless, even if I try. But the alternative is that I do nothing. I just live my life uncaring, or uninvested. 

“We have been talking about this for a long time. We’ve known about the potential effects of the Industrial Revolution and carbonization of the economy since 1900. It’s no secret. There’s a recent report out of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) saying that things are looking dire and they’re going to get worse unless we stop and fix things right now.

“It’s still important to try, is what I’m saying. We have to at least educate. We have to talk to people. We have to talk to the youth, too. That’s important, and that’s something I’ve been trying to get going with CCL, educating the people who are going to be making the decisions in 20-30 years.”

Whitford said a lot of it comes down to communicating. People aren’t stupid. But they get information from different sources and can be swayed by emotion and religious belief. You seek a common ground. You can ride the bomb, howl in the face of global calamity, but the one thing a climate activist can never do is give up.

“There’s no fuel for the hope unless there’s determination,” Whitford said. “I’ve got to see the fuel for the fire — but not real fire, because that causes carbon emissions.”

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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