There is a scene towards the end of the movie “Dr. Strangelove” where a character named Major Kong sits on top of a falling H-bomb, hooting and screaming merrily as he rushes to doom.
“It’s me,” said Patrick Whitford, who heads the Buffalo-Niagara chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a non-partisan global organization that works to educate citizens about climate solutions.
“We could perish,” he said. “But I’m going to do a hell of a good job and do my best to get people to understand what’s going on.”
He doesn’t want to be fatalistic about it. But like many climate change activists, Whitford realizes the urgency of the problem. The evidence is everywhere, from forest fires and floods to hurricanes, record temperatures and rising sea levels.
That’s why Whitford, 24, is leading the battle against climate change, which he describes as “a mixture of fear, hope and determination”. The planet may be in grave danger, but the alternative is to do nothing. He says he has dedicated his whole life to the cause.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Whitford said. “It’s very important to me. Climate activism is at the forefront of everything I do. The planet is dying fast.… We are starting to see some of the most damaging effects of anthropogenic climate change.
“It’s the hottest summer on record. I sweated every day. It’s not just about me. It is about future generations to come. I know a lot of young people have the same feelings as me. But not enough people are as scared as they should be. It is much more serious than what a lot of people want to realize, I have noticed.
Whitford is the son of environmental activists. Her father was a lawyer in New York at the time of the September 11 attacks. He had an office at the World Trade Center, but was not in the building when the planes hit. Patrick was 4 years old. All he remembers is that Sesame Street suddenly stopped airing.
Her mother was so upset that the family moved to Florida. Whitford realized his parents’ concern for the environment from an early age and attended SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, where he earned a degree in sustainability and management.
It was at university 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 across the world.
“I think that’s what brought him to Syracuse,” said Dylan Howatt, who befriended Whitford at ESF and is now his roommate and business partner in Buffalo. “We did a lot of things together, but the Citizens Climate Lobby was something he took on himself. He volunteered, made a deposit. He distributed letters to local politicians, pushing for a carbon tax. “
At ESF, Whitford learned about environmentally sustainable building – building or renovating highly efficient homes powered by renewable energy. He and Howatt were part of a team that won a “Solar Decathlon Design Challenge” in college.
After graduation, Whitford got a dream job offer as an Assistant Project Manager at C&R Housing Inc., located in a former warehouse on Pratt Street in Buffalo. “Empower New York” is a state-funded initiative that provides energy and safety upgrades to low-income families, for free, on the city’s East Side.
“It was a fantastic experience,” said Whitford. “I learned a lot about the environment, how it interacts with buildings and people, how people interact with their environment.
Essentially, Whitford and his team go to existing homes on the East Side and show residents how to reduce their energy use, which includes carbon emissions, making their homes safer and more affordable.
“I don’t know if you realize it,” he said, “but Buffalo wastes more heat than any other city in America. ”
Well, it’s not the most eco-friendly place in the country, either. When Whitford moved to Buffalo last May, he reached out to his national contacts within the Citizens’ Climate Lobby to find out what was happening in western New York State.
“I said, ‘Is something going on in Buffalo? Are there any activities for CCL? ‘ They said, ‘Not really. The last chapter leader is retiring ”. 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 a dozen. Whitford received advice from Kyle Thomas, who had looked after him in the Syracuse chapter. He got an overview from Sarah Mittiga, who heads the Rochester chapter and is one of the state coordinators for CCL.
“Oh, we are so lucky! It was perfect timing, ”said Mittiga. “The chapter was dormant and he contacted me out of the blue. He’s been a fantastic asset, reaching people and building things from scratch. “
Andrew Hartley, who has volunteered with the Buffalo-Niagara CCL for about four years, said the pandemic has put a damper on the chapter’s activities. It also delayed them when the former leader left to spend more time with her family.
“We had been without a leader for a little while, so we were especially happy that Patrick stepped in,” said Hartley, who writes letters to local media and leads the monthly campaign to appeal to representatives of the 27th Redest Congressional District. from the country. New York State.
“He’s a great guy,” Hartley said. “I particularly appreciate his enthusiasm. He is definitely excited to do something good for the climate and the environment. I’m very impressed.”
Things have accelerated since Whitford took over. It organizes monthly Zoom meetings with national leaders. Two weekends ago they teamed up with PUSH-Buffalo on a climate carnival.
Whitford said he was excited about two upcoming events: CCL has “premier real estate” for display at the Borderland Music Festival at Knox Farm. They are hosting an event with Buffalo Niagara Water Keeper, an organization dedicated to protecting freshwater and surrounding ecosystems in western New York State.
Howatt and Whitford founded a clothing company – Aldila del Mare or “Beyond the Sea” – which uses organic fibers and non-toxic, petroleum-free inks in its clothing to minimize environmental impact. This means no plastics, which are the main polluters of the oceans.
Whitford said he dedicated his life to climate activism, in its various manifestations. 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 revenues going to Americans in a transition to clean energy.
“It’s not a simple concept,” Whitford said. “It relies heavily on the market and economic principles. We are trying to get a bill passed in Congress that would use market forces to drive up the price of carbon emissions. There are a lot of nuances to it that make it a bit boring.
Climate activists hope the carbon pricing bill will be included in President Biden’s proposed reconciliation plan. They believe that time is running out and that action is urgently needed. They are hopeful but have grown used to resistance from people who think climate change is overkill, or in the case of the last president, even a hoax.
“I am extremely aware,” Whitford said. “I’m afraid we’ve already reached the tipping point. So sometimes I feel like my efforts are going to be in vain, even if I try. But the alternative is that I do nothing. I live my life without worry, or without investment.
“We’ve been talking about it for a long time. We’ve known about the potential effects of the Industrial Revolution and the carbonization of the economy since 1900. It’s no secret. There is a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that says things are going to be dire and are going to get worse unless we stop and fix things now.
“It’s still important to try, that’s what I’m saying. We must at least educate. We need to talk to people. We also need to talk to young people. It’s important, and it’s something I’ve tried to do with CCL, educating the people who will be making the decisions 20 to 30 years from now.
Whitford said a lot of it comes down to communication. People are not stupid. But they get information from different sources and can be influenced by emotion and religious belief. Looking for common ground. You can mount the bomb, howl in the face of global calamity, but the only thing a climate activist can ever do is give up.
“There is no fuel for hope unless there is determination,” Whitford said. “I have to see the fuel for the fire – but not the real fire, because it causes carbon emissions.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning reporter who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist for the Buffalo News. See more of his work here.