BY KELSEY SANDRA ABLES
After a rejuvenating retreat to the Adirondack Mountains, environmentalist David Kowalski came back to reality: a severe drought in Buffalo and a high-stakes election looming on the horizon. We met in his Synder home on yet another unmercifully hot July morning. Sitting before a wall covered in children’s drawings of pastoral scenes and placid lakes, Kowalski spoke fervently and gravely about the “intergenerational injustice” that is climate change.
As a former biochemist and cancer research scientist, Kowalski has a knack for citing precise statistics and can deftly navigate the scientific arguments that verify climate change and support renewable energy. As a nature-lover, Kowalski traces his motivations to fight ardently for climate justice back to his visceral love of the outdoors. And lastly, as a grandparent, he feels a moral obligation to his children and grandchildren from whom we borrow the Earth.
After a series of fortuitously timed events in the mid-2000s, the thought of “passing on this polluted and overheated world to [his] children and grandchildren” became unbearable. Kowalski’s fierce fight for climate justice actually began with his son who, upon returning from college in Vermont, told him it was time to toss the gas-guzzling Jeep and asked to change all the light bulbs in their house to LEDs. Shortly after, the United Nation’s 2006 Report on Climate Change stirred Kowalski to think more about the implications of climate change. More politically aware than before and with the 2008 primary election approaching, Kowalski accompanied his son and his son’s classmates to New Hampshire and watched as they educated the public about climate change. Inspired by these young activists, he thought he should join the fight as well.
Today, he is one of the most outspoken environmentalists in Buffalo, but when Kowalski began engaging with politicians and writing to representatives, he found himself in unfamiliar territory. “For me that was a complete change in my behavior, “ says Kowalski of these first interactions, “I never dealt with politicians or their offices or their schedulers.” It became clear the political world with its deliberately obfuscating rhetoric and layers of bureaucracy was far removed from the idyllic world of nature Kowalski is so fond of.
Connecting with the offices of Clinton, Higgins, and Schumer, to name a few, Kowalski, a newbie in the green scene, planned a march/rally event about climate change. The event focused on three ostensibly simple asks: cut carbon pollution, no new coal plants, and grow green jobs. Searching for an “iconic place” for the event, Kowalski was inspired by Bill McKibben’s writings about Roosevelt’s journey to Buffalo upon the news of McKinley being shot. Roosevelt was one of America’s greatest environmentalists. Accordingly, Kowalski planned a march from Roosevelt’s inaugural site on Delaware Avenue to the McKinley memorial in front of city hall, with rallies at both ends. The 2007 event saw over 150 participants including democratic politicians and speakers. Kowalski saw it as “pretty much expected” that “even though they were invited, no Republican politicians came.” Certainly, he did not let that bring down what was “an uplifting community event of people [coming together] with a common interest in the future of not just our planet but the future of our children.”
People like David Kowalski are working hard to undo the work of fossil fuel industry’s top executives and public relations teams. To the fossil fuel industry, $28 trillion worth of underground oil reserves are the economic future. To Kowalski, our future depends on keeping that oil in the ground. “When we burn fossil fuels,” Kowalski laments, “we’re burning the future of our planet, we’re burning our future generations.” The misconceptions spread by the fossil fuel industry about our ability to adapt to climate change have led people to believe otherwise (see graph). As a result, “A lot of people have come to distrust the scientist,” says Kowalski, “for me, that hurts. Without honesty and integrity there’s no science, it’s a house of cards.” With maximizing profit their highest priority, these monstrous corporations couldn’t care less about honesty. Citizens United might treat corporations as “people” but as Kowalski points out, “that’s a bunch of hoo-ey. Unlike people, these industries have no conscience…they don’t look at it like a person looks at it.” But an individual person can find few ways to challenge the poisonous propaganda of global corporations.
“We can put some solar panels on, but that’s just not going to get us there,” says Kowalski. “It’s not just people, it’s government. This has got to be a huge government project. There’s no way around it.. and not just our government, but every government in the world” The good news, as Kowalski points out, is that, “at the recent Paris climate conference, virtually every nation signed on realizing that we need to cut global warming pollution, we need to cut burning fossil fuels.” Kowalski also speaks excitedly of the strides we are making, “one of the rally cries from 2007 was no new coal plants and that’s happening, we’re really phasing out coal, and that’s really good news.” Such a success can only result from the united efforts of the many, which is why Kowalski, who, as a scientist had never dealt with politicians before, has devoted so much of his time and energy to rallies and marches.
On June 1st, Kowalski, again found himself in the middle of a government change. He was amongst hundreds of people flooding the New York State Capitol in proud support of the Climate and Community Protection Act. “I ended up right outside the assembly hall’s big glass wall,” Kowalski says, “I could see the assembly in there… my assemblyman came walking out and I said ‘…I really want to see this climate bill pass!’” No stranger to rallies and protests, Kowalski had met his assemblyman Ray Walter before, but this time it was in the midst of a vote over a vital climate bill.
“I’m standing there with a sign,” Kowalski recalls, “and he [Walter] said ‘it’ll pass’ and I said ‘great thank you!’ and after the vote I checked, he voted no!” The bill passed the assembly anyway, but got held up in the republican controlled senate. It was a historic moment for the personally-invested, rallying environmentalists as well as the financially invested lobbyists who were also at the scene.
Amidst the chaos at the Capitol on that June day, a security guard turned to Kowalski and said, “this is the way democracy is supposed to work.” Being a part of a democracy means that even if we are ultimately subject to the forces of corporations and government, we can join together in an effort to influence the decisions and actions of those larger bodies
“It’s the reality of greed vs. people—it’s an old theme but that theme is getting more and more entrenched,” says Kowalski, “they [fossil fuel industry] do this for their own survival because their ideology is based on the free market and profit and continued economic growth, and we only have one planet… we can’t grow continuously forever.”
Environmentalists have no desire to punish people who work in the fossil fuel industry. In fact, they are very concerned that those affected by the switch to renewables find meaningful work to replace lost jobs. The goal is “Climate Justice” for all. Expanding on the Climate Justice idea, Kowalski advocates for a “just transition for workers. He cites “what’s going on in the west side of buffalo [as] a good example. They are training people there to weatherize.” In Buffalo, there’s certainly plenty of work for that. “We had this done to our house years ago,” said Kowalski, “insulation, double pane windows, steel doors that are insulated, light bulbs that use less energy.” Kowalski even argues that the transition to renewables will both replace lost jobs and create more jobs.
Asked if the goal is to completely eliminate fossil fuels Kowalski said, “its hard right now from the point we’re at to say completely eliminate [fossil fuels]… but certainly we can greatly reduce…” People are calling for 100% by 2050. Kowalski calls this a “loser goal because 2050 is far away.” The fight for climate justice could always use more voices to speed up the change. Kowalski is on the board at the Sierra Club Niagara Group and also is on the planning committee for the Climate Justice Coalition of Western New York, who he does communications for. He encourages individuals interested in either group to get involved. The Sierra Club has many different opportunities including a writers group as well as an energy and climate group that focuses specifically on renewable energy. Joining the Climate Justice Coalition is a great way to get more information and there are also more specific groups—including religious and ethnic groups that are affiliated with the Climate Justice Coalition.
Kowalski spends much of his free time enjoying the nature he fights so persistently and passionately to protect. “When I take people on hikes through the woods… I ask them to look around and I ask who fertilized this place? Nobody? Yeah? Nature did.. nature can do this! We humans have become so disconnected from nature that we don’t think about it and I think that’s a big obstacle of getting across the climate problem…the separation from nature… we’re detached.”
This fight is not just for people who identify as environmentalists, “this is for people who are getting impacted by climate change, people who got hit by Hurricane Sandy, people who have asthma as a result of living near coal fire power plants, people who are living near nuclear plants” and the list goes on—including people who will lose their jobs should we transition to renewables.
“We have to keep telling our politicians that climate change is real, it’s happening now, and the way to fix it is to stop burning fossil fuels, and transition to renewable energy.”
At the end of the day, it is a government issue, so Kowalski says, “VOTE! Vote for people and the planet!”
David Kowalski publishes Re-ENERGIZE Buffalo. His Twitter handle is @ReEnergizeBflo, and he can be found on Facebook at Climate Justice Coalition of Western New York. His email address is ClimateJusticeBuffalo@gmail.com.