Meet Climate Activist David Kowalski

The first website I created is called FedGreen, where I used to publish a weekly report on important environmental updates from the Federal Register. It was a worthwhile project, but ultimately, I wanted to do something more creative with my free time, which is why I switched over to creating this website and my Keeping Things Alive Podcast.

Before I decided to do a podcast, however, I started interviewing environmental activists in Buffalo, New York. My first interview-turned-article was with David Kowalski, a retired scientist who now spends his time working on his website Re-ENERGIZE Buffalo and giving educational lectures about climate change throughout Western New York.

In an effort to simplify my life, I’m going to be closing down FedGreen in the near future, so I wanted to move the article I wrote about David to this website instead. Here it goes, enjoy!

For my first Buffalo interview, I spoke with David Kowalski, PhD, a retired research scientist. He’s currently an environmental advocate and serves on the planning committee of the Climate Justice Coalition. David is a member of the Buffalo-Niagara Sierra Club’s Executive Committee, where he is involved in communications and social media. He enthusiastically told me that he “loves Millennials” (he has three millennial-age sons) and has embraced technology as an effective way to connect with other environmentalists around the country. Outside of Sierra Club, David runs the blog Re-ENERGIZE Buffalo, where he posts information about environmental events happening around Western New York and articles about environmental issues. His blog formerly focused on the harmful effects of hydraulic fracturing, but is now devoted to climate change action. David also volunteers his time by giving talks to interested groups and organizations about fracking and climate change.

Journey Into Environmental Advocacy

David spent his career as a scientist studying DNA replication and repair. Although he has always loved spending time in nature, he was not an environmental advocate until 2007, when three forces came together: (1) the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its 2007 report on climate change; (2) Al Gore released An Inconvenient Truth; and (3) earlier, David’s son had returned from Middlebury College, where he learned about climate change from Bill McKibben and promptly replaced all of their lightbulbs with compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs).

At the encouragement of his son, in 2007, David took the lead in organizing a Buffalo “Step it Up” rally, which was one of over 1400 rallies around the country challenging elected leaders to address climate change. David’s son interviewed him about his rally plans and wrote a detailed preview titled “Action Spotlight: Buffalo, NY, City of Light, City of Climate Progress.” About 150 people participated in the rally and it turned out to be an uplifting community event. Participating in organizing the rally afforded David the opportunity to connect with other environmentalists in the community, including members of the local Sierra Club.

Embracing Technology

David’s blog, Re-ENERGIZE Buffalo, has grown into a great resource for people around the globe. His earlier blog, Clean Energy NOW, discussed energy issues nationwide. The change to Re-ENERGIZE Buffalo happened when David attended a talk where he learned that Buffalo, New York was the second poorest city in the country at the time (it is currently the 3rd), which really blew him away. He realized that he could focus on his own community’s transition to clean energy and have a meaningful impact on an impoverished region. At that point, he started the Re-ENERGIZE Buffalo blog and focused on the Western New York area.

The Internet is a beautiful thing, because David has recently been getting a lot of website views of his past fracking articles from Russia and other parts of Europe, which is a region that is starting to experience fracking in their communities and want to learn about it.

David and I talked at length about the role of technology and social media in environmental advocacy. He has found that communicating through his blog and connecting it with Facebook, Twitter, and an email list has been a revolutionary way to connect with other people who care about environmental issues. He views Facebook as a free website, so instead of posting personal items, he has used his page to inform others about environmental issues including action on fracking and climate change.

Science and Ethics

As a career scientist, David truly believes that science is an evidence-based, objective process to discover facts and make our society a better place. He is also extremely offended by the denial of sound science, as in the case of the tobacco industry’s false claim that smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer, and by fake scientists being paid by other industry groups to issue biased reports that harm people and the environment.

For example, David was involved in the 2012 State University at Buffalo controversy where the University’s new Shale Resources and Society Institute released a report saying that state oversight in Pennsylvania had made natural gas drilling safer. However, that highlighted conclusion was not supported by data in the report. The report was also not subjected to academic peer-review and the authors failed to disclose their financial connections to the gas industry. This upset many students, faculty, citizens and watchdog groups in Buffalo, and led to the formation of the University at Buffalo Coalition for Leading Ethically in Academic Research (UB CLEAR), which demanded an investigation of the Institute. Later, following an internal assessment, the University at Buffalo President announced his decision to close the Shale Resources and Society Institute, effective immediately.

What Parts of the World are Dying and Being Born?

This interview series is meant to be a recap of an informal conversation about climate change action, but there are two questions that I will ask every person I interview: as you look into the future, (1) what parts of the world do you see are dying? and (2) what parts of the world do you see being born? David had an excellent response to each one.

For David, there are a lot of parts of the world that are dying, including the fossil fuel industry (“it has to die”). He emphasized that we have to stop burning fossil fuels, which is rapidly raising the level of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. He said that if you look at the graph of current levels of carbon dioxide, which is 40% higher than the highest natural levels detected over the past 400,000 years, it “looks like suicide.” Globally, 2015 was the warmest year since record keeping began in 1880, and fifteen of the sixteen warmest years occurred in the 21st century. We must shift to non-polluting energy sources.

We talked about how denial in the face of evidence is harmful, because after the interview, we are going to drive our cars home and cook on gas stoves, but we also don’t have much of a choice. David also believes that democracy is dying, because of the role of money in politics and the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United ruling that corporations are people.

On the flip side, David and I also talked about the parts of the world that are being born. He sees a future with abundant renewable energy resources and the resulting new jobs. For example, a Solar City plant is under construction in Buffalo and more wind energy development has occurred in New York and many other states. David also believes that there will be a rise in individual and community-based leadership, as opposed to politicians acting as the leaders. Politicians need strong mandates from the people, as in the case of the fracking ban in New York State.

Connecting with Nature

Towards the end of our conversation, I looked at the floor and noticed that David and I were both wearing Merrel hiking boots. David spends a lot of time outside hiking, snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and kayaking in Western New York and the Adirondacks. In a world of paved sidewalks and asphalt streets, it is easy to get disconnected from the natural world and requires a concerted effort to get out into nature. For David (and myself), being in nature is a version of being in church and a place to personally re-energize.

As the interview came to a close, David flipped the questioning around and asked me how to get more young people involved in the environmental movement. This is a question I ask myself all the time! I told him that being a part of social media is good, using stories and other art is important, but also treating younger people as adults and listening to their ideas is paramount and often lacking. The climate action road is long, so we must connect and get going. Getting to know David through our interview felt like a solid step on that path.

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