This call cannot be ignored
A few weeks ago, I spoke about the summer journey my wife and I took to the Big Sky Country of Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas. As I indicated then, the sky wasn’t so big. In fact, it was gray, with smoke from huge fires farther west, obscuring many of the mountain vistas we were used to seeing. At the same time, oil, natural gas and coal extraction was everywhere. It was depressing – especially so for me, having spent some glorious times as a younger man in that country, reveling in the spectacular way the mountains changed colors, moving from dark to light sometimes within just a few hours. Instead, we saw shadows in the smoky half-light of far too many days.
The smoke didn’t just shroud what we saw, it impacted how we breathed. We both developed what felt like allergic reactions, and we wondered if we had caught summer colds or, in moments of real concern, COVID. Fortunately, friends from out there steered us right. They told us to stop sleeping with our windows open, since the cool night air allowed the smoke to drop down and irritate our respiratory systems. Having to forego the experience of sleeping with a cool Rocky Mountain summer breeze was a big sacrifice, and it added to my sense of loss – and confusion.
Why confusion? I can’t tell you how many times I wondered to myself and said to my wife, “Can’t we all see what’s happening out here?” For while we struggled to see the mountains and breathe the smoky air, we could see the oil trains all over the landscape of Montana and the Dakotas.
We saw them being loaded at big oil installations in the open prairies of Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota. We saw them rolling through mountain passes. We saw them waiting at sidings , even in the wonderful empty country in parts of the Flathead Nation of the Salish, Kootenai and Pend O’Reille Indigenous people in Montana. Native people and environmental allies might stop the construction of oil pipelines, but the oil will flow and trains will carry it – as long as we keep driving, flying, and using it to heat our homes and manufacture so much of what we enjoy.
We also saw the legendary coal trains, rumbling east and west out of Montana and Wyoming. Stretching 100 cars or more, they weren’t as common as in years past – no doubt due to the falling price of coal.
But the oil trains rolled, from ever growing numbers of oil and natural gas fields throughout what is known as the Bakken Shield. The region shows no letup in production, and with global oil prices rising, we can only expect oil production, transportation and use to grow.
Certainly, there is blame to go around. We all appreciate the access to highways – I certainly do – but why do we have to fill them with massive SUVs and gigantic camping vehicles? Compounding the apparent need for huge, gas-guzzling vehicles, is an apparent need for speed. I’m sure you’ve noticed it. 75 miles per hour is nowhere near fast enough – even on highways where the speed limit is 55. Out west, the speed limits are as high as 80 in places. So, we watched as these massive vehicles raced by, under the smoky sky while – in the distance – oil trains rolled on...
My union, United University Professions, believes the financial industry must share responsibility for the climate emergency. That means immediate disinvestment from non-renewable and destructive energy sources like coal, oil and natural gas. That will mean an adjustment – perhaps painful – in the way we all live our lives. Many reject this kind of choice, believing either that climate change is a myth or that it can be dealt with painlessly.
As educators and researchers, UUP members are at the frontlines of the fight to protect our future. After all, our work is all about the future. SUNY must be a leader in fighting for a future safe from climate disasters.
This will require financial resources to build programs, to train and retrain workers for a green economy, for research and to help communities prepare for the impacts of the climate emergency.
Our call cannot be ignored; the youth of this world are correctly demanding immediate action. They are our students and we hear them. But will the leaders of our state, our nation and our world hear us? Or will the future be one that is not marked by gorgeous, endless vistas but by the fire, smoke and storms of a worsening climate disaster?
This is on us.... all of us.
Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.
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