‘Which side are you on?’ Youth activists blame ODOT for heat wave deaths

Posted by on August 19th, 2021 at 1:50 pm

(Scenes from the rally outside ODOT headquarters Wednesday, August 18th. Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Like the climate change-induced heat, flooding, and fires they fear so much, a group of teenage activists refuse to go away.

“They don’t understand. They are not a 15-year-old, growing up in the middle of a climate crisis, seeing their world burn before their eyes.”
— Robin Sack

At the ninth edition of the “Youth vs ODOT” action in front of Oregon Department of Transportation headquarters in downtown Portland Wednesday, a protest organized by Sunrise PDX sought to tie the 116 deaths in Oregon from recent heat waves directly to the agency’s preference to expand infrastructure that encourages the use of fossil fuels and increases greenhouse gas emissions.

“Kelly Slaughter, James Smillie, Kevin Smyth, William Stevens, Joan Stratton, Grace Taylor.”

Just steps from ODOT’s door they solemnly read names of the deceased over a loudspeaker while standing near chalk on the sidewalk that read “116 degrees, 116 deaths” and a banner that read, “A better world is possible”. Wednesday’s rally displayed a powerful combination of respect for the power and consequence of climate change and an obligatory optimism that fuels a sense that teenagers might be our last line of defense against it.

In front of a crowd of a few dozen fellow high school students, 15-year-old Portlander Robin Sack (upper right) shared what happened to her when she went on a walk during the recent heat wave. “[The heat] was encompassing me and I just wanted it to stop,” she said. “When I finally got home, I just couldn’t hold back my tears anymore and I sobbed in my kitchen. As my parents told me, ‘It will be okay. It will get better,’ I heard myself saying back. ‘You don’t understand, This is not your future’. And they don’t understand. They are not a 15-year-old, growing up in the middle of a climate crisis, seeing their world burn before their eyes. They are not growing up in a world where they have to strike outside of an ODOT building every other Wednesday to show them that our futures matter. That we have lives that we want to grow up into without having to worry about 110-degree weather, and people dying on the streets.”

Advertisement


Sack and other activists at these events see a direct connection between transportation policy and climate-related outcomes like heat waves. Unfortunately, much of the public and most of Oregon’s top elected officials don’t. Even after protesting outside the Governor’s mansion in Salem, Kate Brown still signed into law House Bill 3055 that gives ODOT vast leeway to spend future taxpayer dollars on freeway expansions that could increase driving capacity and contribute even further to the 40% of Oregon’s emissions that come from the transportation sector.

Adah Crandall (right).

Brown’s decision to sign that bill was, “Really frustrating,” to one of the leaders of Portland’s anti-freeway movement, 15-year-old Adah Crandall. “Especially because [the Governor] ran her campaign off the idea that she was going to be a climate leader and fight for the youth,” Crandall shared with me during an interview. “And then she went and signed this bill that is giving ODOT a blank check, essentially, to continue expanding freeways.”

“Then in the press statement,” Crandall continued. “She said she supports the work we’re doing and shares our urgency, which is just so frustrating. Because if she really shared our urgency and wanted to fight for climate justice, then she would have vetoed the bill like we asked her to.”

Can we forgive Governor Brown for not understanding the connection between freeway expansions and heat wave deaths? No way, says Crandall. “If she doesn’t realize by now that freeway expansion is bad for climate, then she’s not doing her job. It’s not so much a matter of her not making that connection, it’s that she is making that connection and realizing that the public doesn’t make that connection, and therefore it’s something she can get away with.”

One elected who does make that connection is Yamhill County Commissioner Casey Kulla. Kulla, a farmer who has launched a campaign to be Oregon’s next governor, attended Wednesday’s protest with his 11-year old son Rusty. Kulla stood in the back in a “Kulla for Oregon” cap and plaid shirt. I asked him why he showed up.

“Rusty is a person who feels everything in the world, and sometimes those emotions go to, ‘I can’t, I can’t do anything. I don’t have any power. I don’t have any voice because I’m young.’ So seeing young people here, who are the same height, he sees there are people who are taking action whose voices are being heard, even if decision makers aren’t doing exactly the things that they want.”

Kulla said if he were governor he would have vetoed HB 3055. He’s concerned ODOT isn’t taking climate change seriously. “Whether that’s about institutional inertia or culture, or just that we don’t see it. I don’t see ODOT really doing that aggressive climate action.”

To urge more action, these youth activists are pushing a binary choice: youth or ODOT. The way they see it, you either support the hopes and dreams for healthy lives by today’s young people, or you support the degradation of our planet hastened by ODOT and their bosses. There’s no middle ground. You must choose a side.

Wednesday’s event ended with the singing of this 1931 union song by activist Florence Reece:

Which side are you on, now?
Which side are you on?
Storms surge and fires burn
but you don’t hear the call.
‘Cause fossil fuels keep paying you–
Does it weigh on you at all?
Does it weigh on you at all?
Does it weigh on you at all?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on, now?
Which side are you on?
Corporations raised you up
but we can make you fall.
They picked a war with our generation—
Does it weigh on you at all?
Does it weigh on you at all?
Does it weigh on you at all?

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
— Get our headlines delivered to your inbox.
— Support this independent community media outlet with a one-time contribution or monthly subscription.

NOTE: Thanks for sharing and reading our comments. To ensure this is a welcoming and productive space, all comments are manually approved by staff. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for meanness, discrimination or harassment. Comments with expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia will be deleted and authors will be banned.

32
Leave a Reply

avatar
9 Comment threads
23 Thread replies
1 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
21 Comment authors
sorenMark smithThe DudeKyle BanerjeeDefund ODOT Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
The Dude
Guest
The Dude

Kate Brown and the Oregon Democrats are on the side of the status quo, as their long record of inaction makes clear. You’re going to need to beat the state’s political machine to make any meaningful progress.

Mike Quigley
Guest
Mike Quigley

ODOT’s small change. Adults are failing children on a grand scale worldwide. It’s as if they simply don’t care what happens to their kids as long as stock markets stay pumped.

ivan
Guest
ivan

I’m guessing part of that was inspired by today’s NYT opinion piece by Greta Thunberg, Adriana Calderón, Farzana Faruk Jhumu and Eric Njuguna, “Adults Are Failing Children on a Global Scale

My only objection is that for the adults who have power to change things, I think the status quo is less failure and more working-exactly-as-planned. Both politics and economics are disproportionately dominated by people on the older end of the age spectrum. With the exception of wannabe-immortal fantasists like Peter Thiel, many of them seem to just not care what might happen to this planet after they’re gone.

FDUP
Guest
FDUP

Sorry, but Peter Thiel is not a desirable role model. Nor is Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Richard Branston or anyone else of their ilk. I’m more inclined to go with Greta Thunberg.

 
Guest
 

ODOT are not to blame. Our landuse policies, that result in building car-dependent housing developments and business parks in the suburbs are to blame. Ban new single-family McMansion construction. Incentivize construction of affordable and market-rate condos, apartments, town homes, and mixed-use development. Make it so that there is are grocery stores, parks, restaurants, and such within walking distance of every single development. Until we fix this, people will drive, regardless of what infrastructure ODOT does or doesn’t build.

ODOT is an easy target, because they are very visible. But they are not the root of the problem of car-dependent infrastructure being built.

Asphalt Unicorn
Guest
Asphalt Unicorn

Though of course land use policies play a role, ODOT certainly has been and still is a major in our auto dependence. Often this is at the direction of the legislature (like with Rose Quarter and CRC/IBR), but ODOT isn’t exactly pushing back on the legislature to do anything differently. They could tell the legislature that transportation is more than highways. But they don’t.

Instead, they invest in highways at the expense of other modes, incentivizing people to drive. Even in areas like central Portland with some of the best transit and bike facilities in the country, ODOT is investing in making it easier for people to use their cars instead of bus or bike. They maintain and expand highways that encourage developers to build further away from urbanized areas, or in smaller communities in far away UGBs (North Plains, Willamina, Sandy, Clark County).. And they still use absurd, 1960s design standards that make roads hostile for people outside of cars.

ODOT is no innocent bystander in this. Thanks to Sunrise Movement for continuing to call them out.

 
Guest
 

ODOT isn’t exactly pushing back on the legislature to do anything differently.

How do you know they aren’t doing so in private? I have no idea if they are or not, but some signs lead me to believe that they are. The fact that they just built some great infrastructure on outer Powell, are building the HCRH out very well, and are working on a litany of other active transportation projects very much suggests otherwise.

They maintain and expand highways that encourage developers to build further away from urbanized areas, or in smaller communities in far away UGBs (North Plains, Willamina, Sandy, Clark County).

Did you really just say that ODOT is responsible for sprawl in Clark County? That is 100% WSDOT and Clark County’s doing; ODOT takes zero blame for that one. They have not expanded highways that connect to there since the construction of the Glenn Jackson Bridge almost 40 years ago. The only highway through North Plains that ODOT owns is Highway 26, which has not been expanded in that area since it was first built as a freeway in the 1960s. As to Willamina, again the roads in that area have not been expanded since the 1950s. For Sandy, similar deal: Highway 26 has remained the same since the canceled Mount Hood Freeway in the 1960s. ODOT has emphatically not expanded highways that lead to any of the communities you mentioned in decades. But these communities have continued to expand in that time. I don’t see how one can make the leap of blaming ODOT of all agencies for their growth.

As to the maintenance part of your comment: are you suggesting that they shouldn’t maintain these roads at all, and that they should just let them fall into disrepair? Until we fix our policies such that everyone can get to everything necessary without driving, we must continue to maintain our driving infrastructure, even if we don’t expand it. We can’t just strand these people with no way to get around. And I’ll ask: would you rather see bike infrastructure on the major roads that ODOT maintains (e.g. Highway 26), or would you rather see it on lower-traffic streets that run parallel (e.g. West Union)? I’d much rather see it on the latter.

Mike
Guest
Mike

The problem is that outside of the Portland area, ODOT is on autopilot. They see every problem as an excuse to build more lanes. Instead of that, ODOT should be building a real passenger commuter rail line in the Valley.

I don’t think everyone in ODOT wants more highways but that’s the default and the path of least resistance. It would be nice to see our state and federal legislators who say they are concerned about climate change actually change the laws and budgets correspondingly.

  
Guest
  

That seems to be the common mantra around here, yet I have yet to see a single shred of evidence for that. Name one project outside the Portland metro that ODOT has used as an excuse to build more lanes that you think shouldn’t have been done. And it must be an ODOT-controlled road; some random road in Bend that’s under the city’s control rather than ODOT’s doesn’t count. Meanwhile, I can name multiple projects outside the metro where ODOT has built or is building bike/walk infrastructure: there’s the path near Bend, the HCRH trail, and others.

And I agree we should have commuter rail. But that would require communication between numerous organizations such as ODOT, PBOT, TriMet, Salem’s and Eugene’s transportation and transit departments, and more; every single agency in the valley shares the blame on that one.

FDUP
Guest
FDUP

The state has land use policies and then they have ODOT, the two are not mutually exclusive but often work at cross-purposes. And FWIW, my ex-neighbors would drive even though the grocery store was only three blocks away.

Mark smith
Guest
Mark smith

CliMate change killed not a single person in Oregon. A failure to prepare (air conditioning) or adapting (using tap water to cool off) is what killed people. Sheesh. It’s getting so deep on this page, kind of getting hard to take it serious. Remember the good ole days when it was only about bike issues? Now it’s about a freeway burning the world.

Look i5 should not be expanded for a host of reasons just like 405 never should have been put in. But one tiny extension does nothing.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

There is some debate as to whether we will see more freak events like we had in June. I tend to believe that we would have smashed records either way, but we know that climate change contributed about 2*F to the event. With several hundred dead, it’s hard to say if an extra 2 degrees for 3-4 outrageously hot days was enough to push anyone over the edge. We will never know for sure.

What I find more troubling here is that we have people who are experiencing serious personal anguish over events that are mostly out of our control. I admire their efforts, but it seems that some of them may need to seek help to better manage these emotions.

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

Emotions>reason. American politics in a nutshell.

Watts
Guest
Watts

but we know that climate change contributed about 2*F to the event.

Actually, we don’t. We do know that climate change is increasing average temperatures, but that does not translate to a uniform increase of 2° F or whatever. It means some days (and some locales) will be waaay hotter, and some, perhaps, colder. It’s hard to predict, but it is almost certainly not going to result in taking our current weather and making it 2° warmer.

PTB
Guest
PTB

https://www.opb.org/article/2021/07/07/study-northwest-heat-wave-impossible-without-climate-change/

Or what Mark smith said. Mark smith knows better! I read his comment and I’m convinced!

Mark smith
Guest
Mark smith

so it’s not hot around the world about this time of the year? Or are people in Oregon not as smart? Even animals know what to do. The victim mentality is so strong that ultimately, that’s what killed people.

The Dude
Guest
The Dude

Like most people, I believe the empirical work of scientists above scientifically illiterate laypeople like you.

I think “the victim mentality” is continuing to quibble and whatabout in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

You’re wrong. Science proves it. End of story.

Mark smith
Guest
Mark smith

So science proves that humans have to way to deal with heat in a modern world? Please try to let the victim mentality go and instead encourage people to adapt to their ever changing surroundings.

Dexter Rutecki
Guest
Dexter Rutecki

I feel sorry for ODOT employees having to deal with this misguided BS. I wish we could spend more time and energy on a better target. ODOT’s just trying to deal with the current situation.

chris
Guest
chris

I sure hope none of these kids and their families went home and ate meat after their protest, but most of them probably did. Livestock emissions produce a greater total amount of greenhouse gasses (compared to transportation) plus methane, “methane is 23 times more potent when it comes to warming the planet” https://www.ecowatch.com/which-is-worse-for-the-planet-beef-or-cars-1919932136.html

Keviniano
Guest
Keviniano

Yes, exactly! Unless “these kids” live fully ethically consistent lives, their activism should be completely dismissed. https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1330819-we-should-improve-society-somewhat

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

That’s kind of the irony of cancel culture – the expectation that someone else leads a perfect ethical life (OMG – they said something mean 20 years ago) while the accuser does not have to.

soren
Guest
soren

“live fully ethically consistent lives”

Eating less meat take less effort than tying shoe laces and is the least anyone living in this sh!##ole society can do. The idea that pointing out the rapidly increasing methane (and NOx) emissions associated with meat/dairy consumption is a “gotcha” that should be met with sarcastic derision is illustrative of embedded societal denial.

Mike Quigley
Guest
Mike Quigley

Cow farts account for very little methane release compared to the thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells across the country, and melting permafrost in the Arctic and Siberia.

PTB
Guest
PTB

“””Adults are failing children on a grand scale worldwide.”””

Maybe livestock methane release isn’t as much as melting Siberian permafrost, but continuing to eat a meat based diet is a bad idea and fails future generations. There are many other issues with livestock raising beyond methane releases.

idlebytes
Guest
idlebytes

Livestock emissions produce a greater total amount of greenhouse gasses (compared to transportation)

Did you click on their source for that? Cause I did and couldn’t find the numbers they referenced (14.5-18%) anywhere on the EPA page they linked. Also by greater amount they mean 0.5-4% if you can even believe their numbers. Articles like this always make me a little suspicious of another agenda especially when the numbers don’t match up.

Watts
Guest
Watts

I sure hope none of these kids and their families went home and ate meat after their protest

Anecdotal, yes, but most of the climate activist kids I know are vegan.

techieshark
Subscriber
techieshark

Kudos to these young activists. These real world efforts very well could change the course of Portland’s future.

Keep it up! And let us know if/how we can help.

Kyle Banerjee
Guest

The strategy of telling the previous generation they suck, holding protests, and waiting for that same group to solve everything has been well tested in Portland at least back to the 60’s.

That’s exactly how we got where we are now.

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

Well, everyone needs a convenient villain. Could just as easily blame the parents for having children in a country where each individual has a huge carbon footprint.

Steve Scarich
Guest
Steve Scarich

OK Kind of off-topic, but the one action/policy that could most quickly confront global warming would be birth control. I can’t count the number of woeful articles that I read about people suffering in Third World countries, when the mother being interviewed refers to her five….seven…eight…you name it, kids. I realize that human beings have an innate need to reproduce, but that innate drive is going to kill off the planet.

Defund ODOT
Guest
Defund ODOT

These kids are awesome! Focusing on ODOT is spot on. The agency spends billions on freeway road spaghetti to induce sprawl and traffic and global warming. It’s like throwing gasoline on a bonfire. It’s past time to take the gas can away. Defund ODOT! Fiscal conservatives will join to end the government waste. ODOT is burning taxpayer money to burn us all at the stake.