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Straight Talk: Youth climate activists call on Gov. Brown, ODOT to fight climate change by stopping freeway expansion

Two young members of the climate action group Sunrise Movement PDX are helping to give local voice and action to the worldwide climate justice movement.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Two young members of the climate action group Sunrise Movement PDX are helping to give local voice and action to the worldwide climate justice movement. Adah Crandall and Cassie Wilson were guests on this week's episode of  "Straight Talk."

"Oregon's Greta Thunberg"

Grant High School sophomore Adah Crandall has been called "Oregon's Greta Thunberg."

Thunberg, a Swedish teenager, has become a global figure in the fight against climate change, inspiring tens of thousands of young people across the globe to organize "School Strikes for Climate."

Crandall, 15, was motivated to join the movement as a student at Harriet Tubman Middle School. The school is located on the fringes of Interstate 5. 

"My classmates and I were constantly breathing pollution from I-5 and it was a really scary situation to be in. So, we got involved with fighting against the Oregon Department of Transportation's proposed expansion of that freeway," she said.

RELATED: Covered I-5 expansion project moves forward with funding uncertainty

Wildfires inspired action

Cassie Wilson, 23, of Boring, Ore., said the Labor Day wildfires of 2020 inspired her to join Sunrise Movement PDX. She said it was the first time the entire county was under some form of evacuation order and it scared her.

"It was really terrifying. I always cared about climate change, but the fires really woke me to the fact the impacts of climate change are already here. And once I saw that I couldn't unsee it," she said.

RELATED: After record fire season, Oregon researchers say wildfires will only get worse

Youth Climate Rally

Both young women took part in a youth climate rally on the last Friday in September. Students from all over the Portland area walked out of class and marched from the Oregon Convention Center across the Steel Bridge to City Hall. They called on government leaders to act with more urgency to cut carbon emissions contributing to climate change. It was the first "in-person" climate strike since the pandemic began.

"It was incredible to be back out on the streets with all those people again. This strike was a great reminder none of us are in this alone," Crandall said.

Cassie Wilson is disabled and uses a wheelchair. It was her first time taking part in an event that large.

"It was amazing to be alongside thousands of other young people demanding a livable present and future," she said.

RELATED: 'We're fighting for our futures': Thousands of Portland teens walk out, demanding action on climate change

Call for moratorium on freeway expansion

The Sunrise Movement PDX is part of a nationwide movement with hubs in cities all over the country. The Portland hub is focused on the intersection of transportation and climate justice and finding ways to decarbonize the transportation system.

As part of the movement, Crandall and Wilson are calling on Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to put a moratorium on freeway expansion including the I-5 Rose Quarter Project.

The I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project

The I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project adds auxiliary lanes and shoulders to cut down on congestion and improve safety in the corridor on I-5 where three freeways I-5, I-84, and I-405 intersect.

ODOT says it's the worst bottleneck in Oregon and the 28th worst bottleneck in the nation.

The proposal would also cap the freeway to allow for redevelopment of the former Albina district, a historically Black neighborhood that was destroyed when the interstate was first constructed.

Sunrise Movement PDX's demands for ODOT and Gov. Brown

Crandall and Wilson said the Sunrise Movement PDX has held 13 strikes outside ODOT's headquarters in Portland, calling on the department to meet its demands.

Those include doing a full environmental impact statement on the I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project.

Crandall said ODOT has done an environmental assessment, but that's not the same thing and not good enough for the youth climate movement.

"Assessment sounds similar, but it's actually much shorter and cheaper than an environmental impact statement, and it really doesn't give the full picture of the impact of the project. So, we really want Gov. Brown to demand ODOT do the full environmental impact statement," Crandall said.

The group also wants a moratorium on all freeway expansion within the urban growth boundary, including the I-205 Abernathy Bridge Expansion, Columbia River Crossing 2.0, 217 Widening, I-5 Boone Bridge Freeway Expansion and the Rose Quarter Freeway expansion. They also want a youth climate justice advocate to be appointed to the Oregon Transportation Commission.

ODOT’s response to "Sunrise Movement PDX" demands

In a statement to KGW, ODOT responded saying in part, "ODOT agrees there is urgency to take action on climate. That's why we're committed to decarbonizing our transportation system through implementing system wide congestion pricing, investing in transit and more multimodal options and leading our state's transition to electric vehicles."

Wilson said ODOT's actions don't match its statements.

"If they truly think it's urgent to take action then their actions would match their statement. Instead of spending billions of dollars on freeway expansion they would be spending a bunch of money to decarbonize our transportation system," Wilson said.

A call to action for Oregon Governor Brown

On the night, Governor Kate Brown won election in 2018, Adah Crandall stood on stage with several other young people applauding Brown's victory. Crandall had high hopes for the governor and her promises to fight climate change. But, Crandall said she feels let down over the fact Brown hasn't taken more urgent action.

"I really haven't seen her follow through with any of those promises, so it's really been disappointing," she said.

She and other members of the Sunrise Movement PDX took their message for urgent action to the governor's mansion in July. It was part of the national movement's "Day of Action." Crandall stood in front of the crowd with a megaphone and made her frustration known.

"We need a climate leader in office. Three years ago, I thought Kate Brown was that person. Now, I am not so sure. Gov. Brown, we need you to be brave. Be the climate leader that you said you would be. Prove us wrong," Crandall said.

Crandall and others were upset the governor did not veto House Bill 3055, a transportation bill Sunrise Movement PDX called a "blank check" to allow ODOT to expand highways. She did not veto it and instead signed it into law.

Gov. Brown’s response to Sunrise movement’s demands

KGW reached out to Gov. Brown's office for a response to Crandall's criticism and the Sunrise Movement's demands. Her office sent a statement that reads in part;

"Governor Brown has made climate action a top priority in Oregon. She appreciates the passion of Oregon's young climate leaders, and she shares their sense of urgency to take climate action. She was particularly pleased to recently sign into law a comprehensive clean energy bill package, including House Bill 2021, which sets the most aggressive timeline in the country for moving to 100% clean electricity sources by 2040."

Responding to the statement from Gov. Brown's office, Crandall said the Sunrise movement was pleased she signed the clean energy bill, but that it's not enough.

"It's interesting she made a big show of signing that legislation and posting on her social media saying, 'Hey, look I'm doing this great thing for climate.' You didn't see her posting when she signed the bill giving ODOT the ability to continue expanding freeways. I don't just want her words. I want her action," Crandall said.

Call for Clackamas County to move up its carbon neutrality goals

Cassie Wilson is a member of the Clackamas County youth advisory task force on climate.

She said she's grateful to be a part of the task force and happy her county has a climate action plan in progress. Its current plan would get the county to carbon neutrality by 2050. She wants county commissioners to move up that goal immediately.

"We know the impact of climate change is already here and we know we have to rapidly reduce emissions, so the sooner we can reach the goal the better," Wilson said.

Plea for more rural public transportation

Wilson, who uses a wheelchair, also wants Clackamas County to invest in public transportation.

She said it's difficult and expensive for her to get around town.

"We really need rural public transportation, bike lanes and sidewalks both for the sake of the climate and because not everybody can or wants to drive, and everybody needs to be able to navigate our community," she said.

Portland falling short on climate goals

In July of 2020, the city of Portland declared a climate emergency. City Hall made a commitment to tackle the growing climate crisis. Then in June of 2021, it became clear the crisis had escalated when the temperature in Portland hit a record 116 degrees during the Northwest's historic heat wave.

At least 54 people died from heat-related illnesses in Multnomah County alone.

Oregon Public Broadcasting reported in July, city commissioners got an update from staff the city is behind on its goal of cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030 and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

"I feel like I've been lied to," Crandall said. 

Crandall called on Portland to do more and step up its fight against climate change.

She said she grew up thinking Portland was green and sustainable. She was taught by recycling, composting and biking places, she could cut down on her carbon footprint. But, she said it's not nearly enough.

"I feel like, in a way, I have really been lied to about the fact Portland is sustainable. Because a city that prioritized climate change wouldn't be expanding freeways," she said.

Sunrise Movement PDX plans next strike

Sunrise Movement PDX plans to have its next "Youth vs. ODOT" strike on Wednesday, Oct. 13 outside ODOT's region one headquarters in Portland. It will be their 13th strike.

Anyone interested in joining the movement is encouraged to check out the group's Instagram.

"I don't want people to call me inspiring," Crandall said. "I want people to join us and take action. And that's what will really make me hopeful."

Straight Talk airs Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday at 9:30 p.m.

Straight Talk is also available as a podcast.