Changing the Tactics on Climate Change: My Journey into Advocacy

I have become a different kind of environmentalist lately. First, I read Naomi Klein’s sobering and erudite This Changes Everything, where she basically says we need nothing short of an overhaul of the entire capitalist system to save ourselves from climate catastrophe. Then there was Michael Maniotes’ article “Plant a Tree, Ride a Bike, Save the World?” where he says thinking you can save the world by doing “simple things” not only does not work, it puts the blame of the ecological crisis on its victims instead of those that perpetuate the system of inequality and exploitation. Finally I read Derrik Jensen’s excellent article, “Forget Shorter Showers” in Orion Magazine, about how focusing on behavior changes, such as taking shorter showers, limits our means of resistance to consuming and not consuming. “Citizens have a much wider range of available resistance tactics,” he writes, “including voting, running for office, pamphleting, boycotting, organizing, lobbying, protesting, and, when a government becomes destructive of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we have the right to alter or abolish it.”

For years, I did my part to address the ecological crisis by reducing my own impact. I skipped showers when it wasn’t necessary and brought my own bags to the grocery store. I lived without a car for 10 years and then shared one. I changed all my lightbulbs and purchased renewable energy. I reduced my garbage to just 10 percent of total discards after recycling and composting. I became a vegetarian, and when that didn’t work for me reduced my meat consumption to about three times a week. I became sustainability coordinator and helped other people do these things. It was all very popular and good work to do.

However, since I read the aforementioned works, and wrote my article Why Behavior Change Won’t Stop Climate Change, I realize I haven’t done much at all. I haven’t done anything other than what was convenient for me and changed nothing except my own lifestyle. I don’t mean that I should go Collin Beavan and become no impact woman, forego toilet paper, electric appliances and wash clothes by hand. Even Beavan admitted that those actions are not the point.

What I mean is I needed to participate in the movement to change the system, because climate change is a systems problem and solving it requires changing the rules of the game, not just playing the same game using fewer resources. We know that to address climate change effectively, we need to put a price on carbon, end fossil fuel subsidies, switch to renewables, and create resilient communities. None of that is furthered by my eating less meat or taking shorter showers. We have a democracy where citizens can influence legislation (at least that’s the way it’s supposed to work), and if we don’t participate because we assume that the system is broken, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Obviously my own voice won’t amount to much, but if hundreds of thousands of us pushed relentlessly for legislation to curb carbon emissions, that would go a lot farther than the same number of people eating less meat and changing lightbulbs, which most likely they have done already.  

But where to begin? I knew it was important to act, but I also didn’t have the time to become a full time activist. Taking your own bag to the grocery store was so much easier. Since the US was in the middle of a primary election, I thought I would start by making sure I voted in it. Voter turnout in the US is ridiculously low. About 60 percent of the voting eligible population votes during presidential elections, and only 40 percent voted during midterm elections in recent years. I looked up my voter registration and polling place, and educated myself about the candidates. I even wrote an article to help others make an informed choice in the Democratic primary. I also looked up my members of Congress and wrote them emails about climate change. I started donating to PennEnvironment. I worked with Earth Deeds to help people offset their carbon emissions with meaningful, local projects. But I also wanted to join a group that met locally so that I could be involved in person.

Then by chance I stumbled on Citizen’s Climate Lobby, with a chapter that met right near my home in Malvern, Pennsylvania. CCL has tens of thousands of members and 337 chapters, nearly one in every congressional district. The solution they advocate for is a national carbon fee and dividend, which is like a carbon tax except that the revenue collected would be given back to households instead of kept by the government. This proposal, they claim, would incentivize greenhouse gas emissions reductions and stimulate the economy. I have long been in favor of a carbon tax, but when I learned that the cost would be passed on to consumers, I was a little disappointed. The good thing is that the dividend would neutralize the cost to households, even making low-income households come ahead, and the revenue neutral aspect of the proposal was crucial for getting Republican support.

Jane Klein, founder of the Chester County, PA chapter, is a soft spoken librarian with a teacherly knack for managing people and logistics. “I had been concerned about climate change for a long time,” she said, “Finally last November I heard about CCL and I had to do something about it.” In a few short months the chapter had 70 subscribers and about 8 regular attendees. At my first meeting we talked about tabling at colleges and universities for Earth Day, submitting op eds to local newspapers, and scheduling a meeting with Ryan Costello, Republican Representative of our district in Congress. In addition we also tuned in to the monthly conference call led by Executive Director of CCL, Mark Reynolds. Each month he gives an update about what has been happening in the organization nationally, and invites a prominent person in the climate movement to speak. So far I’ve heard from a psychologist who studies climate change, U.S. Representative Carlos Curbello from Florida, and a climate scientist who specializes in communicating to evangelicals. These talks were educational and introduced me to those in the middle ranks of the climate movement.

All new members of CCL are encouraged to attend a “Group Start”, an introductory meeting to learn the history and methods of Citizens Climate Lobby. I was fortunate to get my intro from Executive Director Mark Reynolds at the CCL Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference. White-haired and bespectacled, Mark spoke about climate advocacy as if he were a 25 year old on the most exciting adventure of his life. He was just as fired up about empowering people to become engaged citizens as he was about passing climate legislation. “We do things the hard way,” he said. “We don’t just work with people who agree with us, but with people who disagree with us. We appreciate different points of view and build relationships based on appreciation and respect.” His voice trembled with emotion when he talked about leaving a better world for future generations. He read a poem. I like this guy, I thought.

After the meeting, I introduced myself to Mark and asked him how CCL was engaging higher education. “We’ve had some campus chapters but couldn’t keep them going after their student leaders graduated,” he said, “But if you have ideas, I’d love to have your help!” My friend, Aurora Winslade, who was standing next to us, said, “I think Clara should lead it.” Then and there, I assumed the role of organizer for the higher education action team.

A week later I was on the phone with Mark Reynolds, Elli Sparks (Director of Field Development), Aurora Winslade and a few others to discuss starting an action team to engage higher education. The CCL staff set up a higher education web page on CCL’s community website and made me the administrator. In a couple of weeks there were close to 20 members. Among them were Page Atcheson of Oregon Climate Fellows who was developing a carbon pricing campaign for students at colleges and universities, and Debra Rowe, a prominent member of the higher education community who has been working on civic engagement for decades. We discussed spreading information about CCL to upcoming sustainability conferences that Debra and I were attending, connecting students and faculty with CCL, creating a toolkit for engaging students, and hosting a panel on engaging higher education at the upcoming CCL conference in DC.

The annual Citizens’ Climate Lobby Conference in Washington DC is the big event of the year where members get to network with each other, learn about the movement, and meet with their members of Congress in a lobbying day. The conference has grown from 27 attendees in its first year to over a thousand this year. On the day of the conference, I got to the Omni Shoreham hotel at 8am and a stream of attendees were lined up at the registration. Instead of breakfast, there were Cliff bars and coffee. We all got packets with information for lobbying and the conference schedule. Friends were busily greeting each other, newcomers were finding their seats, and soon everyone was congregated in the Regency Ballroom. I noticed that the attendees were overwhelmingly white, the majority was over fifty, and slightly more male than female. Most of them were nicely dressed in a business casual fashion. A band of native American drummers marched down the aisle and beat out a rousing rhythm that brought everyone clapping to their feet. The drumming went on for a full 10 minutes before they stopped on the stage and everyone cheered. Every conference should start like this, I thought.

After a great deal of drumming and cheering, Mark Reynolds welcomed everybody. In addition to attendees from the United States, there were also attendees from Canada, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Almost half of the attendees were at the conference for the first time, the remaining had been to the conference two or more times. A handful had been to the conference every year for seven years! Mark rattled off some of CCL’s accomplishments in the last year:

  • 1245 lobby meetings
  • 16476 letters to Congress
  • 3647 published media
  • 1934 outreach events
  • In 2015, 20 percent of Republican Members of Congress acknowledged that climate change was real and human caused. This year 40 percent of them did.

Mark then made an audacious announcement: “This is going to be our year. It doesn’t matter if we have a president Clinton or a president Trump in the White House, my promise to you is that we will pass a carbon fee and dividend bill in 2017!”

Everyone jumped to their feet, clapped their hands and cheered as if election results had just been called and the favored candidate had won. A woman behind me shouted, “We need a bill!” This is beginning to feel a pep rally, I thought. We were all carried on a wave of hope and enthusiasm, something I had not felt a long time in this journey. As I looked around the room at the cheering bodies, I felt like a burden was being lifted from me. It hadn’t occurred to me what a weight it was to be a champion of this cause, which never seems to get anywhere, by myself most of the time. Yet here were thousands committed to doing our part to create a livable world. We were drops of an ocean forming a single wave destined for the other shore. We didn’t have to wait for decision makers or those in power to make change, as they say, “we are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Monday’s keynote speaker was Dr. Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who gave us a hilarious insider’s look on the politics of climate change. The rest of the conference was devoted to the specifics of advocacy. These included a skill building workshop with presentations on how to write letters to the editor, solicit endorsements, and do proactive outreach. There were panels on the impact of climate change on public health, national security, and economics. There were lessons about carbon pricing and its associated impacts. There were panels on working with legislative aides, communicating with religious conservatives, and engaging youth. Our panel on higher education was standing room only and I met lots of people interested in being involved. I even got to do an interview with Citizen’s Climate Radio to talk about my journey from being a poet to a climate activist.

Tuesday, the final day of the Congress, was devoted to lobbying on Capitol Hill. The day was hot and humid and I was sweaty from walking the long expanses from one office building to another. Entry into the congressional office buildings was easy and I found my way to my first appointment, where my team was waiting outside the door of Representative Doggett of Texas. We were admitted into a small waiting area that also contained three work stations. The representative could not meet with us but we met with his legislative aide for energy and the environment, a young woman named Ashley who obviously knew a lot about the issue and had been to the United Nations Climate Summit in Paris. We had a nice conversation with her and she was already familiar with carbon fee and dividend. She promised to give our materials to the representative and speak to him about our proposal.

My second appointment was with Senator Sessions from Alabama. In the meeting with his aides, we thanked the Senator for his work in conservation and protecting public health. We described the carbon fee and dividend proposal and asked what the Senator’s thoughts were. The aide said that the Senator has questions about the science of climate change and doesn’t want to support proposals when the source of the problem isn’t clear. Of course bells went off in my head about the robustness of climate science and how I could pull up all these graphs to prove it. I didn’t do that, of course, instead we discussed the benefits of fee and dividend for stimulating the economy, helping poor households, and protecting public health. Team member Jay pointed out that he is a conservative and this proposal has a lot of elements that are appealing to conservatives.

In the afternoon I got caught in a rainstorm and couldn’t make it to the meeting with my district Representative, Republican Ryan Costello, but my friend Matt Zencey attended and said that they had a wonderful meeting. Costello understands the reality of climate change and is open to proposals for dealing with it. They spent some time talking about CCL’s carbon fee and dividend proposal and thanked  him for signing on to the Gibson Resolution, which acknowledges that climate change is caused by humans and requires Congress to take action, and joining the bipartisan climate caucus.

Coming home from the conference, I felt tired, hopeful, and more connected to the movement for change. It was very helpful to gain an insider’s view of what is happening politically for climate change, and the good news is that there is progress. With other organizations, I had felt a distance between its members and its leaders, between those who were asked to contribute money and those who did the work. But with Citizen’s Climate Lobby, the members are the leaders, and they are organized and connected to each other because they know that working together is more powerful than working separately. I imagine that members of the Civil Rights movement were also connected in this way, a network of activists all working towards a single goal. This movement needs a lot more diversity, it’s true, but the energy and sense of urgency are comparable.

My friends who attended the conference also had positive things to say:

Tom: The conference was definitely an inspiration to me. As a 20 year old looking into the future, it made me confident that there are leaders from across generations looking to address this issue, so many people with VISION of what the world should look like. A shout out to all of you for being a part of it!

Page: One of my biggest takeaways from the conference was that there’s so much energy and talent within the existing CCL network, and so much to be gained by supporting and learning from one another. This seems particularly true when it comes to engaging students and schools — it was amazing to hear how many students have initiated something on their own, and it seems like capturing lessons learned and best practices for others could be helpful.

Matt: It was wonderful to be gathered with so many people who have taken their free time and used their own money to come to the conference and be advocates in their communities. It’s so encouraging to see real solutions put forth and those solutions getting traction. Going home I’m energized to do more, including helping with the upcoming US Senate election in Pennsylvania!

A few months ago, I felt unsure about how to become a more effective environmentalist. Now I have purpose, community, and a plan. I’m grateful to support so many with talent and energy and proud to be bringing together people who want to engage higher education in climate advocacy. By working with a small group of dedicated activists, each of whom are activating their network of supporters, there is no limit to how many people we can influence and how much we can build the movement.

People are hungry to do something beyond recycling bottles and changing lightbulbs; they want to be a part of something big. Real change asks a lot of us, it requires courage and leadership and social savviness. I didn’t have to get involved with Citizen’s Climate Lobby. There are many outstanding organizations in the environmental field and many ways to do this work. The important thing is that we go beyond acting individually to acting collectively. Together we can tip the scales on climate change and build the world that we want to live in.

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2 thoughts on “Changing the Tactics on Climate Change: My Journey into Advocacy

  1. Great post and I agree. If we look at this even more broadly, the lack of environmental activism is also related to other social problems, such as the underfunded public educational system, the decreasing amount of time that working parents like me are allowed to do non-work-related things, the increasing globalization of the workplace which necessitates more travel (and the limited job options we have to negotiate this), and the list goes on. For example, I can barely follow up with my interest in minimizing environmental impact so for now I have to start with the easier things and donate money where I can. So I’m thankful for people like you who are doing some of the research for us. Lastly, I do think that as little impact as they may have, individual actions do help inspire others; we need to create a culture of environmental sustainability and spread knowledge. For example, how many of us know that eating meat has negative environmental impact? Your post and others helped me to think about these things a little more seriously.

    • Hi Angie, thanks for your comments! I agree that the plight of the middle and working class today makes it really difficult to be an engaged citizen. However, not all advocacy needs to be time consuming. Some can be as simple as recycling and changing lightbulbs. Here’s what I can think of:

      Vote in local elections. Especially for members of Congress, they are really important!
      Listen to Citizen’s Climate Radio on podcast to be informed of what is happening politically on climate change.
      Call your member of Congress to express your views. Currently, we are asking members of Congress, especially Republicans, to join the bipartisan climate caucus and support a carbon fee and dividend legislation.
      Ask your community leaders (minister, college president, department chair, mom’s club president, etc) to endorse climate action through CCL’s endorsement letter. It’s one click to sign! http://www.citizensclimatelobby.org/leaders.
      Join the Higher Education Action Team at CCL and receive our email updates, join our monthly call, or attend our annual conference. You can do as little or as much as you like! You can join CCL and get the whole group updates at http://citizensclimatelobby.org/, but joining an action team or local chapter is where you’ll get the person to person interaction.

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