Act II Rehearsal: Not Your Dentist’s Lobby

It’s been a big week for climate change. Against a background of rain-bombs and flash floods, Promethean fires engulfing Greek islands, precocious tropical storms, and scorching heat waves — today is the third day in a row with a heat index of 110ºF in my own Philadelphia, and NOAA reports July was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth — comes the U.N. IPCC report on the state of the climate and where it’s going. It’s not pretty.

Fourteen thousand scientific papers were reviewed by dozens of the world’s top climate scientists, and this synthesis, formally the “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Report: The Physical Science Basis,” was approved by 196 national governments. In the most authoritative, precise, and emphatic way scientists can speak, it tells us: “Recent changes in the climate are widespread, rapid, and intensifying, and unprecedented in thousands of years,” humans are “indisputably” responsible, “climate change is already affecting every region on Earth, in multiple way,” and “unless there are immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming 1.5ºC will be beyond reach.” That level of warming, 1.5ºC (2.7ºF) above pre-industrial levels, is what nations agree is needed to avoid unmanageable consequences worldwide. This report tells us it is locked in already from past emissions, and will likely be reached by the 2030s. In other words, every climate-caused catastrophe we’re seeing is destined to get worse, and how much worse is up to us. Headlines poured from the media in response, often quoting U.N. Secretary General António Guterres: “It’s code red for humanity.”

Now this could drive one into despair and despondence, but I’m telling you, one of the best ways to escape that trap is to do something, anything, no matter how small. It’s what I’m trying to do, and I’m describing it in this nascent blog, with hopes that it may give you some ideas for action and might just inspire you.

In this fourth entry, what I’ve got to report is on the “small” side, so it won’t take you long to read this. But I am preparing for some big things that quite honestly intimidate me a little: Lobbying legislators.

Lobbying is a bit of a leap from writing letters to my senators, described in the last blog, but it’s all connected. I wrote in support of water treatment improvements to counter climate extremes in the infrastructure legislation we’re all reading about, and indeed the bipartisan bill passed the senate with 19 Republican votes (unfortunately letters didn’t sway my Republican senator Pat Toomey to be one of those 19, but PA Democrat Bob Casey did the right thing). It’s now in the House, and happily Nancy Pelosi isn’t planning to act on it until the real infrastructure bill, which must pass the senate through the partisan reconciliation process, is passed and delivered to her for a tandem vote. The bipartisan bill was a small start, but the initiatives that respond to the climate crisis are in the much larger reconciliation package. This could well be our last, best hope for action in the Biden administration. The 2022 mid-term elections may lock in minority rule and hamstring any efforts at climate legislation.

After the bipartisan success everyone went into the traditional August recess, which conjures up images of Mitch pushing Chuck off the merry-go-round, but actually offers a chance for constituents to meet with the Congressional Kids at home. That is, lobby. I have learned that this isn’t just for the connected few and well-healed donors, but for all of us — at least when you visit the political playground with a few of your fellow voters. Climate lobbying opportunities come via any number of organizations, as diverse as Environment America, Union of Concerned Scientists, Citizens Climate Lobby (duh), Interfaith Power and Light, and many more. My choice: the venerable Sierra Club.

Founded by the great John Muir and his buddies, the Sierra Club is today almost four million strong, with a long history of professional and citizen lobbying. (Yes, they’ve been criticized for being too elitist or establishment or what have you, but they are powerful and successful — and you can pick another group if you’d prefer! This is not a time for infighting.) I’ve been a member forever and receive their “action alerts,” but it only takes a couple of clicks before they ask you to organize a lobbying visit. Really, just like that? What is this, democracy?

Well, I certainly need a little help. I input my contact information and pretty soon I was hearing from people with offers I couldn’t resist, like training and regional connections and even a personal coach. (Mine is Sarah, and I get her confused with my Noom coach, but that can be entertaining. Lobbying for broccoli!). The webinar I attended this week focused on a major push during this recess, asking policymakers to include items in the reconciliation package like massive investment in 100% renewable energy, an end to fossil fuel subsidies, creation of a Civilian Climate Corps, and more. This is in line with the THRIVE Act., and you can read them all here. (Unfortunately, “Thrive” is also a diet plan . . . is there a pattern here?)

Most of the seminar involved enthusiastic and friendly young people explaining the lobbying protocol, providing tips like those in the accompanying graphic, and suggesting you get together with a group and

make an appointment with your legislator. More than 200 people all over the country participated in the webinar, but a couple days later I was at a Pennsylvania “Grassroots Power Building” Zoom with only a handful of seasoned activists and a PA Sierra Club staffer in Pittsburgh, Randy Francisco. We looked at some of the same slides and discussed the same priorities and actions as in the national training, but otherwise, what a different meeting!

Personal, interactive, welcoming, casual, informative . . . the benefits of fewer than ten friendly Pennsylvanians on a Zoom. At times it seemed the meeting was focused on me and almost a personal orientation to the club. Someone told of his successes at cultivating relationships with congressional staffers in the Scranton area, and another described how she gets letters to the editor published. Randy mentioned a rally coming up at Pittsburgh Rep. Connor Lamb’s office promoting public transit in the infrastructure package. The Zoom was inspiring, efficient, and less than an hour long. The next day I was added to their Google Group and got a welcome message from volunteer Robin, who apparently has her finger on the pulse of the lobby effort in Pennsylvania.

The Big Question: When do I get to be a lobbyist? The Pennsylvania infrastructure campaign is strategically targeting four members of congress, but none are in my district (I have seen my representative, Mary Gay Scanlon, jogging in nearby Swarthmore, but I don’t think interrupting her on the quad would be a good approach). Clearly your own representatives are the people to lobby (i.e., the ones wanting your vote), but I learned that if you arrive with a delegation from an organization that can’t be ignored — like Sierra Club — it’s OK to tag along to a foreign district. I told them I could travel and asked to be included in a lobby group wherever it is to gain some experience during the recess. (The organization has a great site for identifying actions anywhere in the U.S., but lobbying isn’t included.)

So I am ready to hear from Robin for the next opportunity, and you, beloved blog readers, will be the first to know about what ensues. Until then, keep cool, be sure to take lots of your own recesses, and look for my blog every other Sunday for more climbing out adventures. Next time: Gardening as climate activism.

If you find this blog enjoyable or useful on your journey, please follow me and tell your friends. Thanks!

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Mark Boudreau

Mark Boudreau

I’m a teaching professor of biology and researcher in agroecology at Penn State Brandywine, intent on developing my inner climate activist.