The Party Line

Mark Boudreau
7 min readOct 11, 2021

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Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives

I’ve been writing this blog to chronicle my emergence as a climate crisis activist for a few months now. I’m enjoying it immensely, and I thank the folks who have read, commented, clapped, and followed. I will be taking a little break for a few weeks because I’m taking on new work obligations and attending some conferences. The holidays are coming too, so I thought it appropriate to write today about parties. The fun kind, and the political kind.

Let’s be festive first. I have spent several hours the last two weeks phone-banking to convince people to push the Build Back Better infrastructure bill through Congress. Now it may not be your idea of a fiesta to make calls to strangers in other states and ask them to do something, and I was certainly apprehensive, even nervous, to participate. But in the hands of the Sierra Club it was easy, exhilarating, and, yes, even a party-like experience.

The ongoing phone banks are part of the organization’s big push for collective action on climate this summer, which I’ve blogged about before, and such actions are in no way limited to the Sierra Club. But since they’ve warmly taken this newbie activist into their tree-hugging arms, I signed up. Their crack team of staff and volunteers mobilized to make sure I showed up for the scheduled phone parties, not just with robotexts, but authentic emails and phone calls from a real person (Rachel, in my case). Then I met Rachel on the Zoom call that kicked off each session, as well as the smiling, upbeat Allison, Chelsea, Siri, and other volunteers, and a host of like-minded folks throughout the U.S. poised to make calls after we were given our mission: Reach out to Sierra Club members in key places and ask them to phone their legislators, urging them to support the Build Back Better Act, our number one means to comprehensive climate fixes.

Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), the two senators blocking passage of the Build Back Better act, which requires every single Democratic vote. Photo: Business Insider.

The first night, we were assigned either West Virginia or Arizona, where Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, respectively, are the pivotal votes needed to pass BBB in the senate. A week later we called Sierra Club members living in key congressional districts in five states. In my case it was Henry Cuellar, representing TX-28 from the Streets of Laredo. The actual calling process is facilitated through a separate computer application that provides phone numbers, scripts, instructions, and means to record your responses, and makes things quite straightforward. Throughout the entire calling process the Zoom room stayed open, and the volunteers were always available to address any complications or questions. We all re-convened at the end to debrief and celebrate.

You’re still questioning my party analogy, I know. But it’s true. The key was that we were calling like minds who are sympathetic, and often enthusiastic. The first West Virginian I reached delivered a firestorm of complaints (including a few choice expletives) about Manchin’s subservience to the fossil fuel industry rather than the people of West Virginia. Others I spoke with had already made calls and had personal stories of success and frustration to share, with more amusing anecdotes coming through the chat back in the Zoom room in real time. We heard of dogs barking and babies crying in the background, people offering praise for our work and promising to call, and occasional historical testimonials (My favorite was from Andrea, a veteran activist, who described her entry into politics the day, as a teenager, she was dismissed outright by a politician because he said she was “too young to vote.” She told him that she had 11 uncles who could vote, all of whom had lots of friends, and that she would share her experience with them.) In the final debriefs we heard more stories and were given statistics that popped the champagne cork, such as : “You were one of 47 people who made over 1,255 calls to our members and supporters in NJ, ME, GA, TX and AZ. We had a 77% action rate of the people we spoke to. 78 people committed to calling their legislators and 17 people want to get more involved.” Whoop whoop!

So now that you’re phone-party-savvy, I hope you might consider joining a future phone bank with the Sierra Club, or whatever organization or vehicle you choose, to push climate legislation. Does it work? It’s an understatement to say that what leads to a lawmaker’s ultimate vote is complicated, but we’ll give it a qualified “yes.” They listen if there are a lot of calls with a specific ask from their own constituents, which is exactly what this phone banking was shooting for. We do know that Manchin has gone from supporting a $1.5 trillion bill to as much as $2.2 trillion in recent days, for whatever reason. In any case this is our last chance to send a message of urgency before the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow next month, and before the 2022 midterms when we could well lose our majority. By “our” I mean Democrats, and here I segue to those less compelling parties, the political sort.

You’ll notice we’re making calls to moderate Democrats and not Republicans, because the latter are categorically and unanimously opposed to the Build Back Better bill. Although it is true that the act has much more in it opposed by the Republicans than climate action, such as the child tax credit, the Grand Old Party has become a stalwart against recognizing and acting on the climate emergency. Trump called climate change a hoax, pulled us out of the Paris Climate Agreement, and undid Obama’s rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions. One would think that a global emergency a century-and-a-half in the making, an “everything problem” which will ravage everyone’s economy and lifestyle just as a wildfire destroys shacks and mansions, and, to paraphrase, a rising flood drowns all roads, would be a non-partisan mission. Others have said it better:

“If we’ve learned any lessons during the past few decades, perhaps the most important is that preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge; it’s common sense.”

“While it is clear we need to know more about climate change, prudence dictates that we also begin to weigh impacts and possible responses. We simply cannot wait — the cost of inaction will be too high.”

“. . . change in the future is likely to be more fundamental and more widespread than anything we have known hitherto. Change to the sea around us, change to the atmosphere above, leading in turn to change in the world’s climate, which could alter the way we live in the most fundamental way of all.”

“. . . let us complete an international agreement that has the potential to slow, stop, and eventually reverse the growth of greenhouse gases.”

These quotes are from, respectively, Ronald Reagan (1984), George H.W. Bush (1988), Margaret Thatcher (1989), and George W. Bush (2008). All conservative icons. What happened? When and how did climate change become such a polarized political issue, the province of the left and rejected by the right? How has it evolved such that an exhaustive study of 27 predictive variables found that “The largest demographic correlate of climate change belief is political affiliation”?

As you can imagine, figuring this out has become a bit of an industry, and could be the subject of its own blog series. A clue may be found in the dates above. Although liberals were always more concerned about climate change than conservatives, mirroring attitudes toward environmental issues generally, they seriously diverged on global warming in the late 1990s.

Differences in the two political parties became more pronounced in the new millennium, just when action became more urgent. Graphic: Gallup organization.

All evidence points to one cause: A massive disinformation and doubt campaign waged by the fossil fuel industry, led by Exxon, along with propaganda organizations they funded. This was timed to derail action resulting from the Kyoto climate meeting (COP3, if you’re keeping track), and it worked. Bush 41 lost to Bill Clinton and his famously climate-concerned running mate Al Gore in 1992, but the Democratic Duo couldn’t get the Kyoto Protocol ratified. In fact, not a single piece of significant climate legislation has passed in the U.S. since. (Ironically, Bush 43 fought climate action throughout his presidency, but grew some gonads at the end of his second term — thus the quote above).

A sampling of organizations funded by the fossil fuel industry to prevent any action on climate change. GCC disbanded in 2002; ALEC and Heartland are still actively lying.

The fossil fuel industry and their bogus think tanks, fake organizations, and political lackeys have recently switched from casting doubt on the fact of human-caused climate change itself — they would look silly in the face of overwhelming evidence — to other tactics like dividing the opposition, deflecting attention, and promoting false solutions. Most Republicans are playing along, but there are glimmers of hope, reminiscent of the climate-courageous souls no longer in office, like John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bob Inglis, and Carlos Curbelo. Curbelo started the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. A separate Republicans-only Conservative Climate Caucus has formed, and there is a GOP youth movement addressing the issue. Research has shown promising avenues to message conservatives successfully.

Bob Inglis served six terms in the extremely red 4th congressional district of South Carolina. He lost his primary bid in 2010 because, among other things, he accepted climate science. He has worked since to seek conservative solutions to global warming. Photo: Utah Public Radio.

Personally, I am skeptical that this will lead anywhere in time. We have until 2030 to halve greenhouse gas emissions, and should reach net-zero by 2050, which requires rapid, massive action, with Build Back Better as a great start. Caucus or no, Republicans refuse to support it. The Conservative Climate Caucus’s self-described mission is merely to “educate Republicans.”

I’m all about learning, but we are desperate for action rather than edification right now. So, while some Republicans are in school, I’m afraid those who understand the urgency of the moment must get the job done, with or without them. Join a phone bank, fellow climate activists, and party on!

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Mark Boudreau

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