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Citizens lobby for the environment

January 5, 2017
In The News

An unseasonably warm winter may not be grounds for complaints by Long Islanders dreading the snow. Many of us have still been able to enjoy late-December beach walks, and the scenario is a familiar one worldwide. 

Preliminary data from a November 2016 report released by the World Meteorological Organization put 2016 on track for the title of the hottest year on record. Worldwide, temperatures from January to September of 2016 have been 0.88 degrees Celsius — or one and a half degrees Fahrenheit — above the average for the 1961-1990 reference period used by WMO. A powerful El Niño caused warm temperatures in the early months of 2016, but temperatures remained high well afterward. 

WMO data shows that 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have been in this century, with 1998 being the other one. It’s a global issue for Stephen E. Schwartz, senior environmental and climate scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory. According to Schwartz, the implications vary depending on geography and meteorology. “Long Island is particularly at risk from rising sea levels. A second risk factor for Long Island is the intensification of severe storms,” Schwartz added. 

For Ashley Hunt-Martorano of Medford, it’s a cause that all Long Islanders should get behind. In 2012, she founded the local chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a grassroots international nonpartisan group that addresses climate change through legislative policy.

“I’ve always been interested in the outdoors,” said Hunt-Martorano, who hails from West Virginia. “I saw firsthand the impact that our addiction to fossil fuels has with coal mining and hydrofracking. On [Long Island], there isn’t much energy extraction going on. But we use and waste a lot of energy.” 

The Stony Brook graduate alumna had always dreamt of starting a CCL chapter, but didn’t gain interest among her peers until after Superstorm Sandy. “Long Island is a frontline community because of sea level rise, beach erosion, hurricanes ... so many impacts that we are already seeing,” she said, also highlighting the Island-wide drought, felt especially by farmers on the East End. 

Hunt-Martorano has since taken over as the marketing and events director for the organization and Long Island has three chapters in East Hampton, mid-Suffolk and Nassau-Queens. 

Her main initiative has been working with Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) and Rep. Peter King (R-NY) to lobby for legislative action. The organization’s approach is simple — build a solution-driven relationship with Congress members on both sides of the aisle. 

“You don’t just go in and voice your concern and then something happens. It’s a process,” Hunt-Martorano said.

That process is education-centric and focused on conservatives. Right-wing representatives are painted in the mainstream media as dismissive of climate change, influenced by big-oil lobbyists. “There’s this misconception that money talks in Washington, that lobbying interests like Wall Street and oil companies are the ones in charge,” Hunt-Martorano said. “And it’s really not true,” emphasizing the importance of citizen engagement. “A lot of our efforts include convincing people that their voice matters and that Congress members do want to hear from them.”

But more Republicans are getting on board; 14 GOP representatives have signed on to Rep. Chris Gibson’s (R-NY) resolution, H. Res 424, which was introduced in 2015 and recognizes the reality and need for action on climate change. In the resolution, Gibson vowed to continue working to address the causes and attempt to balance human activities that have had an impact.

According to Hunt-Martorano, Zeldin was very responsive; they have had 22 meetings as of this publishing. “And he’s been in office for less than 24 months,” she said. As a result, Zeldin has signed onto the Climate Solutions Caucus, which began in February 2016. The caucus was founded by two south Florida representatives, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL). It’s the first-ever bipartisan initiative to address climate change, and now includes 20 members of Congress. 

“We know that there are quite a few Republicans who want to take action on climate change, but don’t have the space to do that,” said Hunt-Martorano. “So we started believing that there was safety in numbers; if we could get a number of Republicans on board, they could step forward together to indicate that they are interested in finding a solution.”

Hunt-Martorano and the CCL asked Zeldin to join the caucus in June. “We acted slowly because we wanted to educate [Rep. Zeldin] and make sure he was comfortable making a decision for his constituents,” said Hunt-Martorano, who also led community outreach to make sure this was something the community would like to see. He officially joined in September 2016, signing on with Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT), whom he has worked with on Long Island Sound quality issues. 

“I appreciate the open dialogue between our office and the CCL,” Zeldin said. “I look forward to working with CCL moving forward to ensure clean air and clean water for all Americans,”, assuring that he was willing to work toward a solution.

The main policy pushed by the CCL is the Carbon Fee and Dividend. Since gaining bipartisan support, they hope to introduce and pass the bill this year. The legislation would place a fee on fossil fuel emissions, starting at a fee of $15 per ton and rising $10 per year until carbon emissions are reduced to 90 percent below 1990 levels. The CCL estimates that each $10 of the fee is the equivalent of a 10-cent increase in the cost of a gallon of gasoline. 

The net fees collected from the carbon fee would be returned directly to families as a monthly dividend, injecting billions into the economy and allowing more households to make deliberate choices about their energy usage. The legislation also calls for fees on products imported from countries that do not have a carbon fee, in the hopes of discouraging businesses from relocating, where they can emit more carbon dioxide and motivate other countries to take action as well. 

A 2013 Regional Economic Models Inc. study found that Carbon Fee and Dividend will reduce CO2 emissions 52 percent below 1990 levels in 20 years and also act as a stimulus that would add 2.8 million jobs to the economy. 

“Even if someone doesn’t accept the evidence for climate change, they can still get on board with the benefits of this economic policy,” Hunt-Martorano said. 

With the changing administration, she sees her work as more important than ever. Scott Pruitt, the president-elect’s pick to head to EPA, has openly denied climate change and repeatedly sued the EPA to try and block safeguards limiting pollution in the past. On the campaign trail, President-elect Donald Trump vowed to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord, but in November said he would keep an “open mind” on involvement. Despite his comments, Hunt-Martorano pointed out that since becoming international law in late 2016, it would be incredibly difficult to move back on the agreement. 

She hopes to see maintained momentum and more citizens getting directly involved. “Whether you’re a Republican, Democrat or with another party, this affects all of us,” Hunt-Martorano said. “We are moving forward on the issue regardless of who is in office.”