Cracking Washington’s Gridlock to Save the Planet
One day, ideally in the not-too-distant future, when Congress finally passes major legislation to curb carbon emissions — to reduce the environmental and economic harm caused by climate change — Americans will owe a big thank you to the perseverance and discipline of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Special appreciation should go to one volunteer, Jay Butera, a businessman from Pennsylvania who has put intense effort into getting Democrats and Republicans in Congress to begin talking with one another about potential solutions.
The Citizens’ Climate Lobby is a network of volunteers who have come together in the last several years to advance climate policy in a bipartisan manner. Its support base has increased fivefold since 2015 to 60,000 supporters; among them, 23,000 are actively working to build political will for a national, revenue-neutral carbon fee-and-dividend system, a market-based approach that aims to reduce carbon emissions while spurring employment.
Over the past year, volunteers have held 1,429 meetings with their representatives’ offices, organized 2,597 outreach events, and prompted or written 3,339 editorials, op-ed essays, and letters to the editor. In 2010, the organization’s annual conference drew 25 participants; next month, the network expects to welcome 1,200 in Washington.
These activities have strengthened relationships between constituents and their representatives and have been instrumental in two significant developments in the House of Representatives: the introduction, in March, of the Republican Climate Resolution, which now has 20 co-sponsors, and the creation of the first bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus.
Equally important today, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby illustrates how average Americans can work effectively to influence government.
Butera has worked to address climate change for more than a decade and has been a volunteer with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby since 2012. In 2013, he met Representative Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat, whose district was experiencing the effects of global warming. Butera mentioned that he had a vision to create a bipartisan caucus in the House that would focus on climate solutions. Deutch liked the idea and agreed to work with him and the citizens’ lobby toward that goal.
“The kind of meaningful conversation that was taking place in boardrooms and in local governments unfortunately had not really taken place in Congress,” Deutch told me.
Butera started visiting offices on Capitol Hill in an effort to get Republicans and Democrats to sit together. At the time, it seemed a fool’s errand. “People would laugh,” he says now. “ ‘Good luck with that.’ ” He was advised to avoid the word “climate.” Call it a “resiliency” caucus or a “coastal states” caucus, he was told. The word climate was unmentionable.
Butera and Deutch devised a Noah’s Ark approach: The caucus would grow by twos, to keep equality of numbers between Republicans and Democrats. Many Democrats were interested. The question was: How to get Republicans to join?
Butera reasoned that the first movers were likely to come from Florida. “The coastal districts are mainly Republican and the coastline is threatened existentially by climate impacts,” he said.
He flew to Miami, timing the trip to coincide with Earth Day 2014. He attended events in southern Florida that focused on climate change; there he met locals and helped them start a Citizens’ Climate Lobby chapter.
“I saw that local mayors and county leaders were dealing with the impacts of climate change head on,” he said.
Some towns had raised the roads and moved wells miles inland to escape seawater intrusion. In other places, seawater poured into the streets at every high tide. Speaking with congressional staff members in Washington, Butera discovered that many were unaware of the reality on the ground.
“There was a disconnect,” he said.
For the next two years, Butera and many other volunteers worked to address that disconnect. Butera organized countless meetings in Florida and Washington. He took videos and photographs of climate effects and shared them with congressional offices. He and others reached out to 55 mayors, county commissioners, presidents of Chambers of Commerce, state representatives and university presidents across South Florida — most of them from Republican-held congressional districts — to sign a letter asking Congress to act on climate change.
It made a difference. The first Republican to step forward was Representative Carlos Curbelo. In February 2016, he joined Deutch and they filed the paperwork for the Climate Solutions Caucus. Shortly thereafter, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, another Republican, came on board. Butera had earlier brought a contingent of 16 mayors, Chamber of Commerce leaders, and county commissioners to her Miami office to speak about how climate change was affecting their communities. Citizens’ Climate Lobby volunteers had also flown from Miami to Washington to join him in meetings with the congresswoman.
Today, the caucus has 38 members — 19 from each party. They’re still a long way from having the votes needed to pursue bipartisan climate legislation. But it’s worth examining how this progress has been achieved in spite of all the acrimony and mistrust today — and in particular, how it’s been led by ordinary citizens. (This episode of the National Geographic Channel’s series “Years of Living Dangerously” chronicles their efforts.)
“Most people make the assumption that there’s absolutely no point in contacting their representative because it wouldn’t do any good,” says Tom Moyer, a Citizens’ Climate Lobby volunteer from Utah who works closely with his representative, Mia Love, a Republican.
In a 2016 Rasmussen survey, only 11 percent of respondents said that the average member of Congress listens to their constituents. By contrast, in surveys of congressional staff members, more than 90 percent say that “in-person issue visits from constituents” and “individualized email messages” would have ‘some’ or ‘a lot’ of influence on an undecided lawmaker.
It’s this belief in the power of citizens that animates the citizens’ lobby. “People assume of Congress that they’re beholden to their campaign contributors and all they can do is work to get them out of office,” said Moyer. “We start from the assumption that they want to solve the problem. And we ask: How can we work together?”
The Citizens’ Climate Lobby has built an elaborate structure to support its volunteers, with regular training sessions, conference calls, debriefings and gatherings. The group has received extensive guidance and inspiration from the Center for Citizen Empowerment and Transformation, whose founder, Sam Daley-Harris, literally wrote the book on citizens’ lobbying.
Volunteers rehearse short presentations called “laser talks.” They learn how to frame the climate issue from a variety of perspectives — say, as an issue of health, economic stability or national security. They never get into arguments about science, which they know are doomed from the start. They’re trained to show good manners: begin meetings by expressing appreciation, listen with an open mind, follow up with heartfelt thank-you letters.
“It can’t be lip service,” says Ashley Hunt-Martorano, a former Citizens’ Climate Lobby volunteer from Long Island who now works for the organization. “It has to come from a genuine place.”
For instance, when Hunt-Martorano and her colleagues first met their representative, Lee Zeldin, a Republican, they expressed appreciation for his service in Iraq and in the State Senate before mentioning anything about climate change. “He interrupted us,” recalled Hunt-Martorano. “He said: ‘I just have to say, you guys are not normal. You’re smiling, you’re saying nice things about me. That’s not what people like you do when you come into my office.’ ”
Since then, the volunteers have met with Zeldin or members of his staff 32 times. They understand his interests and passions, and have helped him advance some of his legislative goals. And he became the fifth Republican to join the caucus.
“The Citizens’ Climate Lobby is an exceptional group that is pursuing an amazingly productive, substantive way to engage with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle,” Zeldin told me. “Countless times I’ve had people come into my office to engage on an issue and even if we were on the same page they would be starting off the meeting very aggressive and hostile, and it was counterproductive,” he said.
“The way that we communicate about the issues to achieve clean air and clean water should be bringing our country together regardless of party registration or ideology,” he added. “This really is an issue that everyone agrees on more than anyone’s admitting. There’s a communication gap that needs to be overcome.”
Steve Valk, the group’s communication’s director, put it this way: “If you can let go of being right, you can make a difference.”
When Moyer first began engaging with Love on the climate issue, it didn’t look promising. “She was viewed as a lost cause,” he said. “Everything she said and showed on her campaign website was as friendly to the fossil fuel industry as you can imagine.”
Still, he went to a meet-the-candidates night and asked Love about climate change, and found her to be a terrific listener. Then, on a family trip to Washington, he made an appointment to talk with her environmental aide, who told Moyer that Love needed to hear from other Republicans and her constituents. So he and other volunteers helped set up the conversations and organized a town hall in her district. “We had enough of a track record that she knew we weren’t going to set her up” by packing the hall with belligerent protesters, Moyer said.
This mode of engagement created the rapport to discuss policy details. “Their attitude and tactics were very respectful,” Love said. “They come in and they say this is a problem that we have and we’re wondering if you can help us solve this problem — instead of you’re the problem.” She added, “It not only changed my mind about my involvement, but really changed my heart about what we should be doing.” Love joined the Climate Solutions Caucus this past December.
When the caucus met for the first time last year, nobody knew how it would go. “It was the first time Republicans and Democrats had sat down to talk about climate change,” said Butera. National Geographic Channel wanted to film the meeting, but the Congressional representatives only wanted opening statements filmed. “The meeting ended up being so civil that the members decided to let the cameras keep rolling,” Butera added. “That had been my belief for all those years. If we got them to the table, people would start to listen to each others’ ideas.”
Now members of the caucus meet at least once a month. They confer on legislation, and are more inclined to look across the aisle for co-sponsors. “We’re looking to grow our numbers, making sure that we’re getting more people involved in it,” said Love, who’d like to see the caucus grow to include a quarter of representatives in the House. She hopes the caucus can help shape the administration’s infrastructure plan by assuring that it promotes clean energy.
Will the caucus grow in influence? The verdict is still out. But the lesson for Butera is that citizens must engage with their representatives, no matter how irreconcilable their positions may appear. “We need conversations with Congress, not just sound bites and accusations,” he said. “That’s how we’ll find a way forward.”
“Congress is a lagging indicator of public opinion,” he added. “It’s up to the American people to make their opinions known. If the American people demand action on climate change from Congress, there’s no doubt that it will happen.”