Congress: A Fool's Errand?

Last week I attended a screening of the 2009 documentary Earth Days at the National Archives (you too can watch the whole thing here). I was particularly eager to hear Denis Hayes introduce the film. He was coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970 and has recently established the “greenest commercial building in the world” in Seattle, the Bullitt Center.

In the film we see Hayes and others help build a movement that had republicans in Congress and the administration clamoring over each other to call themselves “environmentalists”. The 1970s saw a deluge of environmental laws signed into law. Not only the Clean Air and Water Acts, but the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Superfund program. To anyone familiar with today’s political gridlock, the speed of progress at the time is pretty astounding.

Obviously much has changed in politics and public opinion since that time. In the 2011 presidential primaries, each Republican candidate proclaimed in turn how they would strangle the EPA’s authority if elected. It’s helpful to remember that it was a Republican who established the EPA. In his 1970 State of the Union Address, President Nixon said:
We can no longer afford to consider air and water common property, free to be abused by anyone without regard to the consequences. Instead, we should begin now to treat them as scarce resources, which we are no more free to contaminate than we are free to throw garbage into our neighbor's yard. 
This requires comprehensive new regulations. It also requires that, to the extent possible, the price of goods should be made to include the costs of producing and disposing of them without damage to the environment.
In light of these changes and Hayes’ decades of involvement in the movement, I asked him what advice he’d give to today’s environmentalist. His response? Abandon the federal government (particularly Congress) and focus on local and regional action.


If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard this... David Roberts, who quickly (and brilliantly) defended the 40,000+ marchers at the Forward on Climate Rally from the “Very Serious People” (VSP) on the bloggy sidelines himself becomes a VSP when it comes to climate legislation: “The dream of comprehensive national legislation must be put aside for now,” he said in a January 2013 post.

Similar responses abound when I tell people I’m in a group that organizes citizens to lobby Congress on climate change. It’s a simple math problem: the support is just not there, corporate influence is too strong, politicians are too dirty, and anyone foolish enough to focus on Congress is wasting her time.

I imagine part of this reaction comes from the impression that regular citizens don’t have real access to their representatives. While corporations and think tanks horse-trade behind the scenes, regular folks are condemned to signing angry petitions or shaking their fists on the Capitol steps. Or at best, trying to vote the worst politicians out every two years.

My conception of political engagement changed when I joined Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) in 2011. Since then I’ve participated in numerous meetings with staffers and legislators of both political parties, flanked by scientists, business owners, religious leaders, students, writers and others who are moving and savvy advocates for smart climate legislation.

It’s surprisingly easy to set up a meeting with the staffers responsible for drafting environmental/energy legislation and often the representatives themselves. I’ve learned that constituents are taken seriously; that it’s possible to have productive and engaging discussions with the most unlikely people, even staffers from deepest coal country. In terms of face-time, our representatives are more accessible than you might imagine.

In 2012, CCL volunteers from around the country met with 303 congressional offices in one week. This summer, they’re planning to meet with all 536 of them. For an army of volunteers organized by a staff you can count on one hand operating with minimal resources, that’s pretty impressive. And this contact happens in districts around the country, year-round.

Of course, access isn't influence. To be honest, I don’t expect much. I know about voting records and campaign donations. I’ve listened to representatives extol outlandish denier arguments and actively target climate solutions.

And yet I continue trudging up to Capitol Hill and organizing volunteers. Why, for godssake? Why don’t I spend my precious Metrorail money on cupcakes instead? Why haven’t the doubters chipped away at my resolve yet?

Well, there’s the fact that impactful climate action without Congress is impossible, according to the World Resources Institute. No amount of badgering Obama to utilize existing authority is going to get us the carbon reductions we need.

Secondly, we can’t go to international climate negotiations with a patchwork of regional policies and expect other countries to meet our own demands or pass ambitious policies of their own. On the international stage, federal policy carries the most weight. It carries the most weight for our financial system and utility companies too.

But mostly, we can’t use the state of Congress as an excuse for silence. There are lots of tools in the climate action toolbox. Building a sustainable city is one. Practicing civil disobedience is one. Organizing a rally is one. And lobbying Congress is one too. Abandoning this essential piece of active citizenship is more folly than believing we might actually change things. Besides, immovable objects might not be as immovable as we think.