Creating Political Will in a Partisan Climate
Late last month, under a sweltering DC sun, President Barack Obama wiped his brow, as if to emphasize a glaring truth; it’s getting hotter. In the absence of Congressional leadership, Obama promised to slow global warming, in part, by using the EPA to limit the amount of carbon dioxide that power plants may produce.
At the time of the president’s address, I was a few miles away in a Capitol Hill office. As part of a delegation of concerned citizen-volunteers, I was meeting with an aide who worked for a Kansas Republican House member. Our group– from Kansas, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Toronto– asked for the Congressman to support a transparent, market-based solution to limit carbon emissions, the revenue-neutral carbon tax.
In total, almost 400 volunteers from the Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) made 439 congressional office visits that week. This citizen advocacy organization has been taking its asks directly to Congress for the past four years, and the number of volunteers asking has doubled each successive year.
“Politicians don’t create political will, they respond to it,” says CCL’s executive director Mark Reynolds. “It’s always easier to take the cynical view of politics. But if you actually say, ‘I’m a citizen. This is a citizen problem,’ it gives you an entirely different world to deal with.”
CCL’s work is based on the principles of non-violence and the work of Gandhi on behalf of the Indian community in South Africa a century ago. Gandhi’s chief adversary at that time was General Smuts, head of the South African Government in the Transvaal.
In a now historic meeting, Gandhi told Smuts, “I’ve come to tell you that I am going to fight against your government.”
“Anything more?” Smuts replied incredulously.
Yes, Gandhi answered, “I am going to win.”
Gandhi responded back, “With your help.”
Ultimately, with the help of Smuts, Gandhi prevailed. South Africa is often called the birthplace of Gandhi’s Satyagraha (“insistence on truth”) movement.
CCL’s bipartisan approach of appealing to others shared humanity, reaching across table, and forging alliances with people you wouldn’t normally regard as your allies is gaining support. The organization is now comprised of over 110 grassroots groups across the country and adding more members weekly.
Likewise, a revenue-neutral carbon tax has widespread support from economists on both sides of the political spectrum as the most efficient, easiest and most transparent way to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
CCL proposes placing a rising fee on carbon at the point where it enters the market- at the wellhead, at the coal mine, or as an adjustment at the border to encourage trading countries to adopt similar measures. To take the bite out of the rising costs associated with the carbon fee, and to appeal to conservatives who do not like taxes, CCL proposes giving 100% of the revenue back to households. The revenue-neutral aspect of this proposal is critical to gain Republican support.
So how did our meeting go with the Kansas Republican’s office? What started out as a very tense situation, ended with the young aide smiling, thanking us and asking us to keep the dialogue open.
“I don’t see anybody else coming. You know, when you get into a dire situation, the cavalry shows up, ” CCL’s founder, Marshall Saunders told volunteers participating in the week’s activities. “We are the cavalry. And we are going to win and there is no choice about it.”
Perhaps, Obama said it best in his address, “What we need in this fight are citizens who will stand up, and speak up, and compel us to do what this moment demands.”
The world is getting hotter, our window of opportunity to change course is closing. Politicians will not act unless we, collectively, compel them to do so.