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Meet Me In the Lobby

All this apocalyptic weather and talk of climate doom (1) gets me antsy to do something political, so last week I went to the annual Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL)2 conference. Along with 150 other climate activists from across the country I sat through two days of briefings and seminars and powerpoints in a nondescript conference center outside Washington DC, followed by a day of lobbying on The Hill. There was the usual conference-y mingling, banter, and goofing off, and I had a blast. Each of us was scheduled for six meetings with legislators about climate change and the “Save Our Climate Act” (H.R. 3242)3, four of us in each meeting. Early Tuesday morning we all mobbed onto the Metro which whisked us over to Capitol Hill.

Being from Massachusetts, I met mostly with blue-state pols. The meetings were convivial and the same message repeatedly emerged: climate legislation has no chance of passing if Republicans maintain a House majority after the 2012 elections. You know the story; right-wing Republicans use their majority to block any progressive legislation (especially climate bills) and if nothing gets accomplished, that’s okay with them. Just to be clear: I’m distinguishing the Right from Conservatives, who sometimes cooperate with others to solve the country’s problems.

My rep, Michael Capuano (D-MA), co-sponsor of the Save Our Climate Act, gave a lively meeting, ribbing us about his plans for drilling for oil in his backyard in Somerville (the neighbors might complain) and telling us bluntly that if greens want to win we have to stop demanding perfection from Democratic candidates. That, the only way to win back a Democratic majority -- and get climate bills passed -- is to help elect moderate and conservative Democrats. Even moderate Republicans will vote with their party, which equals voting against the climate. He said, “If you want to win, get serious. Because this is political.” And we want to win, don’t we?

While we blue-state lobbyers endured some avuncular advice, the red-state CCL lobbyers faced something else entirely. An oversize faux-Kodachrome print of Ronald Reagan smirked down from the wall and Fox News played in a corner of the airless conference room where I had my only red-state meeting of the day. The Rocky Mountain Senator’s aide was no amateur, utilizing a grab-bag of rhetorical tricks, prevarication, and Mormon theology (really) trying to undermine our confidence in climate science and in ourselves. Personal politics in Washington is hardly news, but I’d thought these mini-Machiavellis shot spitballs at each other, not at constituents.

Whatever. It was kind of fun watching that aide deploy his rickety logic. He spluttered a bit when I reminded him that Al Gore was not a “peer-reviewed scientist.” And it was my description of the numerous Priuses in Jamaica Plain that provoked his discourse on Mormon doctrine. (Debating hint: next time the conversation gets sticky with your favorite right-winger, invoke the Priuses in Jamaica Plain. Never know what you’ll hear.) After that meeting we walked across the Capitol plaza and I turned to a lanky CCL guy from Utah and said “Now I get it. There’s really a fight out here in the red states.” He looked at me not smiling and said, “Oh yeah.”

Later, at the CCL cocktail reception I saw the same split; we blue-staters were bubbly with anecdotes of the day (skilled politicians can make you feel good!) while the red-state climate activists were often ruefully ironic. On the coasts it’s easy to forget that the country is dominated by the right-wing who, in the long tradition of reactionary paranoia, see us as the enemy. You and me -- when we think of America’s enemies, we think of Al Qaeda or something. When the Right thinks of America’s enemies they think of you and me, and Al Qaeda.

So, what’s to do? Join Citizens Climate Lobby, of course (4). That’s one environmental group that doesn’t ask for money, just your time, and the actions lean more toward neighborhood gatherings than street protests. And secondly -- but don’t wait on this -- send money to the DCCC (5) which is dedicated to electing a Democratic House majority. Yes, some of those candidates may be a bit regressive, but politicians follow their party and a Democrat will vote for the climate. A Republican will vote against the climate. How much $$, you’re asking? How about, a comfortable monthly payment times 4; then it would be paid off by election day. It’s only a credit card, and we want to win, not lose.

Power politics aside, Washington is like a Disneyland of noble gestures; the place is full of statues and inscriptions in marble celebrating justice, liberty, etc etc. That’s because history is written by the winners and, so far, American history has been an upwardly progressive trend. But the Right is winning now (6) and, while that’s bad for progressive values, it’s a disaster for the planet. If we keep sitting out the political fight we may avoid climate politics, but we won’t avoid a ruined climate.