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Caught in the act… of being a climate change hero

Rep. Carlos Curbelo speaks to fifth graders in Homestead, Fla., where he received thank-you letters from 200 students.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo speaks to fifth graders in Homestead, Fla., where he received thank-you letters from 200 students.

Caught in the act… of being a climate change hero

By Steve Valk 

One of America’s favorite pastimes is to ridicule and shame politicians whenever they’re caught in the act of doing or saying something stupid or – God forbid – doing or saying something we don’t agree with.

We collectively roll up the newspaper and swat them on the nose, as we would for a dog that just peed the carpet, in the hope that such shaming deters them from repeating their offensive behavior.

Rarely, however, does this have the desired effect.

Perhaps it’s time for a different approach. Instead of waiting to catch them in the act of doing something bad, let’s catch them in the act of doing something good… and then reward them for it (Scooby snacks, anyone?).

That’s what CCL volunteers in Miami recently did when they learned that Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo had toured the Everglades on Earth Day with President Obama, calling for action on climate change. In a press release, Curbelo said:

“I share the President’s concerns about sea-level rise, and its effects on our drinking supplies, our economy, and our way of life.  I am committed to finding common ground to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

 Curbelo, of course, was bucking the party line, but his act of political courage went nearly unnoticed in the media. The Miami Herald “buried the lede,” as they say, in a story covering the President’s visit, mentioning Curbelo in the last two paragraphs of the story.

Curbelo’s heroism, however, did not escape the attention of a fifth grade student in the class of science teacher Denise Mendoza, a CCL volunteer with the Miami chapter. From a ClimateWire story picked up by Scientific American:

It was Curbelo’s willingness to disengage from his party’s climate positions that prompted the fifth-grade letter-writing project at Gateway Environmental Learning Center in Homestead, Fla. A student brought a local newspaper clip about the congressman’s Earth Day remarks to Denise Mendoza, a science teacher at the public school outfitted with an educational wetlands.

That sparked her to assign 30 students in her “Earth Buddies Club” to thank Curbelo in writing. It spread to other classes, until every fifth-grade student at the public school had written a letter.

“It just kind of snowballed,” Mendoza said during her lunch break Friday, noting that the school is 5 miles away from the Everglades. “We are in the front lines” of climate change, she added.

Curbelo students

Fifth graders at Gateway Environmental Learning Center display their thank-you letters for Congressman Curbelo.

Jay Butera, a Pennsylvania CCL volunteer who has been organizing and mentoring new chapters in Florida, originally thought to have the letters sent to him so he could hand-deliver them to Curbelo’s Washington office. But they came up with a better idea: Invite the Congressman to the school to have the fifth-graders present the letters – 200 of them – in person.

The letters from the fifth-graders were not the only acknowledgement. Letters to the editor from CCL volunteers were published in the Miami Herald and the Naples Daily News.

The art of acknowledgement, of course, is not new to most CCL volunteers, who usually start a meeting with a member of Congress by thanking them for something they have done. It may seem like a small thing, but it has a powerful effect, changing the whole tenor of the conversation that unfolds. You can almost see the shields coming down.

The CCL volunteers in Miami took acknowledgement to the next level. As a result, perhaps Curbelo will take his commitment on climate change to the next level.

Steve Valk is Communications Director for Citizens’ Climate Lobby.


Steve Valk is Communications Coordinator for Citizens' Climate Lobby. Steve joined the CCL staff in 2009 after a 30-year career with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter at @valklimate.