Young climate change lobbyists prove to be big asset on the Hill

Utah Hill meeting

From left, Piper Christian, Savannah Benhard, Darren Bingham, Logan Christian, Jim Wightman meet with Clay Wight, aide to Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).

By Dave Folland

Eight CCL adults from Utah approached our June 21st lobby day not knowing we would have silver bullets in our congressional meetings. The evening before, we sensed our young people would bring something special when 18-year-old Savannah Benhard won the dance contest, wresting the title from CCL Legislative Director Danny Richter, who had held it for the prior two years.

The silver bullets quickly made their presence felt in our lobby meetings.

For instance, when 16-year-old Piper Christian led “The Ask” to Congressman Jason Chaffetz’s aide, Clay White, one might have expected Piper to equivocate, as Chaffetz publicly maintains the position, “I think the Al Gore-defined climate change is a farce.”

Without batting an eye, she calmly inquired, “would Congressman Chaffetz sponsor or support legislation putting a steadily-increasing fee on carbon while returning net revenues to households?” After some discussion, Clay White said something to the effect, “I’m amazed that you are here in Washington, DC, asking me these questions. When I was your age, I wasn’t thinking of anything.”

The silver bullet was fired again in a meeting with Nevada Republican Senator Dean Heller. In her introduction, 14-year-old Elisabeth Klehr told of her concern about her younger brother who has asthma and can’t play outside when the pollution is bad. Most 14-year-old girls are more concerned about their clothes, how their hair looks, and what others think, than their younger brother’s health.

And in a meeting with Congressman Stewart’s aides, recent college graduates May Bartlett and Stockton La Salle told of their considerations to move away from Utah because of the air pollution, and their ambivalence because they love the state and the outdoor opportunities it affords. This message and others seemed to hit home, as the aides spent 1 hour and 15 minutes with us, a record length in my experience. Our young people changed the tone of the conversation in many of our meetings.

CCL members got a dose of this young firepower at the reception when Mia Vinding, Elisabeth Klehr, Johnny McGee and Stockton LaSalle spoke to the hundreds of CCL members. After their talks, the steely retired judge Dick Smith came up to me to tell me that their talks had evoked tears of joy.

You see, our Utah delegation included 6 students, ages 14 and up, and 3 recent college graduates. We didn’t plan this. The stars aligned and it happened. Last November Jerry Elias put on a fundraiser for CCL. Jerry is the retired Assistant Concertmaster of the Utah Symphony. His benefit concert attracted 200 people and raised over $6,000. So we were able to defray the costs for students who didn’t have other sources of financial support. Also, the national conference came 3 months after a successful Wild West Regional Conference, which created a lot of enthusiasm.

Not only did the students influence the conference and lobby day, but the experience also influenced them. A few shares:

  • Logan Christian wrote, “what inspired me most was feeling an important transition, one from fighting against something to fighting for something.”
  • Savannah Benhard recalled, “And what a privilege it was to listen to Bill Twist of the Pachamama Alliance and Peter Lehner from Earthjustice and NRDC. These powerful voices of advocacy and conservation inspired us, while allowing us to see a future in which we all have a voice.”
  • Darren Bingham shared, “I really enjoyed sitting around in a circle under a tree during lunch one day. I was surrounded by young activists ranging from 16-28 and each of us had a unique story for being involved in CCL.”
  • Johnny McGee said, “Words cannot begin to describe the gratitude and the hope that I feel for today.”
  • May Bartlett reported, “It feels so good to be politically active, and by lobbying in DC, I feel like I made a tangible positive, difference. I can’t wait to go back next year.”

The 2016 National Conference and Lobby Day was exceptional on so many levels. I will carry many great memories of those three days. Chief among them, I will remember the silver bullets of these extraordinary young people.

David Folland, M.D., is a retired pediatrician and co-leader of the Salt Lake City chapter of 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.