OPED: JULY 12, 2013
A citizen lobbyist and the revenue-neutral carbon tax
By Jessica Langerman
Not literally or consciously, but slowly, through apathy, ignorance and neglect, I gave away my civic inheritance. One too many lost environmental battles had made me feel not only besieged, but impotent. The insidious conviction that I really had no political power – or not enough to effect trans formative change – took root in my mind.
Until I joined the Citizens Climate Lobby. Modeled after the incredibly successful anti-poverty campaign, RESULTS, the Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) refuses to accept that our democracy is broken. Instead, it organizes and educates ordinary Americans to become effective lobbyists, focused like an intractable laser beam on the passage of just one piece of legislation: a 100 percent revenue-neutral carbon tax.
Pie in the sky? You might think so – but you would be wrong. Over the last year, the notion that a revenue-neutral carbon tax could be the way off fossil fuels has gained momentum. From the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal, from Harvard’ss own Greg Mankiw (Mitt Romney’s recent economic advisor) to John Reilly of MIT, economists across the political spectrum agree that in order to avert the impending climate crisis, we must put an accurate price on carbon.
Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to see CCL in action when I attended a week-long conference and lobbying campaign in Washington, D.C.
On Sunday, I joined over 400 other volunteers from all across the country at Washington’s Liaison Hotel in 90 degree-plus heat. Seminars with titles like, “Effective Meetings on the Hill” and “Listening Skills for Activists” were already under way, revealing how CCL works its magic – through the power of building relationships.
After two days of classes and preparation, each CCL volunteer was given a list of the meetings he or she was to attend over the next few days with various members of Congress or their legislative aides. We would go together in groups of five or six, but the individuals within each group would change from meeting to meeting as CCL tried to match up volunteers with constituencies.
One person in each group was designated as leader, and the rest of us would volunteer to take up other roles, such as the person with the “ask,” the note-taker, time-keeper, or fact-expert. We were given brief biographies of “our” members of Congress (MOC) so we could familiarize ourselves with their environmental records and begin each meeting by finding something to appreciate about them – even if it was “only” the fact that they were hard-working, active representatives for their constituents. This non-confrontational, open and respectful approach is critical to CCL’s success.
My first meeting was with Joseph Kennedy’s office. At the appointed hour, our band of six opened the door to a small but beautiful old office, where an aide greeted us pleasantly and seated us all at a small table. Our leader for that meeting, Rabbi Judy Weiss from Brookline, hewed to the CCL line by first thanking Eric for meeting with us and then asking us each to introduce ourselves by briefly explaining what had brought us here.
This human, story-telling element broke the ice and allowed us to proceed in a more relaxed manner. Judy made a point of explicitly appreciating Representative Kennedy’s record to date before we stated our purpose: that we wanted the congressman to propose or co-sponsor carbon tax legislation. We explained why, and then asked the aide for his thoughts on our proposition.
The aide seemed surprised and gratified to be asked for his opinion. He was sympathetic to the notion of a carbon tax, but depressed and discouraged about its chances for passage. This attitude of dejected frustration, we came to realize, was endemic among the congressional staffers with whom we spoke, on both sides of the aisle.
Normally, at such a point in a conversation about carbon taxation, I probably would have agreed that ours was a hopeless mission, thanked my listener, and quietly tip-toed away. But, not this time. Absolutely no one else at that table was leaving, so I could hardly slink out the door. Instead, Judy and the others simply said, “We can do this. And we are here to help you.”
To prove her point, Judy told the aide that our organization, founded in 2008, last year had only 33 chapters. This year, we have over 100. We have published letters and Op-Eds by the hundreds in publications all over the United States and Canada. Judy explained that 400 people – all volunteers – were at that moment meeting with senators and representatives all over the Hill in support of this measure. “It’s our job,” said Judy, “To build this political will – and we will.” Finally, we asked the staffer: “Whom does Rep. Kennedy work with on the other side of the aisle?” This was to help us identify potentially sympathetic Republicans, but also to signal that we expect our politicians to be able to work with someone in the opposite party.
At the end of the meeting, we thanked the aide and then re-grouped outside the office. How had it gone? What had we done well, and what could we do better in the next meeting? Some of us were continuing on together; others peeled off to different locations. Mopping the sweat from my brow, I hurried on to my next appointment ,with Representative Stephen Lynch.
Gradually, after speaking to a number of staffers in different offices, I began to realize that almost none of them, no matter how long their political careers or how sophisticated their understanding of environmental affairs, had ever heard of a revenue-neutral carbon tax. I was grateful for having followed CCL’s advice to read as much as I could on the subject so that I could explain the concept in some detail and answer questions. This was nerve-wracking, however. At first, I was simply too nervous to think clearly. My mind went blank with stage-fright so that I watched with awe as other, more experienced CCL-ers politely set forth our agenda.
My confidence slowly began to build. I realized that these staffers were not treating us as annoyances impinging on their precious time – on the contrary, they seemed genuinely intrigued to learn that we were all unpaid and had each made the journey to Washington on our own dime because we cared. Fifteen minutes often stretched into 50 as an aide asked penetrating questions that proved his or her engagement in the subject. We were repeatedly thanked for our efforts with seemingly real appreciation.
Finally, on day three, I found myself in the office of a more conservative representative from one of the western states. As we sat down with her aide, it once again became clear that while the congresswoman might agree in principle with a revenue-neutral carbon tax, she and her aide believed there was simply no way that this Congress would enact one. Too many climate-change deniers, he said, who just don’t believe global warming poses a threat, or is caused by mankind.
I finally found my voice. ‘You know, through volunteering with CCL, I’ve been privileged to meet a lot of economists at Harvard and MIT,” I began, still quite nervous, but capable of speech. ‘One of them said something to me I can’t forget. He said we Americans are notoriously bad about buying insurance. We don’5 like to imagine that something bad could happen to us, especially if the odds are very low. That’w why car and homeowner’s insurance have to be mandated.
“Let’s say that the odds that global warming is caused by mankind are low. Let’ say – just for the sake of argument – that there’W only a 1 percent chance that our kids will be negatively affected.
“A 1 percent chance that my children will inherit a planet with droughts, floods, food shortages and resource wars is too high for me. I will buy that insurance plan, even if it causes me some real discomfort. Because when did we Americans become unwilling to sacrifice for our children?”
To my surprise, the aide was completely silent. He held my gaze for several moments, and then murmured quietly to himself, “Time to buy insurance.” He wrote down the words.
I looked around the table and my fellow volunteers were beaming at me. For the first time in a very, very long while, I had the feeling that, as an individual citizen, I mattered. I might be rolling a stone up a hill, but, unlike Sisyphus, I had the help of every other volunteer at CCL, and together, we were making forward progress.
By exercising my civic birthright, I am re-discovering the political power for which our ancestors fought and died. I can help build the national will to put a price on carbon. For that realization and for the support in helping me do so, I will be forever grateful to the Citizens Climate Lobby.
Wellesley resident Jessica Langerman is co-founder of the Committee for a Green Economy and a volunteer with the League of Women Voters of Wellesley and the Citizens Climate Lobby.