At South By South Lawn, the President and CCL’s promise to price carbon

Ashley and Joe

CCL’s Ashley Hunt-Martorano and Joe Robertson at the White House for South by South Lawn.

At South By South Lawn, the President and CCL’s promise to price carbon

By Joe Robertson and Ashley Hunt-Martorano

October 3rd, an unseasonably warm and sunny Monday in Washington, D.C., started well before dawn, as each of us made our way to Washington, DC. Taking different trains, we found each other outside the White House after a series of texts:

  • Joe: “Where are you?”
  • Ashley: “My train was late. I’m just around the corner from the Treasury Department coming towards the White House. You?”
  • Joe: “Look for the long line that snakes around the block. I’m in the middle by the wrought iron fence wearing my Villanova baseball cap.”

After finding each other we waited in line for more than an hour, passed through three security checkpoints, and then found ourselves at the eastern entrance of the White House.

The South by South Lawn (#SXSL) event hosted by the White House was “a festival of art, ideas, and action.” The President had attended the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival, which has become a venue for engagement on social change, business model innovation, and new technologies. The President decided the government should be open to this kind of engagement by fostering and supporting a similar event, and maybe do a little good in the process.  It was, in a sense, an experiment in new ways to conduct imaginative, inclusive democracy. We were honored to be invited, and to represent CCL’s more than 43,000 citizen volunteers.

For two passionate climate change and policy nerds (who probably should join a twelve-step program to address our obsession with “The West Wing”), it was exhilarating just to walk through the White House. We made our way through ornate historic rooms — the East Room, the State Dining Room — looking forward to the day when carbon fee and dividend legislation is signed into law just a few rooms away. Exiting the Blue Room, we descended the stairs of the South Portico, overlooking the expansive south lawn.

There were art installations, giant hand-made letters spelling SXSL to pose in front of, a temporary avenue of white tents with delicious food, booths featuring virtual reality experiments, interactive National Parks exhibits, and screenings of student films. It felt a lot like “Big Block of Cheese Day” from “The West Wing.” It felt like President Obama had opened the White House up to regular people for a day of access to our government, just like President Bartlet did under the supervision of Leo McGarry. We laughed about that for a while, and then thought about the power of the idea.

Part of what was so meaningful about the first SXSL — something we hope continues in future administrations — was that it signaled a shift in the way we think about national and global decision-making.

Under a breezy white tent, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a civil rights leader who marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, who in his own words, “gave some blood on that bridge,” and who addressed the March on Washington from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, gave a passionate and commanding address about citizenship and change-making. He recalled the number of times he’s been arrested — forty times prior to serving as a Congressman and five times during his tenure — and offered this advice to attendees: “Get into trouble. Good trouble. Get in the way.”

He urged attendees to find their voice and persistently seek principled change.

The day culminated with a panel discussion about climate change featuring President Obama, climate scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, and actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio. Following a short concert by folk rock band The Lumineers (one of President Obama’s favorite bands), the three took to the stage to talk about the biggest challenge facing our world: climate change.

We managed to earn two seats next to Dr. Hayhoe’s husband and son, in the front row. It was as if we were in the same room with President Obama, Leo and one of the most transformational climate communicators in the world, a great scientist we are proud to call a friend.

When Leonardo DiCaprio, serving as moderator, asked Dr. Hayhoe if there was any chance we could see a carbon tax become law, given the need for the voice of the people to drive political will on such an issue, she responded by saying:

“I do know that one of my favorite organizations is Citizens’ Climate Lobby, and they are founded on the premise of a simple carbon tax, nothing fancy, no difficult regulations, no three feet of code. It’s putting a price on carbon to allow the market to then figure out what’s the cheapest way to get our energy.”

Her message, throughout the discussion, was that serious climate action is possible… when we work with people from their values. She mentioned CCL and our committed volunteers, because that is the work we are all doing every day.

While Leonardo’s film “Before the Flood” debuted on a giant screen across the wide South Lawn, we made our way towards the area where the President would pass by (along with a crowd of other determined souls). Cameras began flashing and the crowd became frenzied.

We made our way decisively towards the fence, stubbornly focused on getting a few seconds of the President’s time.

We both got to shake his hand, briefly, but it was Ashley who confidently shouted: “Mr. President, we will pass a carbon tax next year. Guaranteed. Citizens’ Climate Lobby will do it.”

He paused, looked her in the eye and responded, “Wow. Okay!”

Standing near the Rose Garden, we talked about the day itself, and what had just transpired. Ashley’s take was: “The President heard our message and knows CCL’s commitment. And I can’t help but comment that he has very soft hands!”

We both agreed: we have contact with government; citizens are welcomed by those who represent them; we are right where we want to be, and CCL can be an example of how to diffuse the tensions in a polarized debate and make good happen.

We were there for all of you, and we are proud to be on your team.

Ashley Hunt-Martorano is Director of Marketing and Events for Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Joe Robertson is the Global Strategy Director for Citizens' Climate Lobby. He is also the author of CCL's booklet, "Building the Green Economy."
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