Students Give Their Take on How Well Congress Listens

Months of planning, negotiating, strategizing and training set the stage for the best orchestrated mass-lobby day in climate and youth activism history.

After 350 meetings between student activists and congressional representatives or their aides drew to a close last week, many of us within the movement began to wonder – what exactly did we accomplish?

Did our reps "get it?" What's going to be the fallout for national climate policy, for the road to Copenhagen, for the role of youth in national energy justice issues?

In a few Capitol Hill offices, we were disappointed to discover, lawmakers and their aides seemed to know very little about even the basic facts of climate change.

First let's hit the basics of Power Shift '09 Lobby Day. Energy Action Coalition spent months setting up meetings with top officials, working with aides to coordinate schedules, and developing the materials for effective lobbying. They recruited hundreds of top-level organizers to lead Lobby Day Trainings for 5,000 of the students at Power Shift.

Because there was no legislation on the table yet to lobby for, the asks were simple and broad:

  • Cut emissions 80% to 95% by 2050, and 30% to 45% by 2025
  • Invest in 5 million new green jobs
  • Take a leading role at the UN Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2009 – and pass strong domestic legislation before then
  • No coal, no nukes, no tar sands – only clean, renewable energy

I interviewed several Powershifters to learn about their experiences behind the thick wooden doors of Congress. What they had to say, honestly wasn't what I expected.

Tommaso Boggia is a 22-year old Italian-born, California-educated activist and blogger. He works as a climate and energy organizer for Campus Progress, the Center for American Progress' student branch. Despite his not-yet citizen status, he had several meetings on Lobby Day, including one with a staffer of Jim Risch, a Republican senator from Idaho.

Tommaso reported that during their discussion, the staffer expressed strong support for renewable energy (yay!) and nuclear (not so yay), and opposition to coal (super!).

One unfortunate revelation Tommaso noted was that "the staffer didn't really understand global warming – he said that it was still uncertain whether humans had anything to do with it." For a congressional aide, even a conservative one, that registers as disappointing, if not pathetic.

It seems the "educate your representative" theme didn't stop there. In a meeting with Rep. Cathy McMorris, a Republican from Washington state, sophomore Elena Gustafson from Whitman College in Walla Walla had an interesting story:

"She listened, but ultimately I don't know how much impact it had. She hadn't even heard of the IPCC reports, or at least that's the impression she gave, so some of the requests we were making were several steps ahead of where she seemed to be."

What's up with that? You'd have to live under a rock to be a public official and have no idea about the IPCC. Isn't 'An Inconvenient Truth' just about mandatory background training for congress-people by now?

McMorris wasn't hostile, but she did express some concerns about moving "too quickly" on climate legislation, Elena said. She also had fears about Washington state getting unfairly burdened by climate legislation since they "already have a lot of hydro power." I'm not sure I follow her logic, since coal-heavy states will be hit hardest.

John Smith, a junior from the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota, was lucky to meet with Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar from his home state, along with a whopping 80 other Minnesota students. Klobuchar has been a champion on clean energy and climate issues, and as John reported,

"She said yes to our 'big ask' on the four lobbying points with no hesitation. It was exciting, and we certainly got her and her staff all jazzed up too with lots of cheering and applause."

In 2007, Klobuchar reportedly joined a group of over 100 Minnesota students at Powershift 07 as they stormed into the Hart Senate Office Building and chanted from the lobby, disrupting all the working offices and nearly getting arrested. She recalled the incident with laughter and noted the higher levels of security this year.

John's luck shifted as his next stop was an unscheduled visit to Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann. Bachmann is the Republican who during an election-season TV interview infamously called then-candidate Barack Obama "anti-American" and then, in Joseph McCarthy-style, called for an investigation of other "anti-American elements" in the U.S. Senate.

The stunt nearly cost Bachmann her seat, but now that she's securely in office, she apparently didn't have time to meet with her young constituents, despite being hounded for months by the EAC. As John explains:

"We walked into her office, and no one was there that could really help us or deliver our message – we had written her several letters, which we handed to her aide. Honestly, it was kind of unimpressive, but we did the best as we could. We're definitely planning on meeting with her when she's back in MN later this spring."

Aside from a few weather-related travel delays from western states' reps like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Utah Rep. Fred Hunsaker, nearly all the students I interviewed held successful meetings as planned. They generally felt like their message got across, though they said it was hard to tell how seriously they were being taken, or even how knowledgeable their representatives really were about climate science.

"I'd call the day a success," John concluded. "I don't know what the exact effect of our presence was on the legislators, but Power Shift got the masses engaged and really brought the democratic process to life for me and the others I was with. You couldn't look any direction without seeing a green hard hat and a finely dressed young crowd!"

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