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Climate Activists Court Hill Republicans With 'Civil Conversations'

Jay Butera (left), a former businessman who now lobbies Congress to act on climate change, shakes hands with with a staff member of Citizens' Climate Lobby.
Shawn Reeder
Courtesy Citizens Climate Lobby
Jay Butera (left), a former businessman who now lobbies Congress to act on climate change, shakes hands with with a staff member of Citizens' Climate Lobby.

Climate activist and citizen lobbyist Jay Butera believes in the power of polite persistence. Nearly every week for the past 10 years, he's taken the train down to Washington D.C. from his home in suburban Philadelphia to convince Congress members to act on climate change.

Butera says he's had hundreds of conversations with Republican aides and congressmen.

"There were times when it felt like this is not going to happen," said Butera. "This is impossible, this is the most polarized issue in Congress."

But despite the recent election that resulted in Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, Butera is suddenly having some success. Democrats have been more favorable to action on climate change, but Butera is getting Republicans on board too.

"It's not enough to try and advocate for one party or another because nothing substantive can happen unless it has support from both parties," he said.

'Civil conversations with solutions'

Butera is a successful entrepreneur, having created and sold two businesses. But these days instead of courting investors, he now spends all his time volunteering with the Citizen's Climate Lobby.

This week, Butera joined with thousands of climate activists who traveled to Washington, D.C. to visit their members of Congress to encourage them to do something about warming temperatures, rising seas and melting ice caps.

They held an annual lobbying day for the Citizens Climate Lobby, which has 400 chapters across the country, and citizen lobbyists in every congressional district. Butera says instead of confrontation, they take a friendly, calm approach to an issue that has been mired in partisan roadblocks.

"If we could get members together and talk about this in a calm way we could break this log jam," he said.

Four years ago, Butera got the idea for a new bi-partisan caucus that would have the goal of pushing for climate solutions, specifically economic solutions. It wasn't hard to get Democrats on board, but he spent three years looking for a Republican. By design, the caucus is now half Republican, half Democrat.

Having people voice outrage, that's OK, but we also need civil conversations with solutions.

Butera says he's taking the middle ground.

"I understand citizens are outraged and I respect their fierce advocacy," he said. "But it doesn't move the conversation forward. Having people voice outrage, that's OK, but we also need civil conversations with solutions."

Butera began his quest for a Republican caucus member in Florida, a place where rising seas already cause nuisance flooding in urban areas. Starting at the local level, he talked to township commissioners and Chambers of Commerce. He spoke their language.

"It has definitely helped me to have a background in business," he said. "From a business person's point of view, climate impacts and the disruptions they are causing present a big risk to our economy."

He found his first Republican last year. Carlos Curbelo from South Florida represents a district already witnessing the impacts of rising seas. Curbelo and Democrat Ted Deutch, another South Florida Congressman, formed the Climate Solutions Caucus in April, 2016. Since then the caucus has grown to 42 members.

It's a small, but growing group.

"I see this wall coming down now," Butera said. "Since the beginning of this year 14 Republicans have joined the Climate Solutions Caucus. That's a startling fact. That gives me a lot of hope."

Butera also worked with members of the Citizen's Climate Lobby to visit their local representatives in their home offices and lobby their campaigns. Some, like freshman Republican congressman Don Bacon from Nebraska, made it a campaign pledge to join the caucus.

Butera, along with other members of the Citizen's Climate Lobby, recently visited Bacon in his new office on Capitol Hill to thank him for joining. Bacon said he would keep an open mind.

Freshman Republican congressman Don Bacon from Nebraska, made it a campaign pledge to join the House climate caucus.
Nati Harnik / AP
Freshman Republican congressman Don Bacon from Nebraska, made it a campaign pledge to join the House climate caucus.

"I know I'm not 100 percent on every one of your issues," Bacon told the group that included Butera and a few of the congressman's constituents. "But I try to look at each one, individually, and weigh it."

So far, Bacon has voted 100 percent with Trump on environmental issues. Like many in the Climate Solutions Caucus, Bacon is from a swing district and just narrowly beat his Democratic opponent. In joining, he highlighted his experience tackling environmental issues on airbases he commanded.

He opposed the U.S. pulling out of the Paris agreement and he wasn't alone — 21 members of the Climate Solutions Caucus wrote a letter to President Trump urging him to remain in the Paris Accords.

"Remaining in the UNFCCC will strengthen American leadership on environmental stewardship and help transform today's low-carbon investments into trillions of dollars of clean energy prosperity," wrote the caucus members. "Withdrawing would mean squandering a unique opportunity to promote American research, ingenuity, and innovation."

Citizen Climate Lobby member and Omaha resident Kay Carne helped convince Bacon to join the caucus. Carne says when she speaks to people like Bacon, she describes how personal this issue is for her. She has two daughters and her youngest is just 7 weeks old.

"My youngest will be Congressman Bacon's age in 2070," said Carne speaking outside Bacon's office after the meeting. "2070 seems so far away but she'll be 53 then and she may even live to see 2100, which is the time a lot of these scientific projections are saying temperatures will increase by 10 degrees Fahrenheit. So just thinking about their lifetime and what they could see makes this issue so much more urgent than some others realize."

Republicans on board

One surprising member of the caucus is Darrell Issa, a California Republican who has denied the scientific consensus on climate change. The League of Conservation Voters once gave him a "Climate Change Denier" award. Issa narrowly won re-election in November against his Democratic opponent.

In suburban Philadelphia, where Hilary Clinton beat President Trump, all three swing districts' Republican congressmen have joined the caucus.

Freshman Republican Brian Fitzpatrick says it's part of his mission to pursue bipartisan environmental protection.

"We really need to get past the antiquated way of thinking of this Hatfields vs. McCoy brand of politics where people are stuck," he said, referring to the bitter family feud of the 1800s. "I don't think that's a good thing. We need to take a fresh look at how to grow the economy and protect the environment at the same time. And groups like the Citizens Climate Lobby are all about that."

Fitzpatrick credits his time as an Eagle Scout for his passion for environmental preservation. A former FBI agent, he has not voted lock step with Trump on the environment.

Pennsylvania Republican Ryan Costello also joined the caucus but is less optimistic about Congress acting on climate. He says he and his climate caucus colleagues will try to push Congress to act on things like carbon capture. But there's little support for climate legislation in the Republican controlled House.

Looking to 2018

While Democrats are eager to take back seats in the 2018 mid-term elections, it's not clear how environmental issues will play out. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll, says in the past climate and environment were low on the list of priorities for voters.

"But I think this is going to be more important in 2018 and I think the Democrats in particular are going to make a big deal of it," he said.

Ultimately, the Citizen's Climate Lobby wants Congress to put a fee on carbon, which would then be funneled back to households in a monthly check or "dividend." Butera says, like air and water, the atmosphere should not be a dumping ground.

"I believe in the power of capitalism to move mountains," said Butera. "And if we can line that up to move us in the right direction, and have the profit motive drive efficiencies and drive us toward low carbon technologies that is the force that can stop climate change."

House Republicans joining this climate caucus are not committing to the idea of the carbon tax.

And there's still the behemoth counterweight lobbying of the fossil fuel industry, which has more funds at its disposal than the citizen lobbyists.

But Butera is optimistic.

"The fossil fuel lobby looms large on Capital Hill but I continue to believe the voice of voters is louder," he said.

Butera thinks with Republicans now controlling Washington, many realize it's up to them to do something about climate.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Phillips