Addressing Climate Change

one relationship at a time, citizens’ climate lobby focuses on bipartisan approach to reducing carbon emissions

Dr. Kate Hale Wilson

Citizens Climate Lobby members gathered outside the Washington, D.C., office of U.S. Rep Ron Kind. They are, from left to right, Connie Champnoise (Richland County), Taylor Limberg, Maxwell Johnson (Stevens Point), Jim Boulter, and Jim Schumacher.
Citizens Climate Lobby members gathered outside the Washington, D.C., office of U.S. Rep Ron Kind. They are, from left to right, Connie Champnoise (Richland County), Taylor Limberg, Maxwell Johnson (Stevens Point), Jim Boulter, and Jim Schumacher.

This is a story about a group that is betting the farm on relationships: the relationships between constituents and their elected representatives in Congress, and the relationships among citizens in a democracy. It’s a story that includes a key plot element: Work across the partisan divide is critical to the success of our venture. And our venture? We’re working on national policies to address climate change, starting with a carbon tax. Some readers, I imagine, are now thinking, “Ah, so this is a story we would find filed under ‘fantasy.’ ” I invite those readers to suspend judgment for the moment.

“There was a sense of hope within the young people there. I would love to go back and lobby again.” – Taylor Limberg, UW-Eau Claire environmental geography student

Eau Claire’s part of the story began on in July 2012 when about 20 Chippewa Valley residents gathered at Dooley’s on Water Street to hear about a new group, Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Formed in October 2007 with just a handful of people, by 2012 CCL had about 70 chapters, all working with laser focus on one goal: getting legislation for a “carbon fee and dividend” introduced and passed. This would initiate a drawdown in carbon emissions and slow the pace of future climate change, affording time for the market to respond with more sustainable directions for energy production. Several people at the meeting wanted to form a chapter, and two people volunteered to serve as organizers. Just 10 days later one of them went to Washington, D.C., for that year’s conference. In September, the chapter had its official start.

Since then, the number of chapters nationwide has risen steadily – we’re now at 412 – and there is at least one in every state, though not yet one in every congressional district. Every year, more people from across the country have gathered in D.C. to listen to speakers from many pertinent fields, to hone their lobbying skills, and to meet with their elected representatives on Capitol Hill. CCL’s insistence on respectful interactions in every congressional office continues to be our guide. In challenging times, the sheer energy of being together in D.C. allows the renewal of our belief in that goal. This June, six Chippewa Valley residents were among roughly 1,300 volunteers who traveled to D.C. to write their parts in the CCL story.

UW-Eau Claire student Taylor Limberg is a senior studying environmental geography. An avid camper and backpacker, her love of the outdoors is part of what brought her to the nation’s capital. “I’m worried about my future on this planet,” she says, “and worried for future generations.” One of about 200 college students attending this year’s conference and lobby day, she reflected, “As a student, it was inspiring to see other students around the country and hear about the amazing things they are doing in their communities for CCL and other organizations. . . . There was a sense of hope within the young people there. I would love to go back and lobby again!” Taylor was already politically engaged but this was her first time lobbying with CCL. She realized during her time in D.C. that “CCL isn’t just about advocating for legislation to maintain a healthy climate for our Earth – we are advocating for democracy through bipartisan relationship building.”

Jim Schumacher serves on the City of Eau Claire’s Sustainability Advisory Committee; a retired vocational rehabilitation manager, he was in D.C. as a citizen lobbyist for the second time. “I was very moved by the respectful and, at times, personal conversations we had – regardless of party affiliation,” he said, reflecting on his Capitol Hill meetings. “I was impressed by the professionalism and by the evident desire in the congressional offices to respond to the needs and wishes of those who sent them to Washington. They welcomed the opportunity to talk with us. It was very much an exchange of ideas and information.”

Jim Boulter, a professor of chemistry and environmental studies at UWEC, was in D.C. for the fifth time. What struck him most was something he heard at the end-of-lobby-day reception. “A student shared an experience from one of her lobby meetings. Faced with a congressional aide who was not enthusiastic about our legislative proposal, she listened closely to his concerns and – rather than inundating him with data – simply reflected them back to him (“What I hear you saying is...”). In that moment, the aide’s response to her shifted; a genuine conversation ensued, and it concluded with the aide committing to look further into our policy.”

Retired medical social worker Sue Suechting, a founding member of the EC chapter, has lived in the Chippewa Valley for 35 years. Her lobbying is inspired in part by her Lutheran faith (“Care for people and the planet is a basis for my faith in action,” she says) as well as by her love of the outdoors. This is Sue’s second time in D.C., and what stood out to her was “the expanding influence of CCL” that she felt within the lobby meetings. “The way we are treated by staffers in each congressional office – even with a new legislative aide – our reputation for respectful interactions seems to recognized. Our years of relationship-building are really paying off.”

These stories offer just glimpses of this year’s D.C. experience. Sixty volunteers from Wisconsin are sharing their stories in Appleton and Birchwood; in Bayfield and Mt. Horeb; in Milwaukee, Stevens Point, and Hayward; in Richland, Jefferson, and Iowa counties; in Green Bay, Madison, and Racine. For the first time, all 50 states were represented this year, so stories are being told from coast to coast and beyond. All of us use our voices to be heard, in our home communities and in the nation’s capital. It is a simple act that transforms us from spectators to engaged citizens, working on behalf of a more stable future.

Kate Hale Wilson, an emerita professor of English at UWEC, is co-leader of the Eau Claire Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby and served as UWEC’s first campus Sustainability Fellow. She has traveled to Washington, D.C., for every CCL conference since 2012. Learn more about the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and its local chapter at citizensclimatelobby.org and facebook.com/groups/CCL.EauClaire.