Friday, June 30, 2017 7:25 PM

Making sure Valley voices are heard in Washington to ensure a healthier climate

We all move in closer together on the steps of the iconic Congressional building. It’s a challenge to fit 1,200 people into one photograph! Last year, there were about 900 people and the year before that only 500. But no one’s complaining. This year I’m holding the American flag, which will make it easier to find me in the photo.

Members of Citizens' Climate Lobby gather on the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. before they meet with their members of Congress on June 13.

Someone starts singing “This Land is Your Land”, and I feel a lump in my throat and tears well up in my eyes. This is what democracy is all about. What an honor it is to be standing on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. along with so many others who are dedicated to convincing Congress to take action on climate change. As members of Citizens' Climate Lobby​ (CCL), we’ve come from all over the U.S. as well as several other countries, and most of us have come on our own dime.

Before I retired from my nursing job at Community Regional I helped start the volunteer employee “Community Green Team” and since my retirement I’ve been the part-time project coordinator for Community’s Sustainability team, which looks for ways to reduce, recycle and reuse – and save hospital resources. Saving our environment has been a passion of mine since I can remember. It’s a passion that was born in part out of caring about health matters. This trip to the nation’s capital had nothing directly to do with my work at Community, but everything to do with understanding how connected our health is to the health of our planet and especially the health of our immediate environment in the Valley.

The reasons our group converged on D.C. were many. Those from coastal areas are seeing the damages caused by sea level rise. Those from Texas, the Midwest and Southwest want to expand the economic opportunities of wind and solar energy. Those in the tourist industry are losing business because of lack of snow, streams too warm for sports fishing and algal blooms in popular lakes. People of faith have been inspired by the Pope, Interfaith Power & Light, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action and many other faith leaders to be better stewards of Creation.

Some are motivated by deep compassion for the vulnerable communities that are suffering disproportionately from the harmful impacts of climate change. The homeless and poor can’t escape heat waves by jumping in a swimming pool or flying to a vacation home in the mountains. Many disadvantaged people live in inner cities where temperatures are intensified by the “heat island” effect. Those without adequate or any insurance may never recover from the loss of property or livelihood resulting from an extreme weather event.
Local members of Citizens' Climate Lobby Fresno, Connie Young, RN, and Don Gaede, MD, stand in front of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. on Lobby Day

While sharing all of these concerns, I and my fellow Fresnan, Dr. Don Gaede, a longtime internal medicine practitioner, are primarily concerned about the harmful impacts of climate change on human health. In our polluted San Joaquin Valley air basin, rising temperatures increase the concentration of ozone. This caustic chemical is corrosive to lungs and poses a very real threat to people with heart and lung disease.

Warmer temperatures also prolong the growing season for plants producing allergens that can trigger asthma attacks and other respiratory reactions. The airborne microscopic pollution from the burning of fossil fuels and wildfires, known as PM 2.5, can enter the bloodstream and damage the hearts, lungs and brains of people of all ages. Heat waves can precipitate early labor in high risk pregnant women as well as exacerbations of cardiac and respiratory conditions in the frail and elderly. In short, it's in everyone's best interest to transition from burning dirty fossil fuels towards using cleaner energy and more energy-efficient products and practices.

And how are we convincing Congress to take action on this important issue? Here in Fresno, we CCL members regularly write letters to our members of Congress. What a thrill when one of us receives a reply! We also write letters to the Fresno Bee. Letters to the editor are a good way to promote and generate public dialogue about an issue. It also lets the editor know that people care about a subject and would like more information about it in the paper. When members of Congress hold town hall meetings, CCL members attend them both to learn more about their representatives and to pose a question about solving climate change.

The most nerve-wracking yet exciting way to lobby is to meet directly with a legislative aide and/or member of Congress either in district or on Capitol Hill. I’ve had the pleasure of doing all of these. It is important to prepare for the meeting by learning about the person with whom you’ll be meeting, especially his or her views on the topic to be discussed. CCL volunteers meet with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the climate change issue. Our goal always is to learn more about their viewpoints and to find areas of common ground. Even climate change deniers can agree that we need to reduce the pollution caused by carbon emissions. They also recognize the economic benefits of the booming renewable energy industry.

In addition to listening carefully during our lobby meetings, we also provide specific information to our members of Congress. This year, we told them about the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus, which has grown from two members when it formed last year, to 42 members this June (21 Democrats; 21 Republicans). We informed them about the Climate Leadership Council which is made up of prominent Republicans who advocate taking action on climate change. We told them about a report from the Office of Tax Analysis, which showed that 70% of Americans would benefit financially from a national tax on carbon pollution. We also showed them district-specific data from an opinion poll done by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which shows that a majority of Americans think climate change is happening and that the government should do something about it. We pointed out that Secretary of Defense Mattis has stated that climate change poses a threat to our national security and it’s the government’s responsibility to address it.

After a long day of lobbying on Capitol Hill, we reconvene at a reception at our hotel and share stories from the day. Several CCL members report that their members of Congress expressed interest in joining the Climate Solutions Caucus. Others told stories of meetings that were supposed to be only fifteen minutes long that lasted up to an hour. In my case, our lobby group was scheduled to meet with a legislative aide, but our Congressman surprised us by joining in the discussion for a few minutes. Everyone reported having cordial and often friendly meetings. What a far cry from the harsh rhetoric we hear from and about Washington on an almost daily basis!

But the best was yet to come. Four Congressional members of the Climate Solutions Caucus…two Democrats and two Republicans…. were honored with Climate Hero Awards. They all spoke of both the urgent need to stop climate change and the importance of bipartisan respect and cooperation…and they all received boisterous standing ovations. They complimented CCL and each other and vowed to continue to work together to come up with practical solutions.

Both parties working together to solve difficult problems….this is the democracy I believe in. This is what gives me hope and inspires me to keep working for a more stable climate and a healthier, more livable world.

Connie Young
Project Coordinator for Community’s Sustainability Value Analysis Team