Climate Grassroots on a Wintry Sunday in Rural Virginia

It was an unexpected venue for a three-hour Sunday workshop on climate change lobbying and activism as local residents joined in Heathsville, Va., for a Citizens Climate Lobby ‘How-To …’ workshop.

HEATHSVILLE, VA., FEBRUARY 10 — The little town of Heathsville, Va., with its population of a few hundred nestled in Northampton County (population about 12,460)  is unlikely to soon be mistaken as a hotbed of climate change concern, let alone of activism.

It’s no Berkeley, some might say, notwithstanding its intrinsic charms derived in part by the strong influence of the nearby Chesapeake Bay.

Which makes it perhaps all the more unlikely a venue for a wintry Sunday three-hour workshop on lobbying Congress on climate change.

But it is what it is, and that’s exactly what it was when some two-dozen local, mostly invited and recruited concerned citizens gathered at the United Methodist Church of Heathsville February 10 for what could become the Northern Neck chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby, CCL.

CCL is an upstart grassroots effort founded in 2007 by Marshall Saunders, formerly a real estate broker and developer and leaser of shopping centers. The group now says it has more than 80 affiliated chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada, with state-wide chapters in about half the states.

With a goal of being “a powerful way for us to create the political will for a livable world,” the organization zeroes in like a laser in support of “a consumer-friendly carbon tax.” Under its approach, gradually increasing taxes on carbon-based fuels, paid at the initial point of sale from the mine, wellhead, or port of entry, would create revenues. Those revenues, in turn, would be refunded “equally among U.S. residents” as direct payments or through cuts in other taxes … and not fed back into the federal government’s general accounts.

Four Heathsville residents act-out with CCL staffer Steve Valk (seated at right) playing role of Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va.

With a “clear price signal,” the group reasons, investors will shift to wind, solar, and geothermal and other “clean energy.” Consumers will be motivated to save energy and buy more fuel-efficient vehicles … “without imposing an economic burden on American households.”

With that kind of approach, the group says, solutions can be found across traditional partisan divides, appealing to both Democrats and Republicans.

Meeting organizer and Heathsville resident Greg Haugan, who has written and taught extensively on climate change issues, introduced the Citizens Climate Lobby representative to an audience he, Haugan, had been active in inviting. He says he first became aware of and interested in the organization after evaluating “whether it is just a bunch of tree-hugging whackos … which some of us are,” he jested to the invitees’ laughter and a voice of mock protest shouting “Now, now!”

Make it Personal: ‘Real Power’ vs. ‘Take Your Medicine’

CCL communications director and regional manager Steve Valk, who made the presentation, commented that the group is interested in “measurable actions.” He said the group’s “real power” lies in its efforts to convince others they want to do something, rather than, in effect, following the “Take your medicine” approach of coercing them to do something against their will.

“Make it personal,” he instructed in advising workshop participants how to speak about climate change, whether with a neighbor or a legislator. He suggested first approaching a legislator with a sincere compliment about something that member of Congress had done — before launching into a subject on which there might be disagreement.

When asked by one participant how the CCL effort plans to make it and its approach more well-known, Valk responded by pointing to a number of similar workshops it has held and to a growing attendance at its annual conference in the Washington, D.C., area, its submissions of letters to the editor and op-ed columns, and its frequent grassroots meetings with elected officials.

He also pointed to a local weekly newspaper representative in the audience from the weekly Northumberland Echo (whose volunteer “reporter” drew laughs in replying, without missing a beat, “They told me there would be free whiskey here.”).

Through role playing and references to some actual experiences, Valk introduced the workshop participants to what he called the organization’s 90-second “laser talk” for their use in a brief encounter with someone you want to introduce, and he had them read and re-read it until they practically had it memorized:

You’re probably aware of the huge crisis we’re facing with climate change. Scientists are now warning that if we don’t take steps this decade to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, we’ll reach a tipping point on global warming where major catastrophe will be unavoidable.

That’s why we need a policy that motivates our nation and others to stop burning fossil fuels and transition to clean sources of energy.

We can do that with a consumer-friendly carbon tax.

What do we mean by that? We put a gradually increasing tax on carbon-based fuels like coal, oil, and gas. This tax is paid at the first point of sale — the mine, the wellhead or the port of energy — and the cost is passed downstream, eventually reaching consumers. The revenue from this tax is divided up equally among U.S. residents and given back to every person, either as direct payment or reductions in other taxes.

The clear price signal on carbon will motivate investors to shift to clean energy like wind, solar, and geothermal. It will also motivate consumers to save energy and buy more fuel-efficient vehicles, like electric cars.

By returning the revenue to consumers, however, we can make this transition without imposing an economic burden on American households.

Legislation for a consumer-friendly carbon tax will help wean America off fossil fuels and reduce the greenhouse gases that are heating up the planet. Will you support this legislation?

Workshop participants also picked up tips on successful submission of letters to the editor and op-ed columns, on how to lobby members of Congress, and on other outreach initiatives.

As for the nascent Northern Neck CCL chapter, it hopes to get up and running at an early March meeting where it will take part in a nationwide conference call with other chapter representatives. Valk says he believes it’s just that kind of local grass-roots involvement that can help secure the political will to secure those “visible actions” needed to address the climate challenge.

For more information, visit the organization’s website, view a YouTube video, or contact Steve Valk, director of communications and regional manager, at steve.valk @ citizensclimatelobby.org, or Greg Haugan at greghaugan @ gmail.com.

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One Response to Climate Grassroots on a Wintry Sunday in Rural Virginia

  1. Greg says:

    Great description of the event.