It was after 9:00 p.m., almost bedtime on a Thursday night in September 2014. Heading home from an exhausting three-hour workshop in a dank downtown library meeting room, I beamed with an energy and hope I thought I’d never know. Climate change was an overwhelming, foregone conclusion—and there was a solution, a best first step. The problem was global and one person’s actions futile, and there was something I could do tonight, tomorrow, next week that would bring effective change.
Our political system was corrupt and owned by the fossil fuel lobby, and humble volunteers were making inroads. I was heartsick from years of reviling those who profit off the planet, and here was a way to cast none out of my heart, a boat big enough for everyone.
My life changed, inside and out, when I discovered Citizens’ Climate Lobby.
When I moved to Flagstaff in 2013, I knew climate change was happening, but I didn’t think about it much. Recently married, settling into my routine as an ObGyn at a local clinic, I relished the fresh air, friendly people, and visceral joy of taking care of pregnant women and their babies. I might think of climate change when the unusually warm summer or declining snowpack came up in conversation, but seldom otherwise. I certainly wasn’t exploring how to listen to someone who doesn’t acknowledge climate change, or investigating practical solutions.
On Earth Day 2014, Bill McKibben’s keynote talk at Northern Arizona University hammered home the implications of an unstable climate. In story after story, he explained how poor communities all over the world are already reeling under rising temperatures, rising seas, and unreliable weather patterns. My comfortable life, largely afforded me by fossil fuels previously and currently burned, allows me to ignore climate change in a way others can’t.
Recognizing that individual actions like changing light bulbs or biking to work aren’t powerful or fast enough to fix the problem, McKibben recommended global divestment from fossil fuel companies as the only adequate response to business models that are “incompatible with life.” But I didn’t see how divestment translated into something I could act on, and I didn’t have much faith it would work. (As you probably know, I was wrong.)
For the next six months I was in despair, fully aware of the reality, urgency, and injustice of climate change, but hopeless that anything I might do or say could possibly matter. It felt good, temporarily, to let anger at fossil fuel executives and climate deniers build up, but after a while this just fed into cynicism and disempowerment. My meditation practice included exercises to soften my heart, even to those I found difficult, and yet climate activism seemed to call for justified disdain, for self-righteous exclusion.
That fall, a brief line in the paper announced an introductory meeting to Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), advocating policy solutions to climate change. With low expectations, I spent a long evening learning about Carbon Fee and Dividend and CCL’s methodology of appreciation, respect and relationship-building. By the end of that workshop I knew I had found my home.
Susan Secord, a volunteer from Boulder, had driven to Flagstaff on her own dime to plant the seed of a chapter here. She explained the history of CCL, a national, nonpartisan, volunteer-run group founded by a concerned real estate mogul and his friends. We learned about CCL’s market-based proposal and practiced explaining it to each other: a fee is assessed on fossil fuels when they enter the economy, whether at the border, wellhead or mine, based on how much CO2 they’ll emit when burned. The net proceeds are returned to American households as a dividend; we can spend the money how we like. The fee starts relatively low so that the economy isn’t shocked, rising predictably each year. This sends a clear market signal, allowing businesses and investors to plan for rising costs, and resulting in rapid divestment from fossil fuels, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it makes economic sense. Government doesn’t grow, because all the revenue is returned to the American people; the poor and middle class are protected from rising costs by the dividend landing in their pockets each month. A border adjustment protects manufacturers and keeps jobs in the US. An independent economic analysis of the proposal suggests GDP and jobs would grow under the program, while CO2 would fall rapidly, despite the old narrative of economy and environment being bad for each other.
The plan sounded good, but I couldn’t imagine fossil fuel companies —who run the world, right?—would ever let this through. I was intrigued, but my heart was hardened against lobbyists and Washington alike.
When I asked Susan about this, I was stunned to learn that many fossil fuel companies are already advocating for carbon pricing, because a predictable mechanism is much easier to plan for than regulations that change with every administration. But what really captivated me was what she said about the politicians. We work with them, she said. We find something we appreciate in what they’ve done. We’re respectful; we listen to what they care about and find common ground. That is the CCL way. It’s our job to find a way for this solution to be good for them and to build the political will for them to do what is right. It popped into my head: this boat is big enough for everyone!
I left the meeting with that phrase echoing in my mind. Over the last two years I’ve watched it in action. This problem is so big that we need everyone on board. Like to knit? We’ll figure out a way for you to knit for CCL! Belong to the Tea Party or another group historically opposed to climate science? Come on in! What do you care about? Tell us what you think! I will ask lots of questions, I will share my views, and I will hold you accountable, but I will not cast you out of my heart.
CCL is growing by leaps and bounds. There’s been real progress in building bipartisan support in Con-gress, and we have set a stretch goal of passing our legislation in 2017. And yet the CCL way is at the core of it. At our monthly meetings we practice communicating and being vulnerable. We experiment with ways of listening and we learn about how our biases prevent us from connecting. We explore how strongly we want to be right, but how that usually makes someone else wrong, and how powerful it is if no one has to be wrong.
Of course climate advocacy is spiritual work. It’s the most overwhelming, most real, most urgent existential crisis humans have ever faced, and we’re being asked to fundamentally change our relationship to our world, to each other, to the comfort, convenience and efficiency that have defined the last hundred years for much of the world.
What I didn’t know was that climate activism is spiritual practice. It’s opening my heart, seeking connection, speaking my truth, getting out of my comfort zone. I couldn’t go into a Senator’s office—one whose political views are nearly perfectly opposed to mine—and talk to him about something I care about and he disagrees with unless it was for all the marbles. I’m not doing it for me, or my family, or even my patients. I’m doing it for everyone, including him. My options are to say no because I’m afraid, or grow. It’s that simple. Just try to stop me.
Claire Herrick is an ObGyn physician working at the University of Arizona in Tucson where she sees patients and teaches students and residents. She loves caring for women, and volunteers her time with Citizens’ Climate Lobby so that the babies she delivers will always be welcomed into a safe and beautiful world.