Lobbying for Climate Legislation

How to Persuade Politicians to Do the Right Thing

Capitol HillThe first time I met with a member of Congress on climate issues was when I went to Washington, DC in November of 2019. I was struck by how different it was from my 20 years of meeting with members of the Tennessee legislature. First of all, the setting is imposing: the 435 members of the House of Representatives have offices in three huge buildings on the National Mall beside the Capitol. Each building is the size of a city block, and five stories tall. But once I found my way to the office and sat down with a member, I was not a lawyer speaking on behalf of an agency, I was just there for me speaking about something that is important to me. It was personal and it was empowering.

It may have something to do with being raised in a humanist Unitarian household; it may have been something I picked up from my father; it definitely had something to do with coming of age in the Sixties, first in Nashville (where my minister-mentor and others from the Unitarian Church participated in sit-ins to desegregate restaurants) and then in Ann Arbor, Michigan (where activism and the “counter-culture” were very strong), but I’ve always wanted to do work that makes a positive contribution. And I’ve been fortunate in being able to find such work that also paid the bills.

I had three jobs between college and retirement. First, I worked for food co-ops: a storefront in Ann Arbor, and then a warehouse and trucking operation that served food co-ops in Michigan, northern Ohio and Indiana. Next, as a lawyer, I worked for a legal aid program for a few years, representing low-income people in a variety of different cases. Finally, for thirty years I was an environmental lawyer working for the state of Tennessee, bringing cases against cities, companies, and individuals who violated air pollution, water pollution, drinking water, and solid and hazardous waste laws. I also drafted environmental laws and regulations, and lobbied for improvements in Tennessee’s environmental laws and against efforts to weaken those laws and regulations.

Although I view all three of these positions as making that positive contribution, I know that others had different views. The people who violated the laws felt the department and I were picking on them unfairly—that others were doing the same thing or worse. My friends in environmental groups often believed that the department was not doing as much as it should to enforce the law, and blamed us in the department personally for that. Standing in line at a movie theater, my wife, Anna Belle, was surprised when we greeted another couple we knew and the man, who was a leader in the environmental community, turned his back on us.

A couple of years before I retired, I came across Nonviolent Communication (NVC). My first experience was with a small group, working through the book of that name by Marshall Rosenberg. Then I attended a few weekend workshops led by out-of-town NVC trainers. I’ve now been facilitating practice groups for several years.

NVC is a system intended to improve skills of connecting with others through authentic expression and empathetic listening. The foundation of the system is the concept of universal human needs such as acceptance, community, purpose, security, health, love, integrity, autonomy, and choice. We meet those needs through strategies, and we’re more effective in doing so when we’re conscious of the need than when we pursue a strategy without considering what it is we’re trying to accomplish. If I’m clear that my need in my marriage is for closeness and intimacy, I can express that to my wife rather than, for example, complain that she’s going out too much. This example also demonstrates the NVC principle that when we make a request of another, it is more effective to say what we want than what we don’t want.

I find that it’s often not clear to me what I’m needing. However, if I reflect a moment on both my judgments and my feelings, I can connect to the needs. Our feelings are pointers to our needs; when our needs are met we tend to have “positive” feelings, and “negative” feelings typically are indicators of unmet needs.

It isn’t the goal of NVC to meet all of our needs all the time. There are many times when our needs are just not going to be met. (Thus, the first noble truth.) Really sensing deeply how important the need is to me helps me be at peace with the fact that it isn’t being met at the moment, rather than thinking the problem is something “out there” that should change. Also, this awareness helps me observe feelings and various states of mind with some degree of equanimity and let them pass, as they will if I don’t keep feeding them with thoughts and judgments. This is one of several areas where NVC and zazen reinforce and support each other.

Of course, it takes practice to do this. When someone accuses us of something, argues vehemently for a position we strongly disagree with, or says something that triggers a reaction in us, it takes practice not to react in our habitual way. It also takes practice to be able to respond in language that sounds natural and is appropriate to the context.

NVC is all about connection. Good things often happen through people having understanding and connection, but the goal is the connection, not a specific outcome. If the goal is to get a certain result, then using the technique is manipulation, and people sense the difference.

As I experienced the openness and depth of interactions when using NVC, I became less satisfied with the roles I felt constrained to be in as an attorney representing the department. This was especially true in my work with the state legislature. That, together with changes caused by a hostile takeover of state government after an election that changed the governing party, led to my decision to retire.

At my retirement reception, I said that I was interested in spending more time outdoors, getting more exercise, and attending to my spiritual life (in Tennessee, I’ve mostly been a closet Buddhist). It seems many people think retirees have lots of free time, and offer you opportunities to fill that time. The method I’ve used to make those decisions is whether or not the activity would be nourishing for me. Nourishing may sound self-centered, but in order to distinguish between projects that all make some positive contribution, I want to focus on things that leave me feeling energized rather than depleted.

It was clear that law-related activities didn’t meet that test. And it also became clear that the Unitarian Church was not giving me what I needed. About the same time, Anna Belle was reaching out to Buddhist groups, and then to the Rochester Zen Center. When we were in our twenties, we had been members of the Zen Center. After we moved back to Nashville and had children, we dropped our membership. To our surprise, the Zen Center welcomed us back. One thing led to another, and although I have trouble articulating to people why I spend a significant amount of time on the mat in daily sitting and in sesshin, I know it’s what I need to do.

After a few years of involvement with a community organizing group in Nashville called NOAH (Nashville Organized for Action and Hope), I became aware of Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), an environmental organization focused solely on climate change. For the past year, I have had three main areas of focus: Zen practice, NVC practice, and work with Citizens Climate Lobby. I love the way these three reinforce and support each other.

Citizens Climate Lobby is a vibrant, growing organization focused on empowering people to get governments to address climate change. It was founded in 2007 and now has over 560 chapters across the world. With the goal in the U.S. of getting Congress to act on climate, it builds political will through working with media, grassroots campaigns (getting letters and phone calls to Congress), “grasstops” work (getting endorsements from community leaders, companies, and organizations), and, of course, lobbying. CCL is dedicated to finding a bipartisan solution (so it will be stable and not subject to partisan attacks the way Obamacare has been) and doing it in a way that builds bridges rather than creating wedges.

Five Levers of Political Will

CCL is lobbying for a bill introduced in the House of Representatives, HR 763. I expect the Senate bill to be introduced soon. It would put a price on carbon-based fuels and return the net proceeds (after about 2% for administrative costs) to American households in a monthly dividend. For low- and middle-income people the dividend would be more than what they are likely to pay in increased costs. Currently the bill has 80 co-sponsors and although the goal is to be bipartisan, they are all Democrats.

Almost as important to me as the goal, I love the methodology CCL uses. This is from the statement of core values on the CCL web site:

We take the most generous approach to other people as possible—appreciation, gratitude, and respect. We listen, we work to find common values, and we endeavor to understand our own biases. We are honest and firm. We know that there is a place for protest, but our approach is to build consensus.

CCL volunteers are trained to begin every meeting with Congressional offices by appreciating something the member has done, to give the member or staff person the opportunity to do at least 50% of the talking, and to conduct the meeting so that they want to meet with us again. By asking members who are not currently supporting the bill open-ended questions about their concerns, we can learn what we might be able to do gain their support. I think you can see how this is consistent with NVC’s goal of connection. The more I can connect with another, the less they are “other.”

Last November, on my return to Nashville from sesshin, I participated in CCL’s November Lobby Day. I joined with over 800 other volunteers as we had meetings in the offices of over 480 members of Congress. I was in five of those meetings and delivered a few hundred letters from constituents our Nashville chapter had collected. Although we sometimes did more than 50% of the talking, especially when our open-ended questions were answered with very brief responses, all of the meetings were at least cordial and some were quite friendly—even with conservative Republicans. Many of the staff were quite engaged and asked good questions. The highlight of the day occurred at my last meeting—the only one where the Representative attended. At the end of the meeting, this conservative Republican told us that although his staff had to do some research into it, he hoped to become a co-sponsor of the bill!

Since then I have been asked to be the CCL liaison to the offices of Representative Jim Cooper and Senator Lamar Alexander. As liaison, I have responsibility for building a relationship with the office and setting up appointments. I set up an appointment for some CCL members who identify as conservatives with Senator Alexander’s staff on CCL’s first Conservative Lobby Day. The concept here was that conservatives can ask conservative members to be leaders on climate change, to be at the table when HR 763 or other climate change legislation is discussed. Hopefully, the members see that they can support action on climate change without alienating their base.

As I continue to work in these three realms—Zen practice, NVC practice, and CCL actions—not only do they support and reinforce each other, but they are all ways in which I see how I’m not separate from those around me. As I work on myself in the first two, I can see how it affects others, including those I encounter in doing climate change work. As I reflect on how it developed that I am working in these three areas, it occurs to me that this is what “right action” looks like for me.

As the liaison for Senator Alexander, I sent an email in late December to his legislative aide, “to congratulate Senator Alexander and all of you on the recent successes. Quite a list! Simplifying FAFSA, recurring funding for HBCUs, and the funding for National Labs, Office of Science, Oak Ridge clean up, and Chickamauga Lock! It’s great to see how our Senator and Congress can get things done!”

I said nothing about climate change in that email and got this reply, “Thanks for recognizing the work we’ve accomplished. Much more still to do, but a good week no doubt. Of particular interest for you, Senator Alexander believes that record funding for the national labs is vitally important to producing the technology we will need to combat and counteract climate change. Hope the holidays are great for you and your family.”

When it came time to set up the appointment for CCL’s Conservative Lobby Day, the same aide (who had declined to meet with us in November) was very responsive and agreed to the meeting right away. I don’t think my email was the only reason for that, but I do think it helped. / / /

Head shot of Alan LeisersonAlan Leiserson was first exposed to Buddhism during high school when he traveled to Japan and India. He and his wife Anna Belle have been together for 48+ years and have two daughters in their thirties. Before joining the Rochester Zen Center they were members of the Ann Arbor and Boston affiliate groups in the 1970s.