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When Canadians Talk to Republicans

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On the weekend of June 23 by bus, planes, trains, and automobiles, 19 Canadians converged on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. to lobby U.S. federal politicians to elevate climate change to the top of their priority list. Travelling from B.C., Ontario, and Quebec, these citizen lobbyists are my colleagues in Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), a volunteer and, grassroots organization, that started in the U.S. and now has more than 26 chapters in Canada, with the majority in Ontario.

From June 25-28, 374 American and Canadian CCLers (double from the previous year) lobbied in the offices of 483 politicians (Senators, Members of Congress, and/or their staff) to build support for a bi-partisan, market-based approach to pricing carbon emissions called Carbon Fee & Dividend. This pricing mechanism, championed by CCL, should appeal to politicians from any party as it requires no new spending, no new government powers, no new regulations, and helps individuals shoulder rising costs associated with a carbon price. This mechanism would place a steadily rising fee on carbon based fuels, at the first point of entry into the economy; and return 100 per cent of the revenues (the Dividend) to households, in equal shares, as regular cheques.

By complete coincidence, their first day of lobbying -- June 25 -- was the same day that President Barack Obama gave a strong and detailed speech announcing his administration's new national climate action plan. This is the most comprehensive and serious plan to fight climate change made by any U.S. president.

Two seasoned Toronto climate activists, Sharon Howarth and Rita Bijons, made the trip to Washington. It was Bijons' second time lobbying on Capitol Hill. The way she sees it, Joe Oliver and Stephen Harper are lobbying the U.S. government on behalf of the oil industry's interests, so we had better do the same representing citizens' interests.

This was Howarth's first year as a citizen lobbyist in Washington. Previously she felt that there was enough work to be done in Toronto.

Howarth's roots as a climate activist date back to 2006 when she got involved with the Toronto Energy Coalition to raise objections to a project that was already approved: the Portlands Energy Centre. While working on this campaign, Howarth realized how much she loved the staple of grassroots campaigns: the door-to-door conversations. She also realized that there was a bigger, catastrophic issue to campaign for: climate change. The problem and the solution being how we produce energy.

This year Howarth wanted to see for herself what American politicians thought about climate change, and learn if the pendulum is moving in a positive direction. Once the lobbying started Howarth felt immediate optimism.

"They know exactly what we're about, because it's right in our name, and they still met with us," said Howarth. I asked Howarth about her favourite part of the Capitol Hill experience. Her response: "Talking to Republicans." I smiled, remembering Rick Mercer's hilarious reoccurring segment 'Talking to Americans' on This Hour has 22 Minutes. Thankfully Howarth didn't experience any instances of geo-political ignorance that sounded like: "Congratulations Canada on 800 miles of paved roads," or "Hello Canada, our Eskimo neighbors to the south." Altogether Howarth attended 16 meetings. Approximately half were with Republicans, where she felt the most magic.

Bijons found CCL's 4th Annual Lobbying Days to be more hectic and intense than her previous experience lobbying with CCL. "You had about twenty minutes to both meet and strategize with the three to six CCL volunteers who would be part of the meeting to which you were assigned," said Bijons.

Prepared with a one page bio of the politician's most keen interests and accomplishments, and strategic guideline on how to frame the discussion with a particular politician, the meeting leader (who was pre-assigned) had to quickly determine the individuals in the group best suited to be the primary speaker, the time keeper, and the note takers.

Since CCL is all about building relationships, listening is very important as is establishing a friendly tone. CCL volunteers start a conversation, not a rant. Going in with an 'us and them' attitude does not work. Instead, respecting the allotted meeting time and noting details about the meeting are key components of CCL's professional discipline. Experience shows that this discipline helps secure future meetings, thereby meeting the ultimate goal of moving the climate change conversation forward.

Meetings opened with an honest and direct, 'we're here to build political will with respect to energy and climate change.' Most of the time, Carbon Fee & Dividend, the name of the policy, was never mentioned. Things were kept simple, referring to it as 'a revenue neutral carbon bill that we hope Republicans and Democrats can support or champion'. The Canadians' main role in the meetings was to remind U.S. lawmakers that the world expects, the American government to lead on this issue, and to speak to the Canadian experience with carbon pricing, namely B.C.'s five-year-old carbon tax.

Bijons recounted her favourite meeting. "It was with a staffer for a Republican representative in Florida," said Bijons. "He told me that he felt that the Republicans lost last year's election because they are out of touch with what's important to their children -- issues concerning the environment and climate change. He commented on the disconnect from Republican youth: 'It's hard to have a meaningful dialogue when the issue is so highly politicized and radicalized'.

I asked Bijons to clarify what he meant by 'radicalized'. "He was referring to the inability of both sides to find common ground to discuss the issues around climate," she responded.

In his June 25 speech, President Obama said: "In my State of the Union address, I urged Congress to come up with a bi-partisan market-based solution to climate change, like the one that Republican and Democratic senators worked on together a few years ago...I'm willing to work with anyone to make that happen."

In the U.S., CCL speaks to more Republicans than any other environmental organization. Talking to the converted is great for attracting new CCL members, but the ultimate goal of CCL's lobbying is to accelerated multi-partisan support in order to pass legislation.

The common language needed to get two ideologically opposed parties to agree on a carbon tax sounds like this: the renewable energy sector creates more jobs; renewable energy will help make the country more energy independent; our country needs to become the world leader; we have a moral responsibility to clean up the mess we caused, for our children and grandchildren; and, this is a problem that has to be addressed now.

"Politicians are depending on us to bring them the information and ammunition that shows them how they can satisfy the goals of their party while addressing the big issue of climate change," said Howarth. She came back to Toronto with a surprisingly positive feeling that the work of citizens like herself is really starting to pay off.

Want to join Team CCL Canada at the Ottawa Lobbying Days in November 2013 or the Washington Lobbying Days in June 2014? No lobby experience necessary; just bring your passion for the climate. You will be trained.