Friday, March 1, 2013

Climate Science Day on Capitol Hill

I'm just back from a trip to DC to talk to Congressional offices about climate science as part of the third annual "Climate Science Day on Capitol Hill" (here's a link to the 2012 event). Organized by a consortium of 15 scientific societies, including the AGU, the event saw 50 climate scientists from all walks of the discipline converge on DC for a 1/2 day training session on Tuesday followed by a day full of Hill visits on Wednesday. The highlight of the training session was seeing so many women delivering sage and substantive advice on getting our climate science messages across. Susan Hassol gave a rousing overview of climate communication do's and don'ts, followed by a bi-partisan panel of 4 female Congressional staffers who provided behind-the-scenes tips for making yourself heard through the din on the Hill. For Wednesday's visits, we were grouped into state/region, and my team included Jennifer Howard, an AAAS Fellow working with NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (and co-lead author of the Technical Report on "Oceans and Marine Resources in a Changing Climate" written for the upcoming National Climate Assessment, now in public review), Robert Lund (a climate statistics whiz in the Math Department at Clemson), led by Erik Hankin (an AGU Public Affairs Coordinator who knows his way around the Hill both physically and mentally).
Jennifer Howard (NOAA), Robert Lund (Clemson), Me,
and Erik Hankin (AGU) on a stroll between meetings.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, as my visit to Capitol Hill started in seat 21B of my flight up to DC, with Congressman Sanford Bishop (D-GA) in seat 21C, and my 2-year-old daughter Sasha in seat 21A. One has to appreciate the irony here:  I'm flying up to DC to meet with a legion of Congressional staffers in the faint hope that one of them may put my name under their boss' nose for 2 seconds, and as it turns out a real-life Congressman is literally forced to sit down next to me for 2+ hours! Of course having my 2-yr-old there provided comic relief, spilled milk, kicked seats, and spurred a sharing of stories about kids/grandkids (he has a 5-yr-old granddaughter and I have a 5-yr-old daughter). I think our conversation started when I asked him for one of his napkins in response to the first of many liquid spills. Once we realized we could actually have a substantive, if not interrupted, conversation, we gabbed on for the rest of the flight. He started with some probing questions about my thoughts on whether climate is best characterized as cyclical (no), whether the polar ice is really melting (yes), and to what extent Sandy is related to climate change (it's complicated). We then meandered through a broader discussion about the energy landscape, and the role for climate change in shaping energy policy. He spoke solemnly about how his vote for the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill almost cost him his job. I acknowledged that while climate change may be taboo on the Hill for years to come, building the components of a comprehensive package of energy legislation would require new partnerships and conversations that happen across the aisle, one baby step at a time. We ended up talking about the importance of a broad-based energy education, to train the next generation of leaders who can appreciate the complexity of the energy/climate landscape. I of course sung the praises of my energy class, and the associated Carbon Reduction Challenge, and assured him that I would visit his office with my students this coming May (as we had last May). We spoke specifically about beefing up the presence of energy-minded GT students as interns on the Hill, and he gave me his super-secret e-mail and cell to follow up with. I've already gotten an e-mail from his Chief of Staff, and I'm looking forward to working with his office on areas of mutual interest.

The formal Hill visits went as expected, for the most part, with us blending in with a veritable sea of Hill visitors giving Congress their opinions about the upcoming sequester and looming budget fights. We had an edge in that we weren't there to speak about funding, which was a welcome break for the staffers we met with. Our only request was that they contact us in the future with climate-related questions and requests for information. We each gave a brief blurb on our specialties, and how they relate to the challenges facing Georgia/South Carolina. For example, what effect will rising sea level have on the proposed expansion of the Savannah port? Agriculture is big business in Georgia, and it's fair to ask whether climate change has played a role in Georgia's ongoing drought? We left a few 1-page "leaves", including an overview of 'Paleoclimate Research at Georgia Tech' (shown at the right). In most cases, the staffers thanked us for making the trip to visit them, and promised to follow up if they had any questions. In our meeting with Senator Isakson's (R-GA) staffer, we were repeatedly invited to inundate him with relevant information, saying the Senator is always interested in being at the top of his game on all energy-related issues. That's pretty much a home run for these sorts of visits. On the other hand, we had a pretty lack-luster visit with a staffer from another office, who seemed determined to throw cold water on our enthusiasm and hold the meeting to under 10 minutes. By the way, I think it was great that we only met with Republicans - I didn't fly all the way to DC to get a pat on the back, but rather to engage those lawmakers who represent the future of successful climate and energy legislation.

Reflecting on the experience, I am reminded how important it is to keep beating a dead horse when it comes to climate change, respectfully and consistently, and from a diversity of mouths. If the world moves forward one relationship at a time, then these cursory exchanges amount to something over the course of geologic time (i.e. several years in Capitol Hill time). There was faint talk about energy/climate legislation making its way onto the legislative agenda sometime this year, and the tone was decidedly more receptive than the first time I met with staffers from these same offices, back in spring of 2009. Progress is measured slowly, but steadily, in a realm where human interactions and trust-building trump all the graphs in the world. So I will go back to the Hill in May, with students high on energy efficiency, and again next February, for the 4th annual Climate Science Day on Capitol Hill, to once again shop my wares with an easy smile and an open mind.


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