Today’s guest post comes from Ben Wessel, a 20-year-old student activist who is taking a year off from Middlebury College to work on the climate crisis. Ben is a very impressive young man—smart and committed—who is working at a nonprofit called 1Sky and plans to attend the UN climate negotiations in December in Copenhagen. He’s part of a growing army of young people around the world who are worried, for obvious reasons, about global warming. Ben is also the son of David Wessel, my colleague from way-back-when at The Hartford Courant, author of In Fed We Trust, and a columnist at The Wall Street Journal.
Coal and oil companies, manufacturers, and their allies at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have spent many millions of dollars to oppose climate legislation in Congress. The Chamber – which has lost crucial members, including several big utility companies, over its opposition to mandatory climate regulation — spent $26 million on lobbying Congress in the first half of 2009, double the total of second-biggest lobbying firm ExxonMobil. (You can monitor lobbyist spending at OpenSecrets.org.) The opponents peddle bogus economic analyses and misinform the public into thinking that Congress wants to bankrupt the American family.
Climate advocates will never have the big bucks of their dirty coal and oil opponents, but I believe that something besides money can sway Senator’s votes– their constituents. Recent polling suggests broad support for climate action across the country. The Senate, however, is a tricky beast and the fate of America’s energy future (and much, much more) lays in the hands of a relative few. Although it might sound like hyperbole, the ability for the world to tackle climate change might come down to the votes of Senators from North Dakota, Arkansas, and West Virginia. That’s why it’s time for clean energy advocates to recruit some unlikely allies in the fight to deal with the climate crisis – small businesses.
Let me tell you how I got involved in the politics of climate—and why you should, too. This year I turned 20. I’ll be dealing with the impact of decisions made today for the next 50 years. That’s scary. The summer before last, on a trip sponsored by World Wildlife Fund, I traveled to the Norwegian Arctic to meet with young people from all over the world to see firsthand the impacts of climate change and help jumpstart a global climate movement. This fall, I’ve taken a leave of absence from college to work at 1Sky, a national campaign bringing together organizations and individuals calling for climate action in all fifty states. I’m delving into the details of domestic climate legislation and working with advocates all around the country to rally support for a climate bill.
To pass a bill, we need the support of a wide spectrum of Americans—including people who own and work in small businesses.
First off, small business owners can get the ear of their elected officials. Senators are ultimately beholden to their constituents. For this reason alone, they love to hobnob with the average Joe from back home about business, policy, and the future of their state. Small state Senators are particularly taken with listening to the voters who sent them to Washington. Visitors are invited to “Montana Coffee” with Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) every Wednesday the Senate is in session, or they can can stop on by and dip donuts with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) on Tennessee Tuesday. Hell, Bernie Sanders answers Vermonter’s questions on his own YouTube show, “Sanders Unfiltered.” These small state Senators are also the folks who will make or break the climate bill. While politicians surely listen to large lobby groups like the National Association of Manufacturers, they’re more likely to make a campaign video that showcases a ringing endorsement from the owner of the shop in Portsmouth, NH or the factory in Rolla, Missouri.
Second, small business owners can shatter the false choice between “economy vs. environment” with real life stories. Conservatives and coal industry flacks claim that climate legislation will be a job killer that cripples the American economy. While it may be easy to make that claim, which is based on worst-case scenarios, it’s not so easy to stand up to John Grabner, the President of Cardinal Fastener in Bedford Heights, Ohio, whose factory makes bolts for wind turbines. He hired 15 new employees thanks to clean energy set asides in the stimulus bill. Denny Gignoux, owner of the Montana Rafting Co. and Glacier Wilderness Guides, isn’t worried about cap-and-trade killing his business – he’s worried about losing tourists if the glaciers in Glacier National Park melt away. Let’s see Glenn Beck & Co. distort figures to tell Denny that his business doesn’t need climate action now.
There are thousands more stories like those of John and Denny. Stories from Main Street that speak to the economic imperative and opportunities offered by clean energy legislation. It’s just a matter of paring these stories with the lawmakers who need to hear them before it’s too late. That’s why 1Sky has partnered with over 1000 state, regional, and local businesses, from Anchorage, Alaska to Wausau, Wisconsin, to tell the story of small businesses that want clean energy jobs and climate action from the US Senate. Corporate behemoths like the US Chamber of Commerce do not represent the economic interests of the country. It’s up to the diverse network of small businesses to show their elected officials what business really needs.