Report from Washington:
The GCA Legislative Affairs Meeting
February 23 – 25, 2010
Written by Kathy Kilbride
I was delighted to have the opportunity to travel to Washington as the New Canaan Garden Club representative to this year’s National Affairs and Legislative Meeting last month. It was my first time attending a national GCA event and, as I had been advised by others who had preceded me in this role, the experience was both enlightening and invigorating. The accumulated knowledge, savvy and political skills of the women who organize and attend this annual conference – now in existence for more than two decades – was thoroughly impressive. And, it was also clear that representatives of the GCA wield a considerable amount of respect and, it seems, influence, in DC political spheres. The collection of appointed and elected officials who came to brief our group of several hundred was impressive in stature and generally in substance. Despite some evidence to the contrary, it still appears that many governmental officials are deeply engaged in the issues of the environment. The recent legislative gridlock in federal government has, of course, impeded progress in this area but I still think we should be encouraged by the environmental goals of many elected officials, as well as the obvious knowledge and hard policy work that is being attended to by many house and senate staff, some of whom we met during our visit.
After welcoming remarks by Nancy McKlveen, NAL Chair, and Susie Wilmerding, Conservation Chair, our first day was devoted to Environmental Education. GCA members from across the country met and filled the Ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel in Washington in order to have a full day of presentations by experts in the environmental field. Lead-off speaker John M. Broder, the Energy and Environment Chief (DC Bureau) for The New York Times presented an excellent overview of the current state of environmental affairs in DC. Broder took some time to make a cogent case for the science behind global warming (or, to use Thomas Friedman’s apt term, “global weirding”). Broder reported that the independent science behind the concept of global warming is sound and yet studies report that up to 18% of the public is doubtful about the reality of climate change. Broder summarized that the current situation in DC is a tough one for the advancement of environmental measures as they are simply not a top priority issue in our complicated and troubled times. Also, he believes that the public is not pressing their officials hard enough on these issues and thus they have been relegated to the back burner. Elected officials are not expending too much of their political capital on the environment, especially if they are beginning to eye reelection.
Broder also re-introduced the long-standing issue of “Cap and Trade” – which is essentially a solution to assess the real costs of pollution and integrate these costs into an economic model, thus, hopefully, incentivizing many sectors to reduce pollution, especially harmful emissions such as Co2. Under such a system a “cap” – or absolute amount for a community– would be established for harmful pollutants or garbage and those who do pollute might barter or bargain with those who produce less pollutants. Over time the cap would be reduced and there would be real incentive to all – business and household – to reduce waste and pollutants by recycling, compacting, minimizing production, advancing new technologies and lifestyle changes. Broder reports that there have been a number of active bills in DC that support “Cap and Trade” or its many variants, such as the Waxman Bill in the House, and the Boxer/Kerry Bill in the Senate (Oct/Nov 2009), neither of which, Broder feels, is likely to make progress to law.
The best hope for some sort of governmental consensus law on global warming is a tri-partisan proposal currently being advocated by Sen. Joe Lieberman (CT), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). This bill hope to rally support by introducing some more moderate areas of environmental consensus – such as negotiating different regional allowances for areas of the country that are more dependent on coal, and also seriously exploring new nuclear technologies as a green alternative energy. Broder suggests that this proposal would appear to be the best hope for future environmental legislation, but, again, it comes behind the more pressing agendas of health care and economic revitalization (although not unrelated to each). It is hard to be too optimistic about environmental law because of legislative gridlock as well as the extremely weak showing at the Copenhagen Summit. But, Broder reiterates that it is essential that we recognize the cost of pollution with some reasonable law. A huge economic boost might be had in our country from the development of “Green Technologies” (as recently espoused by Pres. Obama) but currently the US is losing out to China and other nations on such technology because American investors are reluctant to commit venture funds until the real pricing structures are determined (as they might be with a “Cap and Trade” system). Another critical issue to watch in the current environmental debate is the recent US Supreme Court ruling in late 2009 that allows the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate “Greenhouse Gases.” Broder states that no one in DC is particularly happy about the concept of environmental regulation – but that its threat might actually spur useful environmental legislation.
Education Day continued with a variety of specialist speakers including Joe Whitworth, President of The Freshwater Trust, Portland, Oregon, Kim Elliman, CEO of the Open Space Institute and Rob Perks of the National Resource Defense Council, who spoke passionately about the environmental perils of Mountaintop Mining currently being pursued in West Virginia. The afternoon concluded with comments by Rich Innes, a consultant hired by the NAL/GCA to assist in this conference and advise members on how to be effective lobbyists for the environment in their visits to senators and congressmen. He provided useful and pragmatic suggestions in a talk called “Advocacy 101,” noting that GCA members at this conference were “key constituents” to the elected officials and wielded much more power than the average citizen because we represented a respected organization and we were well-grounded on many substantive environmental issues.
The venue of the NAL Conference moved Wednesday (Feb. 24) to Capitol Hill where the assembled group occupied the Grand Caucus Room at the Cannon Office Building. Beginning at 9 AM and continuing throughout the day, we had an array of government speakers rotate through the podium to address the GCA about environmental policy in DC and green issues throughout the country. Speakers included: Congressman Nick Rahall (D- W VA), Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D- Oregon), Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Gina McCarthy (Administrator, EPA), Senator Amy Klobucher (D-MN), Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and Larry Schweiger, President of the National Wildlife Foundation. It was a jam-packed review of environmental issues and again, despite the lack of significant progress with environmental legislation, it is clear that environmental issues are of significant concern and consideration by many of these officials.
Particularly impressive was Chris Van Hollen, a Congressman from Maryland who has made his mark with advocacy for the protection of Chesapeake Bay, “Clean Energy” projects and a the proposal of a “Green Bank” which would provide low cost financing for clean energy technologies. Senator Lamar Alexander (R- TN) spoke in the afternoon and touched on some of the key issues which he supports as a longtime environmental advocate. A powerful supporter of the American landscape, he underlined the importance of preserving and protecting our National Parks. He was involved in writing the Clean Air Act of 2007 (with Joe Lieberman, CT) and the Senate Clean Energy Act of 2009. He espouses alternatives to carbon fuels but believes that the solution needs to involve new nuclear technologies. Although supportive of the concept of wind turbines and solar and thermal plants, Alexander also warned of “Renewable Energy Sprawl” taking over our landscape. He believes that the “gold standard” for renewable electrical power may be nuclear. He is also a great supporter of utilizing our spare electricity at non-peak hours in the form of promoting plug-in electric cars. He himself owns a Toyota Prius with an extended battery and plugs in every evening. Alexander also noted his desire to stop Mountaintop mining with the Appalachian Restoration Act.
A highlight of the afternoon was also the presentation by Gina McCarthy, the Asst. Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. A no-nonsense, bright and funny environmental advocate, Ms. McCarthy arrived in Washington with a long background as a CT state official. Hearing a speaker from the EPA was a particular and timely relevance since a recent Supreme Court ruling have given the EPA the permission to regulate dangerous “Greenhouse Gases”. Although most politicians and environmental advocates would prefer to see the issue of greenhouse gases be dealt with by legislation rather than regulation, appropriate law has not been passed and enforcement by EPA is now a real possibility, if not stalled by other measures. But, this regulatory clout may also provide the needed impetus for politicians to draft law that would appropriately account for the danger and cost of harmful greenhouse gases. At the heart of the problem is the inability of politicians to reach consensus on how to deal with these emissions. The lack of law also hinders the progress of new solutions and technologies by not integrating the real cost of pollution into the economic equation. McCarthy says that a well-detailed scientific report (not a government issued report) which utilized information from all science agencies found that GHG emissions endangered public health and welfare and in December 2009 the US Supreme Court agreed. The conclusion of the Endangerment Finding by the Supreme Court was the scientific of climate change is overwhelming. Gases affect temperature, air quality, diseases and allergens, the rise of the sea level, water use and distribution, as well as ecosystems. McCarthy underlined that there are both health and security implications with the effects of GHG. Currently data is being collected from industries with respect to GHG and regulation may begin this year. This regulatory option should be closely monitored as it may spur legislative change in the form of law such as that proposed by Lieberman/Graham/Kerry Senate Bill. Many industries and local governments know that regulations are likely coming.
The final morning of the GCA/NAL Conference is reserved for actual lobbying. Zone representatives from different states arrange appointments with Senators and Congressmen. Again, testament to the organization and influence of GCA, many Senators clear their busy schedules to actually meet with GCA members. Our CT group met with Sen. Joe Lieberman, as well as two of his staff members who have been working for most of the last year to craft a consensus on environmental issues in order to propose a law that could actually pass in the Senate. This environmental bill is currently being written and being actively lobbied by Lieberman, Kerry and Graham. The original hope was that it might come to fruition this spring – but, obviously, there have been other pressing matters in the Senate. Key aspects of this bill would include a new look at nuclear technologies.
Zone II CT women from District 4 (Fairfield County Region) also met with Congressman Jim Himes. Congressman Himes arrived at the appointment after just speaking on the floor of the House. Nonetheless, he spent nearly 30 unhurried minutes with us discussing some environmental issues of concern. He is particularly impressed with new “Green” technologies and hopes that CT may be able to benefit from some of the economic stimulus of such development. His background in the financial world only underlines his thought that some sort of environmental law that deals appropriately with climate change would positively affect the development of new technologies. Investors need to know the economic playing field and we are losing opportunities as we refuse to address the cost of pollution. Currently much of this investment in new technologies is being done in China and other foreign countries that have either addressed pollution or do not have the same free-market issues.
All in all, the 2010 GCA/NAL Conference was 3 days of education, inspiration and advocacy. Please consider taking some time on the GCA Website to read the newly updated GCA Position Papers on the most important environmental issues. Although we are fortunate in CT to have legislators who received top scores from the independent League of Conservation Voters (2010 National Environmental Score Card), we need to further familiarize ourselves with the pertinent issues and, as we can, advocate and educate on the local level, as well as on the national level. With so many areas of current partisan dispute, it seems that many educated CT voters understand the consensus value of forward-thinking environmental protection and the law that dictates it. Let’s not shirk from our civic responsibilities on these important matters. And, thank you again to the New Canaan Garden Club for the opportunity to attend this stimulating national GCA event.