Once, before I ever imagined working for a Quaker lobby on Capitol Hill, a longtime friend of mine who works for a U.S. Senator told me that I was highly idealistic. "That is a huge part of your personality, Joelle," she said. "If you were in Washington, you’d realize that there are political realities to consider in addition to your own beliefs."
I was taken aback. Aren’t idealists people who are so devoted to a belief that they aren’t very practical or well-grounded? I did not like to think of myself in those terms, and this comment stuck with me.
Since I’ve come to Washington to intern with Friends Committee on National Legislation in the Climate, Energy, and Human Security Program, I’ve been trying to assess the validity of my friend’s statement. As I’ve become more familiar with the issue of climate change and the politics that surround it, I see what she was trying to say. She meant that in politics there is always an element of compromise, and that no legislation could ever pass without it. No two members of Congress share the exact same views, so legislators must be prepared to find common ground with each other in order to achieve their goals. That means that when working to influence the U.S. legislative process, even people who are unwaveringly dedicated to their beliefs must be prepared to listen to many perspectives and to work with people who don’t agree with them about everything.
Even equipped with my new understanding of the importance of compromise and considering the needs and values of other parties, I remain puzzled by one thing: what should be done in a case such as climate change when the future of the entire planet is at stake and compromised half-measures will accomplish very little? What is the role of compromise in the solutions for climate change?
For me, the key to answering these questions is recognizing that there is more than one "reality" at play in the climate change debate. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to lump these complex realities into two groups. One of them deals with the Earth. The other has to do with the politics of which my friend warned me. The tension between these two realities encapsulates some of the major challenges of advocating for climate change legislation that I have witnessed at FCNL.
The first reality is not unique to Capitol Hill, but pertains to the entire world, including all of the people who inhabit it. This reality is climate change. Global temperatures are rising. Ice sheets and sea ice are melting. Sea levels are rising. Floods are taking lives, bringing disease, destroying crops, and obliterating buildings and infrastructure. Drought is causing significant drops in crop yield. Wildfires are wiping out homes and ecosystems. Intense storms take lives and devastate crops and communities.
To best address the Earth’s reality—the environmental crisis at hand—the United States must enact strong national legislation that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. This can be accomplished through energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy. In doing so, a host of new jobs would be created, and individuals and businesses would have lower energy costs. The United States should also assist developing countries that have contributed least to the problem of climate change to leapfrog over a heavy-emissions phase of development and to adapt to the impacts of climate change that many are already experiencing.
However, as my friend warned, I’m learning that there is another reality at play: U.S. political reality. Among the many members of Congress there seems to be little agreement about how to handle climate change. Some legislators do not believe that human actions cause climate change, while others are working diligently to enact strong climate change legislation that accomplishes everything that the experts advise. Many members of Congress want to reverse the course of climate change but are concerned about how certain legislation might affect the economy. Others believe inaction would have far worse economic consequences. Still others argue that solving climate change is impossible without technologies like nuclear power and "clean" coal. Some legislators are reluctant for the United States to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions without similar action from developing countries, particularly China and India.
It is extraordinarily difficult for Congress to reach a solution that reflects this broad gamut of perspectives. As a result, most of the climate change legislation in Congress today is an obvious product of compromise; it has some good elements but doesn’t do enough to solve the crisis equitably.
It may seem patently apparent to those who have been familiar with the challenges of climate change for much longer than I have, but I now realize that in order to protect the planet and all of its inhabitants, political and environmental realities must be reconciled. People with visions of an equitable, sustainable future have a role in the reconciliation process; we can be politically relevant by engaging in the compromises being made. I don’t mean we should capitulate. I mean we should participate. We can be well-informed, we can provide helpful information to our representatives, and we can raise our concerns. In doing so, we become part of political reality. If I want to see strong national action on climate change now, I should be prepared to act now, even if the bills moving through Congress aren’t perfect. If there is a chance to be influential now, to tell our elected representatives how important it is to act today to build a healthy world for future generations, then we should seize the opportunity. Our members of Congress are elected to represent us, and they have a responsibility to listen to us. Likewise, we have a responsibility to voice our concerns to them.
After nine months on Capitol Hill, I understand that political compromises will always occur to some extent. However, in the face of the greatest problem on Earth today, the world desperately needs climate change idealists who dream not only of a distant, sustainable future, but also of the work needed to reach the end goals. These are people whose vision of what could someday be sustains them while they implement the practical changes needed to attain that vision. They are fortified by imagination, certainly, but they know that it is just as important to reach out to people today who don’t yet share their vision, in order to bring the solutions for climate change to the mainstream. We need idealists to make this happen, but working on climate change as a defined problem that has clear solutions is far from impractical. Climate change idealism—hope for and dedication to fostering a way of life that leaves a thriving planet for future generations, a course that experts say is scientifically and technologically possible—is not only logical, responsible, and compassionate, but also the only realistic option that we have.