“Will you publicly state that Congress must act on climate change, out of concern for your own six children and all future children?” This is the question that a group of five 11- and 12-year-olds from Yardley (Pa.) Meeting posed to Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Pennsylvania, last July.
The students met with us earlier that morning at the office of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) in Washington, D.C., to conceptualize what a meeting with their congressman would look like. At first, the students were nervous discussing climate change, but as we began role-playing, they grew more confident. The students became excited to speak about how climate change was a moral issue for their generation.
Representative Fitzpatrick listened to their concerns and personal stories for 40 minutes. One boy who plays soccer expressed worry that climate disruption would make his asthma worse, along with the 260,000 other children living with asthma in Pennsylvania. Another student thanked the congressman for his work on flood mitigation efforts along the Neshaminy Creek watershed, a place where she and her friends often play.
As the students spoke, the congressman listened—not just as a legislator in a partisan Congress, but as a father who is concerned for the future of his own children and all children. By speaking from the heart, instead of antagonizing by accusing him of inaction, the students provided a space for him to discuss what he knows to be our reality: that “climate change is one of the largest environmental threats the world faces today,” which he publicly stated back in 2006.
Representative Fitzpatrick agreed that people of both political parties need to work together to protect the environment. He then told the students that because of their visit, he would cosponsor H.R. 5314, the PREPARE Act (Preparedness and Risk Management for Extreme Weather Patterns Assuring Resilience). This bipartisan bill was introduced by Democrat and fellow Pennsylvanian Representative Matt Cartwright on July 31, 2014, and it seeks to mitigate damages from extreme weather events by working with the local, state, and federal governments to adopt resiliency, preparedness, and risk management plans.
The students’ visit was powerful on its own and successful in terms of legislative action; it was also the start of a growing relationship with Representative Fitzpatrick. The following day, when he spotted the students in the House gallery, he spent an hour with them: bringing them onto the legislative floor and speaking with them on a private balcony of the Capitol building. Several weeks later, when the students were gathering signatures at Yardley Meeting for a petition urging bipartisan action on climate change, Representative Fitzpatrick—invited by the students—came and signed their petition himself.
This story lifts up the strategic and spiritual paths forward as we seek to move Congress toward comprehensive climate action.
As a Quaker lobby in the public interest, FCNL agrees with the Quaker belief there is that of God in everyone. We’ve found that putting this belief into practice is often laden with stumbles. Imagine for a moment a member of Congress who is speaking out against climate science, rejecting a near consensus in the scientific community. How do we continue to hold him or her in the Light and seek that of God within this individual? It can be easy to give up on our congressional leaders, especially when we are frustrated, angry, afraid, and heartbroken at the current lack of political will for climate action in Congress.
But we must continue to approach those with whom we disagree. We believe they too are children of God, so we ought to approach them not with judgment and vitriol, but with compassion and patience. Dismissiveness, avoidance, and contempt cannot produce understanding, cooperation, and the climate solutions we so desperately need.
An approach grounded in our faith has strategic “co-benefits,” as they say here on Capitol Hill. We support the efforts of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to produce a global treaty that will dramatically reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. For that treaty to be successful, we must also understand that U.S. passage of that treaty requires approval from 67 Senators, representing both parties. A quote from Moshe Dayan, who during his time as Israeli Foreign Minister was instrumental in negotiating the 1978 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, provides relevant perspective: “If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” We must talk to all legislators, regardless of political party or their current statements on climate change.
As our hearts break over congressional failure to act on climate, Quaker author Parker Palmer speaks not of the heart breaking down, but breaking open to new possibilities. In his 2011 book Healing the Heart of Democracy, Palmer states that while our hearts at times will be “broken by loss, failure, defeat, betrayal, or death,” if our hearts break open rather than apart, we will have “greater capacity to hold the complexities and contradictions of human experience,” resulting in new opportunities and the ability to hold our differences creatively. This dark time is an opportunity to practice our faith in democracy like never before. We must remember that politicians don’t create political will, but respond to it. With strong faith, organization, and strategy as our guide, we must counter the political will that currently dominates the halls of Congress. For the only antidote to organized money is organized people. And the only path to peace is lined with love.