It’s been only weeks since a new Congress took power, and many important environmental laws that protect our clean air, water, and climate are being threatened. Carol Werner, Executive Director of EarthShare member group the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI), works to build Congressional support for environmental protection. She shared with us her analysis of the situation, and offered advice about what citizens can do to make a difference.
You’ve spent many years on Capitol Hill. What’s the mood up there these days?
There is enormous concern about how fast things are happening since the election, particularly in regard to cabinet appointees and Executive Orders. There’s been a push for Congressional confirmation hearings without full ethics checks and financial “conflicts of interest” considerations of these nominees. The background and qualifications of many of these nominees brings into question what the administration is trying to accomplish. Many have called for the dissolution or weakening of the very agencies they’re tapped to lead.
Many environmental groups are on the defensive right now - worried about rollbacks to important initiatives like the Clean Power Plan. How should they balance offense and defense in the years ahead?
It’s very important that we defend policies we already have, because they’re the basis for future policy. With regard to the Clean Power Plan, we should feel good that it has already achieved many of its goals. We are seeing definite positive change in the power sector, and I don’t think they can put the genie back in the bottle.
What legislation or issues should constituents be paying special attention to right now?
They should watch what’s happening with the budget and appropriations process. We’re very concerned whether there will be adequate support for environmental programs within our federal agencies. This will impact scientific research, conservation, parks, efficiency, renewable energy, and much more.
A Member of Congress, in a meeting with an EESI board member, asked why we need NASA and NOAA when we have the Weather Channel. But, of course, the Weather Channel could not exist without the data, research, satellites, etc. that those agencies provide. We must continue to research our changing planet, from snowpack and global temperature to flooding and drought. Their research helps us figure out how to solve big problems.
Not many people understand how the appropriations process works. How can people learn and get involved?
First, get to know the staff in your member of Congress’ office, build a relationship, ask questions, and let them hear from you! Second, support and follow the organizations and journalists who are watching these issues. These include groups like EESI, Union of Concerned Scientists and Public Citizen, and news outlets like the Washington Post, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, and the New York Times.
Reporters are eager to hear from you on the importance of covering environmental policy. We all have a role in asking questions and encouraging coverage in the media.
What else do you wish people knew about Congress?
People should know that they don’t have to go to D.C. to make a difference. Meetings in district offices are very important and Members of Congress pay attention to the local press and constituents’ opinions. You can tell staffers why renewable energy is important to you, or ask them to co-sponsor bills that protect the environment. We can’t expect policymakers to do the right thing if they’re not feeling pressure from people in their states and districts.
I’ve never seen such a big national reaction to some of these questions and concerns as I’ve seen in the past few weeks. I hope that the many people protesting continue being engaged. It’s so critical that we remain vigilant and develop environmental champions.
EESI is bipartisan. How does an organization like yours commit to this vision in an environment that’s so partisan?
Congress has become much too partisan, but there are Republicans who care about environmental issues, particularly in some of the caucuses that focus on clean energy and climate. We will continue to provide legislators on both sides of the aisle with facts through our many briefings and fact sheets on everything from production tax credits for renewable energy to the jobs benefits of addressing climate change.
What do you like most about this job?
There is always so much to learn, and it’s exciting to see so many people doing good work in this field. I tell our staff that it’s important to see how things are interrelated. We should be able to address multiple problems when we examine them holistically like this. And that makes everything interesting and fun.