Climate lobbyists
Members of Citizens' Climate Lobby at Burundi Star Coffee on St. John Street in Portland after returning last week from Washington, D.C.: Sydney Patten, left, Adolphe Wakana, Peter Dugas, and David Kunhardt. (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)
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In the eyes of Adolphe Wakana, a native of Burundi, the effects of climate change in his home country are a strong indicator of what faces the United States.

Wakana is one of 19 Maine-based Citizens’ Climate Lobby volunteers who returned from Washington, D.C., a week ago. His international perspective is just one of the various experiences in the group, which aspires to a wholesale, bipartisan solution to climate change.

Wakana arrived in the U.S. in 2016 as a result of his climatology work. He’s made three trips to D.C. in his career to speak with lawmakers on the topic and participated in a 10-country caravan in Africa in 2011 for COP 17, a United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa.

CCL lobbyists with Angus King
Maine climate lobbyists with U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, fourth from right, last week in Washington. (Courtesy CCL)

“I saw how climate change made a strong impact on resources, on the forests, on landscapes,” he said. “I saw it with my eyes.”

What Wakana called “indisputable” impacts of climate change were visible in Burundi before he left: Water for drinking and farming dried up due to a growing lack of rain, while sudden unseasonal storms came on so quickly that they caused floods that destroyed homes and killed residents of Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, every year since 2008.

CCL lobbyists acknowledge that individual climate virtue isn’t enough to combat climate change, especially when its impacts are on a global scale. This is why they turn to politicians to make the changes that the average citizen can’t.

Maine is uniquely positioned to influence legislative climate change talks because both of the state’s U.S. senators are a part of the Bipartisan Senate Climate Solutions Caucus. 

There are nine chapters of CCL in Maine, including one based in Portland. In total, the nonprofit has more than 200,000 members in 400-plus chapters throughout the U.S. working to build support in Congress for a bipartisan solution to climate change.

“Across the aisle, it seems to me like folks are beginning to put physics before the politics,” Portland resident Peter Dugas said. Dugas is a Brown University graduate in physics and engineering and could have gone on to become a climatologist, but decided to keep his climate efforts to activism as a member of CCL.

CCL held the International Conference in D.C. in person for the first time since 2019, after conferences went remote due to the pandemic. Members of Maine’s CCL chapters met with the staff of Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, and Sen. Susan Collins, and directly with Sen. Angus King to discuss a new twist on their usual climate change pitch: ways that politicians can work towards President Joe Biden’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

One of CCL’s veterans, David Kunhardt of Scarborough, who has been active in the nonprofit since 2013, said lawmakers have been receptive and supportive of CCL’s work. That includes Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, who’s publicly praised the organization’s work in years past and added to that at the conference, saying “there is no better environmental group.”

Kunhardt highlighted the Growing Climate Solutions Act, which passed 92-8 in the Senate, as additional evidence of legislators’ increased willingness to address climate change.

For the lobbyists, their efforts to better inform politicians on the solutions to climate change come from the changes they’ve seen throughout their lives.

Having grown up in Massachusetts, Sydney Patten of Falmouth recalled walking through a parking lot with her mother and said she remembered thinking that it was too hot, and felt back then it would become a problem.

“It was like a premonition,” she said.

Passion for protecting the environment led her to start her own climate change group, called Plant the Seed, before joining CCL to help put the pressure for change on politicians.

Despite the evidence, Dr. Walt Novey of Scarborough cited an ongoing campaign of misinformation surrounding climate change as a challenge to CCL’s efforts. Especially in a first-world country, Novey said, it’s easy to overlook climate change and ignore it, because people may not see the issue right in front of them.

“I think of it like you’re sitting on the shore watching this tsunami that’s coming at you, but it’s 10 miles away so it doesn’t look very big,” he said.

Since he was a kid on Sebago Lake, Novey said he’s noticed some of the changes, including warming water temperatures. The Gulf of Maine is warming at a higher rate than the vast majority of the world’s oceans, according to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, and 2021 was the second warmest summer in the gulf’s history.

From Wakana’s perspective, the U.S. still has to step up and take action on a much wider scale. He said much of the reason he does the lobbying work is to help get justice for people most affected by climate change.

“The solution must be global and America must be the incontestable leader just as she was during industrialization,” Wakana said.

In the context of CCL’s climate plan, that isn’t the case yet. Their priority policy is the implementation of a carbon fee and dividend that would tax carbon emissions at the source, and return what is essentially “carbon cash back” to households at the end of each month.

The United States and Australia are the only two developed economies that haven’t implemented nationwide carbon prices, and Dugas said the U.S. needs to catch up. Right now, however, with inflation rising, it’s hard enough to push any kind of additional energy tax, he conceded. 

The most co-sponsored bill, the Energy Innovation Carbon Dividend Act (HR 2307), would increase already high gas prices, adding approximately 12 cents per gallon. The original hope was to include it in the Build Back Better bill, but since it collapsed at the end of last year, progress on HR 2307 has stalled – although CCL is still gathering endorsements to raise awareness of the policy, Dugas said.

If reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 is the goal, he said, CCL insists the carbon fee and dividend plan are necessities and should start now.

Dugas cited a statement shared by Sen. Whitehouse: the country can’t get to carbon neutrality by 2050 if the process starts in 2048 or 2049.

“That’s like saying by 2050 I’m going to be an Olympic athlete,” he said, “but I’m going to eat jelly donuts every morning until then.”