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Climate Change Activists Flood Capitol to Lobby Lawmakers

Merkley, Whitehouse and Fitzpatrick address concerned parents

Children join in as organizers set up a play area on the Upper Senate Lawn Thursday as part of the fourth annual “play in” demonstration on the Hill organized by Moms Clean Air Force. (Griffin Connolly/CQ Roll Call)
Children join in as organizers set up a play area on the Upper Senate Lawn Thursday as part of the fourth annual “play in” demonstration on the Hill organized by Moms Clean Air Force. (Griffin Connolly/CQ Roll Call)

Climate change activists from all 50 states met with more than 150 lawmakers and staffers on Capitol Hill on Thursday, armed with personal anecdotes and data booklets to persuade members to take action on environmental issues such as air pollution and global warming.

The meetings were part of the fourth annual “play in” demonstration, organized by the anti-pollution advocacy group Moms Clean Air Force, which brought parents and their children to the Hill.

Pennsylvanian Jody Peltason, who grew up with “crippling” childhood asthma, was one of the activists who made the trip to Washington. When she played soccer and tag with friends as a child, she had to pull up running before reaching full speed so she wouldn’t lose her breath, which could spiral into an attack that would land her in an all-too-familiar place: the hospital.

She recalled having pervasive feelings of anxiety as a child. “If you can’t count on your lungs to work, that makes you feel fragile, vulnerable,” Peltason said.

She was often too sick to go to school or play with her friends at camp, forcing her parents to miss work to take care of her, and she gulped down a daily lineup of steroid pills.

“I just thought that was the way it was,” she said. “I didn’t realize then that that was caused by toxins that people were allowed to put into the air. I didn’t realize there was anything that we could do to stop that.”

Decades later, the way Peltason sees it, the government hasn’t taken nearly enough steps to protect the air Americans breathe in.

“And now,” she said, “my son is one of those kids hooked up to a nebulizer when he should be in school.”

Parents and Kids Rally for Cleaner Air and Climate Awareness

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A bipartisan issue

Thursday began with a rally on the Upper Senate Park lawn, with Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Sheldon Whitehouse and Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick on hand to address attendees.

Fitzpatrick, a freshman from the Philadelphia suburbs, was the first GOP lawmaker to attend the event in its four years. He encouraged the participants to keep lobbying public officials with new information.

“I want to let each one of you know that what you say, what you share, to these members is not lost on us,” Fitzpatrick told the crowd. “Their first job, first and foremost, is to keep an open mind.”

“My personal goal,” he added, “is that we get to a point very soon where we have not one, but two pro-environmental parties in this town.”

Air quality hits close to home for Fitzpatrick. The main county in his 8th District, Bucks County, was given an “F” for air quality in the American Lung Association’s 2017 “State of the Air” report, one of nine counties in the state assigned such a grade.

Fitzpatrick told Roll Call he was unaware of the extent of air pollution in his district when he was sworn in this year.

“It’s something that’s not really given a whole lot of publicity,” the Pennsylvania Republican said. But volunteers from Moms Clean Air Force brought the issue to his attention in a January meeting at his district office.

“It obviously spiked my curiosity,” Fitzpatrick said of the reports the volunteers showed him. “Why is that the case? We need to get to the bottom of that, and that’s something that people in our community should know.”

Parent activists

Bedecked in stoplight-red shirts, some parents said they had traveled to Washington to advocate on behalf of their children — many of whom suffer from acute asthma allergies.

New Jersey residents Kate and Rich Schumacher kept an eye on their three-year-old twins, Calvin and Emma, who climbed and tumbled over foam blocks with a dozen or so other children as their parents listened to the speakers and chatted with other moms and dads.

Calvin and Emma have severe asthma, which limits their options for playtime.

“Living right outside of Camden, whatever way the wind blows determines which days we can play outside,” Kate Schumacher said, referring to the New Jersey industrial city with an extensive history of air and water pollution issues.

She has an app on her phone that tells her the air quality on any given day. If the level of pollution surpasses a certain threshold, Calvin and Emma stay inside.

“As parents of young children it’s been eye-opening to realize that there’s days we’re limited to what we can do,” she said. “Some days we just have to find air conditioning. We have to find shade.”

Administration actions

Fitzpatrick and fellow Pennsylvania Republican Reps. Ryan A. Costello and Patrick Meehan, all members of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, have shown a willingness to join their Democratic colleagues and push back against President Donald Trump’s proposals to eliminate some environmental protections in favor of corporate manufacturing and oil interests.

In May, all three congressmen were among the signatories of a letter from House members that urged Trump — unsuccessfully — to keep the United States in the Paris climate agreement negotiated under former President Barack Obama.

Trump enraged climate activists when he greenlighted construction of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipeline projects that were a flashpoint in the climate debate during the 2016 campaign.

And Trump signed into law a Republican bill that revoked federal regulations preventing coal mining companies from dumping debris into local streams, making good on a campaign promise to rescind “the excessive Interior Department stream rule” and “end the war on coal.”

But the administration has encountered a few obstacles. Last week, a federal court ruled against its push to roll back regulations on methane released during oil and natural gas extraction. 

Silver lining

Many activists Thursday said having a “climate denier” in the Oval Office has inspired more civic engagement among friends and neighbors.

“In the fall, I wouldn’t have believed there could be a silver lining [to a Trump presidency],” said Christine Dolle, an organizer with Moms Clean Air Force from southeastern Pennsylvania. “But a lot of the attacks feel so extreme right now that I think it’s drawing people into the fold that wouldn’t otherwise have joined.”

Peltason said she, too, has noticed a shift in the urgency surrounding climate change.

“There was a complacency around climate when we had President Obama in charge,” she said. “That complacency was misplaced. We were still on course for big, big trouble.”

“And in some ways,” she added, “having a climate denier now in the White House ripped the veil from our eyes.”

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