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Climate pins join a long line of Capitol Hill lapel adornments

They are meant to ‘convey a sense of urgency that we’re facing with the climate crisis’

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., actor Martin Sheen, and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., wear their climate action pins during a January 2020 protest on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., actor Martin Sheen, and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., wear their climate action pins during a January 2020 protest on Capitol Hill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

In optics-obsessed Washington, where a necktie color hints at partisan loyalty and flag pins are de rigueur, the climate-themed lapel pin has arrived.

A spectrum that displays through darkening colors how humans have perilously warmed Earth since the 1800s, the warming stripes are found on soccer jerseys, city buses, clothing, shoes, water bottles, face masks, outdoor gear and even a German train station.

“The stripes are used very, very widely, all over the world,” said Karen Florini, vice president of programs at Climate Central, a nonpartisan climate organization. “It’s a great conversation starter.”

Decades after Congress began issuing official lapel pins to members of its chambers to distinguish lawmakers from other people, the warming stripes can be found in congressional confines, often on the lapels of members, staffers and climate activists, where they signal an interest in climate change and draw in the public.

During former President Donald Trump’s final State of the Union, Democratic senators Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Thomas R. Carper of Delaware and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island wore warming stripe-themed pins to the speech, as did Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine.

Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., wore his pin after a June 2020 news conference with members of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

On the days the Senate and the House passed climate legislation this summer, Democratic members like Reps. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, Troy Carter Sr. of Louisiana, and Mike Levin of California wore climate pins. McGovern got his from activists. “They just pinned it on me today,” he said. 

Members of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis have been wearing their committee’s version of a warming stripes pin since Democrats gained the House majority in 2019.

Telling a story

“It tells the story of the planet heating up,” said Ana Unruh Cohen, majority staff director of the select committee. “It also conveys a sense of urgency that we’re facing with the climate crisis and just how rapidly things are changing.”

After Ed Hawkins, a climate scientist at the University of Reading, created the warming stripes in 2018, drawing upon historical climate data, the graphic proliferated in environmental circles.

To climate nerds, it’s a shibboleth. To the curious, it’s a lure.

“For those in the know it communicates our mission, what we’re all about,” Unruh Cohen said. “And then for those who weren’t in the know, it was a good conversation starter.”

When the committee holds field hearings or goes on trips, Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida, the chairwoman, hands out pins to people the committee meets.

Unruh Cohen worked on the staff of the first House select committee on climate change, officially called the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which then-Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts led from 2007 to 2011.

That committee, too, had a specific lapel pin, which showed spots in the world experiencing significant warming.

When he was on the first select climate committee, Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon handed out his well-known neon-green bicycle pins “left and right,” Unruh Cohen said, attributing the legacy of the climate committees’ pins in part to him.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., wears his signature bicycle pin during a news conference in 2019. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The history of Senate lapel pins dates to 1965, when lawmakers adopted a resolution to create “service pins or emblems” for Senate members, officers and employees. 

The pins were meant to show how long people had worked in the chamber, and they also served as markers when the Capitol was open to the public, helping police tell members and aides from other citizens.

‘Watergate babies’

As the Watergate scandal boiled in 1973 and an investigation into the Nixon administration beckoned throngs to the Capitol, the Senate secretary commissioned pins from the jeweler Balfour that senators could wear during an impeachment trial to gain floor access, though those pins were never used.

“By the time we got the order and got the pins back, Nixon had resigned,” said longtime Senate staffer Darrell St. Claire during an oral history interview conducted a few years later.

In 1975, following an election wave that saw young members vault into Congress — so-called “Watergate babies” who ran on platforms against public corruption — the House followed suit with their own pins.

“So many youthful-looking representatives had been elected in the wake of Watergate that it was hard for the Capitol Police to distinguish them from staff,” according to a summary from the Senate Historical Office.

Lapels can get crowded these days as members pair their official pins with causes dear to their hearts or current affairs, such as pro-Ukraine pins this year. Wearing a pin or button is an easy way to send a message, said Kent Worcester, a political science professor at Marymount Manhattan College.

“It’s a sign of solidarity,” Worcester said, adding that the first political buttons in American history date back to around 1800.

Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., wears her warming stripes as she poses with climate activists on Aug. 12, the day the House passed the Inflation Reduction Act. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Upswings in members of Congress donning pins of a particular theme typically lag social movements, Worcester said.

“After 9/11, you get a rise of people wearing flag buttons most of the time,” Worcester said. “It shows consensus.”

After the first Earth Day was held in 1970, environmental pins and buttons multiplied.

“The big outburst of environmental button-wearing of course is with the 1970 Earth Day,” Worcester said. “But there’s always a lag or disconnect between what social movements are doing, what the electorate as a whole is doing, and what congresspeople are doing.”

Nicole Kelner, a climate artist based in New York City, started painting environmental images this spring. Her website features explanatory diagrams, including a print on potential financial savings from the new climate law.

The warming stripes pull in the viewer, Kelner said in an interview. “You don’t even know what you’re looking at first, but you like the colors of it and it draws you in.” She added of the audience: “Once they’re hooked on the pretty shiny thing, then you can kind of Trojan horse the real information in.”

“It makes the invisible, visible,” Florini said of the image. “You can’t take a picture of climate change itself,” but the stripes are a succinct portrayal of what’s at stake, she said. “They are as close to pure science as one can possibly get.” 

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