The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Civic Exercise

I’ve spent much of the last few days making, or attempting to make, political phone calls. For your future reference and edification, I’d like to report on what the process has been like–I posted something similar a few weeks ago, but I’ve learned some things since then that I’d like to pass on.

First of all, I have to admit that nobody I’ve encountered through this process has said anything about climate change. My primary reason for volunteering for the Democrats this year–and my reason for writing about it here–has been the simple fact that only the Democrats offer a realistic prospect for climate sanity at this point. I’ve written before about how much I wish that weren’t so, nothing against the Democrats, we just need more of a diversity on the issue. But we have what we have, and we must use it.

Sometimes making progress depends on letting go of the larger vision for a while and chugging through the grim practicalities of the current moment.

Because we need a Democrat in the White House right now, and because we likewise need a Democratic majority in the Senate and at least a climate-sane majority in the House, I’ve been making GOTV calls for both Mrs. Clinton and for a series of Congressional candidates mostly in swing states.

GOTV stands for get out the vote. That means getting people who already agree with your candidate to actually go vote. GOTV becomes the primary focus of most campaigns in the final days leading up to any election and its efforts can include everything from asking people if they plan to vote (apparently studies show that once someone says “I will vote,” they are more likely to actually do so), to making sure voters know where their polling place is, to actually offering rides to the polls and other logistical support. The number of people who want a candidate to win is typically larger, sometimes much larger, than the number who actually show up at the polls. In this particular election, GOTV is especially important because Donald Trump is hugely unpopular. In a very real way, Hilary Clinton’s most serious opponent is not the Republican nominee but her own shadow, the momentum against voting that she must overcome.

By the time you read this, the election will likely already be over. Even now, a majority of votes have probably already been cast and we are just waiting to hear the report. I’m not trying to influence your vote now, but rather to make some helpful suggestions for next time–if there is a next time. I freely admit to not being sure on that point at the moment.

So.

I have now made phone calls for three different organizations and attempted to make them for at least one more. I have made hundreds, possibly over a thousand, calls. The majority of those calls were to wrong numbers or disconnected numbers. Another large group were people who weren’t home. A small number involved recipients who did not want to be called, and a few of those were very rude to me. Most were friendly. Very few actually seemed open to the content of my call. I’m not sure how much of a difference I really made, but I would have felt remise had I not tried. I believe I got better at it as I went along.

Suggestions for Volunteers Making Political Calls

  1. Expect the organization you’re working with to make things unnecessarily difficult. Depending on whom you are working with, you may find it hard to get instructions, hard to understand your instructions, or simply impossible to find a human being to answer questions. The instructions you do get could be impossible to carry out, require resources you don’t have, or just sound like a bad idea. Start trying to volunteer early in the campaign in order to give yourself time to get through all this. If one organization doesn’t work for you, try another. And keep your cool. Getting frustrated and quitting helps nobody.
  2. Expect yourself to get tired. Making phone calls to strangers frightens me. Bothering people frightens me. Being treated as though I were personally responsible for every single unsolicited call ever stresses me out. I’m pretty brave, but being stressed and frightened is tiring. I doubt I’m alone. The fact of the matter is I can’t make as many phone calls at a time as I thought I could. Until you learn your limits, keep your commitments small.
  3. Once you get going, the going will get easier. Seriously. Make a couple of phone calls and it will get easier.
  4. Feel free to depart from the script. I’m no expert, but I can’t help but think that a phonescript that would alienate or insult me if I received it would also turn away other voters. Use your judgment, and make changes if you need to. If you’re uncomfortable with your script, you’ll probably also make the recipient uncomfortable. One of the changes I made, for example, was to ask the recipient if this was a good time to talk before launching into my script. If the recipient sounded tired or irritable, I’d give them an abbreviated version. All that being said, remember the scriptwriters know more about this stuff than you do. When in doubt, follow instructions. And never get apologetic for the call. If you believe you shouldn’t be making the call to begin with, don’t make it.

Suggestions For People Receiving Political Calls

  1. If you don’t want to talk, say so quickly and politely.
  2. If you want to be removed from the list, say so directly: “Please take me off your list.”
  3. Give the caller a chance to treat you well: don’t hang up or be rude or flippant unless the caller gets aggressive first.
  4. Recognize that the caller has no control over whether or not you are on their list.
  5. Recognize that there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of organizations that have your number. If you’ve already told 83 of them to stop calling, don’t take your frustration out on the 84th
  6. Don’t assume you know what the call is about: if you don’t want to talk at all, excuse yourself politely but firmly and hang up, but remember political calls aren’t always campaign adds. They might just be trying to ask if you know where your polling place is.

And finally…

Would organizations please coordinate so the poor folks in swing states don’t get 83 GOTV calls in one weekend? Please!

This is it. This election is the big one. We have a chance if the results go one way, but hope may require a serious miracle otherwise.

There is a passage in Ursula K. LeGuin’s fantasy novel, The Farthest Shore, which I don’t have memorized, but in it one character speaks to another (who is sleeping) and says something like:

Now we stand on the balance-point, and if I fall, you fall, and all the rest…but only for a little while. No darkness lasts forever, and even there, there are stars. Still, I should like to see thee crowned in Havenor, under the rune-symbol we brought for you before ever you were born.

We stand at the balance-point, and if the electorate falls tonight, then so does Hilary Clinton and so does the planet. But even then, we should not despair. No darkness lasts forever, and even in the dark, there are stars. Still, I should like to see her crowned in Havenor–sworn in in Washington, under the sign of democracy that was created before any of us were born.

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Ask What You Can Do for Your Country

I decided to volunteer for Hilary Clinton’s campaign. After all, she has a very good rating with the League of Conservation Voters and she’s running against a climate denier. Although I’ve been involved in electoral politics before, that was mostly local, working with activists I already knew. I’d never signed up to help out with a major campaign run by strangers. It was kind of intimidating.

In case you’ve been confused or intimidated, too, I’ll walk you through my experience with it.

I had thought that signing up would be simple—that there would be a button on the campaign website or something similar. And indeed there is. I also got unsolicited emails from the campaign begging me to sign up via a convenient link. Unfortunately, neither of those routes worked. I’ll spare you the soap opera of website failure, except to say that the whole mess would make a great basis for a comedy routine. There was no option to email or call a human being anywhere.

I have no idea why I encountered so much trouble. Eventually, I gave up on the website and walked into the campaign office in Easton, Maryland. Why Easton? Because my in-laws happened to know where it was and they wanted yard signs anyway. So we all stopped in.

I found the staff inside friendly and enthusiastic, but mysteriously unable to sign me up for work from home. Seriously, if I’m going to be working from home anyway, why does it matter which office gives me the work? But, apparently it does, because they sent me to Salisbury, which is nearer my home. The Salisbury office (also friendly and enthusiastic) finally handed me a couple of packets of names and phone numbers and a script to follow when making calls.

No, none of these people would email me anything. Apparently the Clinton campaign really doesn’t like emails these days.

Eventually I learned that the Clinton campaign itself does not have staff in Maryland, since we aren’t a battleground state. In Easton and in Salisbury I’d been dealing with the staff of the Senate campaign of Chris Van Hollen, which is supporting the Clinton campaign as well in the spirit of party unity. Perhaps some of the difficulty I had signing up (including the oddness of being transferred between offices) is simply due to the fact that I live in Maryland. The advantage is that I don’t see a lot of political adds.

Anyway, I got my packet for making phone calls and, after several days of procrastinating, jumped into them yesterday. I got a lot of answering machines (I’ll call back), but the people I talked with were pleasant, even when they didn’t support my candidates. I was pleasant as well. To be clear, my job was not to talk anyone into anything. I’m not very persuasive, especially not when speaking (I’m much more comfortable writing) and I’d told the campaign organizer so. She gave me an assignment that involves only asking people if they will vote for the candidate—apparently studies have shown that just asking the question increases the likelihood that a supporter will actually get themselves to the polls come election day.

I have more calls to make later this week, and while I find the prospect of cold-calling strangers at home more than a little frightening, I’m happy to report that nothing whatever actually went wrong the first day. I did my job, and everyone was nice to me about it. Even if someone had not been, that’s less scary than a climate denier in office.

What I’ve Learned

  • Signing up to volunteer may take a while. Start early.
  • Find a human being to talk to, not an online sign-up form.
  • Don’t be afraid to make suggestions (I asked if I could mail my completed packets, rather than dropping them off, and they said yes). You may have options the organizer didn’t think to tell you about.
  • Don’t be disturbed if what you see doesn’t look like a Presidential campaign. If you’re not in a battle-ground state, it might not be.
  • Be assertive—if you have to push through obstacles to volunteer, do it.
  • Don’t worry; most people are actually pretty nice, especially if you’re nice, too.
  • If you have an idea of the kind of work you want, say so. The organizers don’t know what you’re good at until you tell them. You can ask for more work if they don’t give you enough, too.

Remember that how you make phones calls, if that’s the kind of work you get, is just as important as the fact that you’re calling. Years ago, I received a call from a campaign I would have supported anyway, because of party affiliation, but the candidate won my personal loyalty because the volunteer on the phone sounded like a human being. I assumed that volunteer was a reflection of how the campaign was being run and, by extension, how the candidate would run things if elected. Talk to people the way you’d want to be treated.

Volunteering is not lethal, honest. Unrestricted climate change is.


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Debating Third Parties

Last night was the first presidential debate. I’m not going to go into political commentary here overall, but a few things stand out.

Mr. Trump’s aggression, for example. I’ve watched many debates over the years, and this was the first I’ve ever seen with such unrelenting bullying. Unfortunately, such tactics have a certain amount of political power. More relevant here is what didn’t come up for discussion–climate change. I wasn’t surprised. While the candidates are beginning to treat the issue as politically important, debate moderators, interviewers, and the news media still generally treat the environment as a niche issue. That has to stop, and should have stopped already.

Curiously, the most pro-environment statement the entire night came from Donald Trump, when he denied being a climate denier. Secretary Clinton made a jab at him for claiming that climate change is a plot by the Chinese, and he insisted he never said that. He was lying, he did tweet about China inventing climate change, and while he claims that was a joke, he has a long and consistent history of calling climate change a hoax benefiting the Chinese. What I find interesting that he’s feeling the need to disavow that particular statement. It means we’re making some progress.

If we can just get a climate-sane person into the Oval Office, we might be able to save the world.

At present, that person has to be Mrs. Clinton. No one else is in striking range. I’m sympathetic to the argument that Mrs. Clinton is an insider, that her commitment to the environment (and other issues beyond the scope of this article) is not as radical or as unambiguous as we need, that the political system that she serves and perpetuates is itself our problem. Personally, I like Mrs. Clinton. I usually don’t say this sort of thing here, but I am excited for her presidency. I don’t support her merely by default. But there are those who want more than she can give, and they are not foolish to want that.

The presidential race just isn’t the most effective place to fight for third parties.

Presidential races are, by definition, national. That means that you need a huge amount of money and organizational support just to get noticed, let alone win, and you have to be able to assemble a huge and varied coalition of constituents. While there are occasional exceptions–among which I do count Bernie Sanders–the game belongs to insiders who can cozy up to the elites and appeal to the lowest common denominator of the masses. Great presidents are those who can do so and genuinely serve our country. There have been a few.

But when you’re looking to change a system, you need to look at the part of the system that is ripe for change–the first domino, so to speak. You look for a critical place where a small amount of effort can flip a switch and ultimately cause widespread change. Trying to attack the American political duopoly at the presidency is just the opposite of that strategy, and it doesn’t work. The presidency is where revolutions finish, not where they begin.

Then, too, the American President, by design, has very little independent power. Executive action without Congress is sharply curtailed by law and politically dicey. Let’s say that Jill Stein were elected President; either she would find a way to compromise and work with others just like other politicians do, or she would remain ideologically pure and totally ineffective because Congress would ignore her and the states would fight her executive actions tooth and nail in the courts. How would that help anybody?

You want a revolution? You need to go after Congress and you need to go after state legislatures.

Legislative districts, both State and Federal, are relatively small. Unless a national organization gets involved and starts pouring in money, they can be won relatively cheaply by people who have a good record of community service and little else. A much smaller electorate means much less political inertia and a much greater chance of radical sentiment gaining ground. There is much more political (and demographic) diversity in Congress than among high-level candidates for the Presidency because each Congressional district can reflect the particular politics of its residents, whereas a national campaign inevitably takes a sort of average of the nation. Bernie Sanders is a perfect example of this principle–in his district, an independent Democratic Socialist can have a relatively safe seat. That he even got close to a national nomination is a political miracle.

So, legislatures are easier to get into, and potentially they are the more powerful positions.

The Federal legislature, of course, crafts the laws which the President executes, creates the national budget, and approves, or decides not to approve, many of the President’s decisions. As we have seen, the legislative leadership can effectively block the President from making appointments to the Supreme Court. While Congressmembers must act collectively, an individual can become hugely influential within the group through political skill and seniority, and any seat in either chamber has the potential to rise to prominence that way.

And of course, from Congress, the White House becomes much more accessible.

State legislatures are similar, with the added power that these are the bodies who draw district maps–they gerrymander, for better or worse, and can and do shape national policy indirectly for generations that way. And those constituencies are even smaller, so those seats are even easier to win.

A vote for a third party or independent presidential candidate is symbolic, but it’s not more than that. Your candidate will not get elected. You may or may not become morally responsible for the election of a climate-denier, but the best that can be said is you’ll do nothing. If you want to do something, look at the presidential candidates who have a real shot of winning and vote for the better one. And, and this part is important, vote for radical candidates for the State and Federal legislatures, or run for those offices yourself (and vote).

That’s how you can change the world.