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Lobbyists Aim to Tame Trolls by Promoting Civil Climate Conversation 

click to enlarge Bill Nelson describes civil climate debate arguments to members of Citizens Climate Lobby. The group wants carbon emission fees to be distributed to people in the form of checks.

Scott Elmquist

Bill Nelson describes civil climate debate arguments to members of Citizens Climate Lobby. The group wants carbon emission fees to be distributed to people in the form of checks.

"We're going to become an indoor generation," Bill Nelson says during a recent presentation to Citizens Climate Lobby, an environmental group that prizes civil discussion.

Nelson, a physician and public-health director for 30 years, says he boned up on global warming stats because he was worried about his grandchildren. Plus he's concerned about the fire and fury that surrounds climate debate — a sentiment shared by the nearly 20 activists gathered last Saturday at Richmond Public Library's main branch.

"You have to walk into this conversation assuming good intent," says Chris Weigard, a liaison for Citizens Climate Lobby. "You have to care about the other person, too."

Nelson's talk comes at a crucial time. A regional conference for chapters of Citizens Climate Lobby will occur March 24 and 25 in Asheville, North Carolina, followed shortly by a national conference in Washington. Members want Congress to enact fees on companies relative to how much carbon dioxide those companies emit. The pooled money would then be distributed to every American in the form of checks.

Making this argument requires having both a thick skin and a sense of empathy, members say. With Dominion Energy's muscular presence in the area, their solution faces economic resistance. Emotional head winds are present now, too, due to the recent uproar over affordable heating access in Richmond's lower-income neighborhoods. But members are passionate to persuade, and they believe they can educate others about global climate dynamics in the process.

"It's not easy to convince legislators," says Weigard, who also comments that President Barack Obama's over-reliance on executive orders created an ineffective legislative atmosphere. "Our solution should be appealing to conservatives, because it's not a regulation, it's not a tax on citizens and it doesn't grow government. It's progressive in that everybody gets the same sized check. It doesn't punish low-income individuals who may have to budget higher utility bills and it shifts public focus into renewable energy. Our civility is what gets us into a conversation that can bridge personal differences."

About half of the members in Richmond's chapter are constituents of Donald McEachin. The others are constituents of Dave Brat, with a few constituents of Rob Wittman sprinkled in. Members say they previously met with those legislators or their aides, as well as with Eric Cantor. Dawn Adams also was presented with their solution before being elected to the House of Delegates, they say. The Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial board has endorsed carbon pricing legislation, as have select Republicans. George Shultz, former secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, co-wrote a proposal starting fees at $40 per ton of cabon dioxide emitted. National trade would be protected.

"Exports to countries without comparable carbon pricing systems would receive rebates for carbon taxes paid, while imports from such countries would face fees on the carbon content of their products," the proposal states.

"It's happening faster than we thought," Nelson says, during his speech on global warming. Virginia could be 8 degrees warmer in the future, and water-depleted to boot, he says, despite his prediction of a concurrent 8-foot rise in sea levels along coastal Virginia. He also says that Virginia would feel like mid-Florida by 2100 if no climate-control policies are enacted. Presenting a Richmond heat map compiled by Jeremy Hoffman from the Science Museum of Virginia, Nelson points out that heat would be exacerbated in neighborhoods with lots of asphalt.

"The delicate dance that makes everything work gets disrupted," he says. "People say 'Oh, well, early spring.' Early spring is no good. The pollinators get out of sync with the ecosystem they evolved alongside of."

Other people and researchers are unconvinced that communities need to leave fossil fuels in the ground, though. In Ontario, residents are raging against alternative hydropower initiatives, which have created skyrocketing electricity costs. Some even see a trend of global cooling in effect. One oft-debated cooling thesis is by Don Easterbrook, published in Global Research in November 2008, in which he challenges conclusions made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Nelson cites a study by Yale University that says public belief about climate change began increasing around 2008 but then dipped. He said 7 out of 10 Americans believe global warming is happening. In 2016, at the urging of Citizens Climate Lobby, a House of Representatives Climate Solutions Caucus was formed. It contains 70 members, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

To navigate this changing cultural climate, lobby member Mary Ellen Mercer says she's availed herself of books like "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt, a former University of Virginia professor who now heads the Heterodox Academy.

"We don't want to harangue anybody," Mercer says. "We are a kinder, gentler environmental group. We think our solution is simple to implement, and we want to open up conversation around that."

"You have to bite your tongue a bit sometimes," one member acknowledges, chuckling. Another member happily states that she's made strides with several online trolls. "I had one in particular who said I was the first environmental activist they had interacted with who wasn't on a high horse," she says.

But don't neglect the persuasiveness of workaday anecdotes, says Bruce Evans, a landscaper.

"I've been living with the weather every day for 25 years," he says. "Twenty years ago, our team would see rain on the exact day it was predicted. Now I'm checking the weather every hour." S

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