For Climate Action, rising above my lowest moment in my climate organizing

Photo of Brian Ettling taken in March 2010.

The last several of years of organizing for climate action left me feeling depleted, empty, and unappreciated. It made me question if I have made any difference at all. Yes, the COVID pandemic that started in 2020 played a role, but it is not the major cause. I have felt like the climate movement has kept me at arm’s length, and it led me to feel burned out.

The story really goes back to November 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. A climate group I had organized with for years, Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), had a regional conference. During a brainstorming session during the conference, we determined that the best way to get more people involved was to have a state tour across Missouri. It would be composed of speaking events to expose the public to the organization and the climate solutions it advocated. A leader was needed to speak at these different cities. I volunteered myself since I had the time and passion to do it. At that time, I was a seasonal park ranger at Crater Lake National Park. It was in between seasons from my summer job, so I had the availability and enthusiasm to lead this tour. After I volunteered myself to lead this tour, I immediately got some pushback from the local Kansas City volunteers.

They were concerned about the finances to complete this tour. That part didn’t bother me. I figured the money would work itself out, one way or another. As we kept brainstorming about this, they wouldn’t let this issue go. They kept trying to hammer how I was going to pay for this tour. I was annoyed that they weren’t supportive and trying to think outside the box how we were going to grow Citizens Climate Lobby and get more people involved. To get them from stop dwelling on this sticking point, I finally said: “I will do my own fund raising to make this tour happen.”

That seemed to silence the critics, at least I naively thought at the time. However, two weeks later, I received a phone call out of the blue from the Vice President of CCL, Madeleine Para, who had also attended the conference in Kansas City. Madeleine started off the conversation cordial asking me how I was doing. In that moment, I was very excited talking about an upcoming trip I was planning to Ottawa Canada. I had been invited to be a guest speaker and lobby members of the Canadian parliament for a Citizens’ Climate Lobby Canada conference. She sounded rather cool and calculated when she said: “Well, I am going to have to burst your bubble.”

She went on to say: “I was just talking to the Executive Director, Mark Reynolds, and we agreed that you can’t do your own fund raising for a state tour. We feel like any fund raising that you would do would interfere with the organization’s fund raising. We can’t let you do that.”

It felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. I didn’t have the words to respond, so I hung up the phone. I did email her to apologize, but I felt deeply hurt. She did seem to understand that in a responding email and relaying a comment days later to a mutual friend. That was it though. There was no other action taken to reach out to me to try to heal the breach. Immediately after Madeleine’s call, I called a few CCL friends across the country and they didn’t know what to say. They still advised me to do this tour if I wanted to do it.

During that phone call with Madeleine, I didn’t have the words at the moment to dig deeper into her reasoning. From my interactions with her, I felt an underlying jealousy. She didn’t seem to like my enthusiasm and energy to accomplish big things as a climate organizer. It felt like my plans to organize around Missouri were somehow a threat to her position. Therefore, she had to find a way to get the Executive Director on her side to stop my plans. Her phone call made no logical sense. If I had the words to say in that moment, I would have responded: ‘What was the point of that regional conference? I somehow had the impression it was to think outside our comfort zone to grow our organization to make a difference for climate action. I am failing to see your logic how my own fund raising for a tour would compete with fund raising of the national organization.’

It made me see for the first time that people involved in the climate movement don’t always have the best intentions to effectively act on climate. They don’t always want to help volunteers like me reach for their full potential to make a difference for climate action. Sadly, I learned for the first time being a climate organizer that others’ politics, power, and jealousy can get in the way of my yearning to make difference. Unfortunately, it was a lesson that I was going to have to learn again and again.

The good news is that I didn’t let Madeleine stop me. I ended up giving two climate change speaking tours in Missouri. The first tour was in March 2017, when I spoke at a nature center to an audience of over 100 people in Jefferson City, Missouri. Two days later, I gave a talk to over 60 people at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. The second tour was in October 2018 when I spoke at my alma mater, William Jewell College in Kansas City, University of Missouri in Columbia MO, St. Louis University, and alma mater high school, Oakville Senior High in Oakville MO. No, I was never going to let Madeleine win. However, her phone call in November 2016 really left a bad taste in my mouth. It still hurts to this day to feel like my climate efforts were being squashed by a top leader in a big climate organization.

Brian Ettling giving a climate change talk at his alma mater William Jewell College in October 2018.

Since that November 2016 phone call with Madeleine, I had other big setbacks and disappointed as a climate organizer that left me feeling burned out when the COVID pandemic started in the United States in March 2020. I alluded to this at the beginning of this blog. I hope share more about my high and low moments taking climate action in my future writings. Except for this paragraph and the next two, I actually wrote all of this blog in November 2021, when I was going through another very low period in my climate organizing.

However, when I traveled in North Carolina in November 2022 to give two climate change talks, I felt like I was a happy warrior again. In my previous blog, My Climate Change Comedian Story, I wrote that “It felt like I was back to my old self before the pandemic of traveling to other states once or twice a year to give climate change talks.”

Not sure what I am going to do exactly in 2023, but I am excited to lobby, organize, give speeches, write and do whatever it takes for climate action in this new year.

As a side note, December 7, 2021, CCL sent out a press release that Madeleine Para was promoted as the new Executive Director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Brian Ettling, a 1987 graduate of Oakville High School, speaking to students there on October 16, 2018.