Want to get the attention of your member of Congress to prioritize effective climate legislation? Then attend one of their town halls. According to Congressional staff and members of Congress, they pay very close attention to the issues and pending legislation that constituents engage with them at their town halls.
In February 2017, my wife Tanya Couture and I moved from St. Louis, Missouri to Portland, Oregon. At that point, I was involved in the climate movement for several years as a volunteer for Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) and a Climate Reality Leader. For several years, I was the CCL volunteer liaison for GOP Congresswoman Ann Wagner (MO-02).
This CCL liaison role involved organizing meetings with Congressional staff twice a year for the CCL lobby days in the Washington D.C. Plus, organizing a spring in district lobby meeting with Congressional staff. As CCL Congressional liaisons, we would let the Congressional staff know if a CCL member had a published letter to the editor or opinion editorial mentioning the member of Congress. We would alert the Congressional staff periodically on legislation we were supporting. In addition, we were available to answer any questions the members of Congress or the staff had about CCL’s policies or other ways we could be beneficial to them.
When Tanya and I moved to Oregon, I gave up my CCL volunteer role as liaison to Republican Rep. Ann Wagner. This liaison role was very challenging because climate change was not a high priority for Rep. Wagner. She co-sponsored Rep. Steve Scalise’s anti-carbon tax resolution and she bitterly opposed the Obama Administration’s EPA Clean Power Plan. It was going to be a huge lift for her to support any legislation supporting clean energy and CCL’s carbon fee and dividend proposal. At the same time, I love an impossible task. Even though I did not shift her position at all when I was her CCL liaison from 2013 to 2017, I still developed a positive rapport with her Washington D.C. and local Ballwin MO Office Congressional staff. I enjoyed that volunteer position and I did not give it up until several months after I moved to Portland.
Once I moved to Oregon, I wanted to new challenge. When Tanya and I moved to Portland, we became the constituents of Democratic U.S. Representative Earl Blumeneaur. At that time, Blumenauer did not seem like much of a challenge for me as a climate organizer. Climate action was a strong priority for him. He introduced his own carbon pricing bill in Congress in 2017. Even more, he joined the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus, a safe space for Democratic and Republican members of the House to exchange ideas for climate policies and possible legislation. Oregon CCL already had a well-seasoned CCL liaison and even an assistant liaison for Rep. Blumenauer. Thus, I was going to need a new challenge.
Attending and asking a question at a town hall for Congressman Greg Walden
For 25 years, I worked as a seasonal park ranger at Crater Lake National Park during the summers. Crater Lake resided in Oregon Congressional District 2, represented by Republican Congressman Greg Walden. Oregon Congressional District two encompassed all eastern Oregon to the city of Bend and southern Oregon to the town of Grants Pass. Rep. Greg Walden accepted the science of climate change and proudly drove a Toyota Prius. At that time, he was the Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. That is a powerful committee in Congress overseeing our energy supply, electrical utilities, and business policies. It was a likely committee that a carbon fee and dividend policy or other vital policies to address climate change might end up being considered. I was part of a CCL lobby meeting with his Congressional staff in Medford, Oregon in 2013. I decided to focus my efforts on Rep. Walden to see if I could shift his position to support a carbon fee and dividend and other climate policies.
From looking at his Congressional website, I saw Rep. Walden had scheduled a town hall in The Dalles, Oregon late morning on April 12, 2017. The Dalles is a one-hour drive east of Portland, so I figured I could easily drive there and back during the day. I put out the word within Portland CCL to see if anyone would be interested in joining me. Retired NASA scientist and Portland CCL volunteer Kathy Moyd rode in my car with me to the event.
It was a dreary overcast Oregon winter day with light rain showers in Portland on the drive all the way out to The Dalles. It was a good day for an indoor event like a Congressional town hall. When Kathy and I arrived, there was several hundred people there to attend this town hall. I recognized one of Rep. Greg Walden’s staff from the Washington D.C. office from lobbying the previous November at his Washington D.C Congressional office as part of the CCL lobby day. She was friendly, as she was with all the constituents attending. She seemed to remember me.
If we wanted to ask Rep. Walden a question, the staff member greeting folks at the welcome desk said that we needed to take a raffle ticket. I drove a long way to try to ask a question, so I did not want to miss out on that opportunity. I held onto that ticket tightly during the event. I stared at it frequently so I would not miss a chance to ask a question if my number was called.
The very large crowd was very agitated because Donarld Trump was elected President just a few months before and they really wanted to let Rep. Walden feel their rage. Walden gave the impression that he was not enamored with Trump. On immigration, he told the audience that he tried to explain to Trump that many farmers in his eastern Oregon district rely upon migrant undocumented workers. Thus, a guest worker program at the very least was vital for Oregon. Many members of the audience were very worried about losing Obamacare. There was a lot of booing from the audience over his positions, which made him nervous and uncomfortable.
The audience was very irritated with him overall. I could have asked him: ‘What do you think of rye bread? When was the last time that you ate it?’ If he would have responded like most of us: ‘Hmm…When I the last time I had rye bread? Trying to think here. I am not sure…”
The audience would have yelled, “Answer the question! Don’t deflect!”
That is how angry people were that day. A part of me did have compassion for Rep. Walden as I wanted to engage him on climate change.
Towards the end of the town hall, my number was called. I walked up to the microphone in my part of this huge auditorium to ask this question:
“Thank you for coming today to this town hall meeting Rep. Greg Walden. We really do appreciate you holding this event. For the past 20 years, I have been a seasonal park ranger at Crater Lake National Park Oregon, where I have seen the impact of climate change with more intense wildfires and I know you care very deeply about Oregon’s forests, and a reducing snowpack which then provides less water for cities in Oregon. With climate change such a serious threat, are you familiar with Citizens Climate Lobby?”
Rep. Greg Walden: “Yes, I have met with them.”
Me: “Citizens Climate Lobby worked very hard to bring your fellow House members together for the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. It now has 36 members, 18 Democrats and 18 Republicans, meeting to discuss climate change solutions. Would you consider joining this caucus?”
Rep. Greg Walden: “I have never heard of this caucus.”
Me: “I can get you information on this caucus. Even more, would you please consider co-sponsoring the House Republican Resolution 195 calling for climate action for House Republicans?”
Walden sighed and rolled his eyes at me. They then shared how Oregon has done a lot to reduce emissions. He then had a weird answer that according to the IPCC forest fires give off a big percentage of annual carbon emissions.
The audience booed when he made that last comment, causing him to walk it back a tad. Surprisingly, some of the audience then turned on him yelling: “Why won’t you join the caucus?”
I bet nobody in the audience had heard of the House Climate Solutions Caucus (CSC) before that town hall. It was fascinating to see them boo and shout back at Walden when he seemed very resistant to joining the CSC.
When it was over, a small crowd gathered around him to engage with him individually. I gave Kathy my camera to take pictures of me before I positioned myself to shake hands with him. Kathy got a good photo of us shaking hands.
Overall, this was a fabulous experience. Rep. Walden had town halls in Bend and Medford, Oregon on the following days. I conferred with CCL friends in Bend and the Medford area to encourage them to attend. I gave them my reconnaissance of what the crowd was like and how to position oneself to try to get your question asked during the town hall. Even more, I wanted to share the questions I asked and how he responded. I hoped that they would ask similar questions so Rep. Walden would find courage to make climate legislation a priority. Unfortunately, the crowds were extremely large. That reduced the chance of my friends getting a winning raffle ticket number to ask Rep. Walden similar questions to urge him to support climate legislation.
From that experience, I wanted to attend more Congressional town halls in the future. Even more, I hoped to inspire other climate advocates to attend Congressional town halls. It is a great way to urge members of Congress to support climate legislation and to bring attention to the issue to members of the community.
Asking U.S. Senator Ron Wyden a question during his town on February 15, 2019
Unfortunately, I would not have another opportunity to attend a Congressional town hall until 2019. After the Congressman Greg Walden town hall in The Dalles in April 2017, I became busy with other aspects of my climate organizing. I returned to work as a seasonal park ranger at Crater Lake National Park from May to October 2017. Several weeks later, I was the lead organizer and speaker for the CCL Oregon Stewardship Tour traveling for 12 days across eastern and southern Oregon at the end of October and beginning of November 2017. In June 2017 and November 2017, I traveled to Washington D.C. for the CCL Lobby Conferences and Lobby Days.
February 2018 to July 2018, I worked for Tesla Energy selling solar panels. In June 2017 and August 2018, I was a breakout speaker for Climate Reality Trainings in Bellevue, Washington and Los Angeles, California. July 2018, I started volunteering for Renew Oregon full time to help their efforts to try to pass their cap and invest bill, known as the Clean Energy Jobs Bill or HB 2020 in the 2019 Oregon Legislative session.
In October 2018, I embarked on a speaking tour across his home state of Missouri from October 8 to 17, 2018. During his tour, I spoke at My alma mater William Jewell College (class of 1992), University of Missouri in Columbia MO, St. Louis Community College, Oakville High School in St. Louis (I graduated from Oakville in 1987), and St. Louis University. In June 2018 and November 2018, I traveled to Washington D.C. for the CCL Lobby Conferences and Lobby Days. In addition, in the fall of 2018, I took on the volunteer role as the Program Manager to invite guest speakers and organize the monthly meetings of the Portland Climate Reality Chapter.
While taking all those climate actions, I signed up for the email newsletters for U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon to see when I could attend one of their town halls. Since he became a U.S. Senator in 1996, Ron Wyden pledged open-to-all town meetings in each county in Oregon each year he serves in the Senate. As of April 2023, Wyden has held 970 meetings “where he refrains from speeches, listens to the concerns of Oregonians, and answers questions.” Since taking office in 2009, Senator Merkley has kept a similar promise to hold an open town hall for every Oregon county each year.
On November 27, 2018, the bipartisan Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 7173). CCL lobbied for years for a carbon fee and dividend policy bill to be introduced into Congress. On December 19, 2018, Republican Senator Jeff Flake and Democratic Senator Chris Coons introduced bipartisan U.S Senate companion bill to H.R. 7173. These bills died once the new Congress went into session on January 3, 2019. However, it felt vital to urge more U.S. Senators, such as Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, to support these bills in the next Congress. Attending one of their upcoming town halls was one of the best ways to get their attention to make a carbon fee and dividend bill a priority for them.
While receiving their email newsletters, I noticed Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden had nearby town halls at the beginning of January 2019. On January 2, 2019, I attended a town hall for Senator Merkley at the East Portland Community Center, located less than 4 miles from where I lived. Two days later, Senator Wyden had a town hall scheduled in Sherwood, Oregon at their Center for the Performing Arts. The town hall in Sherwood was about 34 miles away and close to a 45-minute drive from where I live in Portland, Oregon. I went both town halls.
Each town hall was packed with people. In fact, many people show up to ask questions or give comments to the Senators. As a result, each of these town halls had raffle tickets that were handed out by one of the Senator’s staff at the front door if one wanted to ask the Senator a question. During the town hall, individual ticket numbers were announced by a local elected official or VIP on the stage with the Senator. If an attendee had that exact ticket number, they would raise their hand to be seen by all. One of the Senator’s staff would then come to that audience member for them to speak into a portable microphone to ask the Senator a question.
I received a raffle ticket each time. However, my ticket number was not called for either of those town halls. I enjoyed attending to hear what each Senator had to say. I prepared questions that I wrote out urging each Senator to support the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (EICDA). I showed the questions in advance to Oregon CCL friends for their input and approval. My heart raced a bit each time a number was called hoping it would be my ticket, but I had no such luck at those town halls. Overall, I enjoyed attending. After attending those town halls, I kept an eye out for future town halls for Senators Wyden and Merkley in my area. I was determined to go to a future town hall to urge one of them to support the EICDA.
Even more, I was a bit disappointed that there were few climate advocates there, especially CCL volunteers. My goal was to motivate other CCL and Climate Reality advocates to attend Congressional town halls to increase the possibility that Senators Wyden, Merkley, or even the local members of Congress would support the EICDA.
The next local town hall that I noticed was for Senator Ron Wyden at the Portland Community College (PCC)) Sylvania campus Performing Arts Center on February 15, 2019. This was going to be a full day for me. I planned to spend the day at the state Capitol in Salem, Oregon. The Oregon Legislative Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction (JCCR) scheduled a public hearing for OR citizens to give oral testimony for their comments about the Clean Energy Jobs Bill (HB 2020). I signed up to give two minutes of oral testimony to the JCCR. This was the first time that I gave oral testimony to a legislative committee. To stay under the maximum allowed time of two minutes for oral testimony, I typed up my oral testimony before carpooling to Salem on Friday morning. My oral testimony before the Committee went well. It felt amazing to participate in our democracy as a climate advocate to testify before a legislative committee to urge legislators to support a strong and effective bill for climate action, such as the Clean Energy Jobs Bill.
My friend and fellow CCL volunteer KB Mercer gave me a ride to and from Salem that day. She did a wonderful job of testifying before the JCCR. After she completed her oral testimony, I began my testimony, joking, “Wow! That’s a tough act to follow!”
KB was very enthusiastic and helpful carpooling with me from Salem to the Senator Wyden town hall that evening in southwest Portland at the Sylvania Performing Arts Center on that PCC campus. Because it was a Friday evening, I talked my wife Tanya into attending this town hall and then giving me a ride back to our home.
When KB and I showed up to this town hall, it was an audience of mostly young people with the progressive climate group, Sunrise Movement. This grassroots organization advocated for The Green New Deal Resolution in Congress that was just introduced in Congress on February 7, 2019, by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Edward Markey. Many of these climate advocates attended with bright yellow signs that read, “WORK FOR A GREEN NEW DEAL.” The other side of their placard read, “WHAT IS YOUR PLAN?”
Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley were co-sponsors of the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal caused division among climate and environmental groups. On January 10, 2019, a letter signed by 626 organizations that supported a Green New Deal was sent to all members of Congress. The letter contained a statement that the signatories would “vigorously oppose…market-based mechanisms and technology options such as carbon and emissions trading and offsets, carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, waste-to-energy, and biomass energy.”
Statements like that caused six major environmental groups to not sign on the letter, such as the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, Mom’s Clean Air Force, Environment America, and the Audubon Society. It was noted that “Two green groups founded by deep-pocketed Democratic celebrities are also absent: Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project and Tom Steyer’s NextGen America.” In addition, CCL did not sign onto this letter since they were clearly advocating for a market-based solution. The EICDA was a carbon fee and dividend, market-based policy, to address climate change.
KB and I were clearly outnumbered by the Sunrise Movement volunteers dominating this event. My wife Tanya showed up before the town hall started to rendezvous with us. The three of us sat in the front row with a sea of yellow Sunrise Movement Green New Deal signs held up by a very enthusiastic audience behind us. When Senator Ron Wyden started the town hall acknowledging all the folks from the Sunrise Movement there and their support for the Green New Deal (GND). He acknowledged that he did sign as a co-sponsor to the resolution. However, he admitted to this audience that the resolution was unlikely to pass in this Congress. He referred to it as ‘a resolution with goals.’
Even more, the GND did not have the support of many Congressional Democrats. Senator Wyden tried to be realistic where the GND stood in Congress. The audience booed a bit and felt a bit frustrated with Senator Wyden. I understood though that Senator Wyden was walking a fine line of supporting what these constituents wanted with the Green New Deal and realizing what was possible to pass Congress with a Republican controlled Senate.
Like the previous town halls I attended, Senator Wyden’s staff issued raffle tickets to audience members interested in asking questions. My wife Tanya is the opposite of me. She does not like public speaking at a large event like that. Thus, she handed me her ticket, which doubled my chance of a question getting asked. Right before the event started, another audience member changed their mind about asking a question. They asked me if I wanted their ticket and I jumped at the opportunity to say, ‘yes!’
Like the Congressional town halls I attended, I had a question typed out and prepared to read. As the town hall progressed, I nervously kept staring at my three tickets to see if I one of my numbers was going to be possibly called this time. Senator Ron Wyden then announced, ‘Looks like our time is just about over and I have time for just one last question.’
The VIP at the front of the room announced the ticket number, which happened to be the same number as one of the tickets I held in my hand. I then raised my hand to say, ‘That’s me!’
A member of Senator Ron Wyden walked up to where I was sitting and held a microphone just a few inches from my mouth. I tried to grab the microphone, but he was not going to let me have control of the microphone. Looking back, I totally understood afterwards why he did not want me to have possession of the microphone. Some of the people at these town halls would never give back the microphone. They would want to keep sharing their point of view with the Senator. When I understood afterwards what the staff member’s action, we laughed about it immediately after the town hall.
Once I could speak into the microphone, this is what I said:
“My name is Brian Ettling. I live in northeast Portland. For 25 years I was a park ranger at Crater Lake National Park, one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Sadly, I saw climate change while working there with a lower snowpack and more intense wildfire season. Because I am very worried about climate change, I now volunteer with Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Have you heard of them?
Senator Wyden responded that he had heard of CCL
I then continued: “They are a grassroots volunteer led organization lobbying Congress to pass the Energy Innovation & Carbon Dividend Act (HR 763). This bipartisan bill would lower climate pollution by 40% over 12 years, while growing the economy, creating jobs, and improving people’s health. Could you work with your colleagues, especially Senator Chris Coons to create a Senate companion bill for the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act?”
Senator Ron Wyden paused for a moment and then responded, “I have not heard about that bill. I will think about it. Please send me an email and talk to my staff that’s here this evening.”
Then Senator Wyden wrapped up the town hall. Afterwards, a couple of the Sunrise Movement folks approached to thank me for my question and briefly chat. A couple of members of Senator Wyden’s staff also approached me to briefly chat. I asked for one of their business cards. I did send a follow up email to the Field Representative of Senator Wyden two days later. I briefly explained about CCL and the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (EICDA). The Field Representative thanked me for my email and said she had a meeting on February 28th with Portland area CCL volunteers to discuss the bill.
Although I did not successfully persuade Senator Wyden to support, introduce a Senate companion bill, or co-sponsor the EICDA, it still felt very empowering to ask him to support specific effective legislation to address climate change. It was my third town hall I had attended for U.S. Senator from Oregon in the first six weeks of 2019. It felt like the third time was the charm to promote the EICDA with a U.S. Senator and the local town hall audience.
Co-presenting about town halls as a Breakout Speaker at a CCL Conference
Directly asking Senator Ron Wyden to support a climate change bill at his February 2019 town hall felt like a glorious moment for me. Two days later, I emailed senior staff at Citizens’ Climate Lobby to pitch the idea of having a breakout session on being effective at attending local Congressional town halls for the upcoming June 2019 CCL Conference. They immediately said yes to my idea. The only suggestion they had for me was to in the interest of meeting their diversity goals, they wanted me to add a woman or a person of color as a co-presenter.
I thought that was a great idea since I had a wonderful time co-presenting over the years at Climate Reality Trainings with Maddie Adkins, Itzel Morales, and Maria Santiago-Valentín. Plus, I had co-presented over the years in St. Louis with other Climate Reality Leaders. I loved co-presenting because it is fun to have a partner to collaborate on a presentation. Even more, when I am giving a presentation, I sometimes find I am stumped by audience questions. Thus, it can be a relief to I have a co-presenter bail me out when there’s a question from an audience member that I don’t know an answer. Even more, I am all about diversity, equity, and inclusion. The speakers on the stage should reflect the audience and the audience should be able to relate to the speakers on the stage.
It was going to be up to me to find a co-presenter. It took over a month, but I found someone that I barely knew from Climate Reality Project and CCL, Eve Simmons. We chatted on the phone in late March. She had some great ideas and we started brainstorming some ideas to make this session a success.
Eve and I met many times over Zoom during the spring of 2019 working very hard trying to stitch our presentations together. We gave our presentation Mastering Town Halls on Sunday, June 9th during the CCL Conference in Washington D.C.
For my portion of the presentation, I began with the question: “Why town halls?”
I defined town halls as “A face to face meeting with your members of Congress (and/or your state and local elected officials, but the whole town is involved.”
I stressed that town halls are “a great way to promote CCL to your members of Congress and your community.”
I warned that if you don’t attend town halls, others will be there to promote their ideas. I included an image on this slide of the February 2019 town hall with Senator Ron Wyden where it was basically a sea of Sunrise Movement supporters promoting the Green New Deal. In the front row, my wife Tanya was seated off to the side. Thus, I advised to “if you can, try to bring your spouse, family and CCL friends to attend.”
For our tips for mastering town halls:
- Go to Townhallproject.com or subscribe to the e-mail list of your members of Congress to see when their next town hall is located conveniently to you.
- Get there early! If you can, one hour in advance.
a. To get a good seat close to the front.
b. Network with the Congressional staff & community members.
c. Find out how they are going to do the audience questions.
*Don’t forget to wear your CCL buttons, t-shirts, hats, etc.
- If you get a chance to ask a question, keep your question brief, positive, and to the point.
a. Start with your name and the area where you live.
b. Show gratitude.
c. Share your elevator climate story.
d. Ask the member of Congress if they have heard of CCL.*
• I put as asterisk there to ask the question quickly, if comfortable to get a quick yes or no response from the elected leader. Don’t let them take over and not give you a chance to ask the rest of your question.
e. Briefly explain about CCL & our bill (HR 763) to the member of Congress and to the audience.
f. Ask them to co-sponsor the Energy Innovation & Carbon Dividend Act
I then broke this down with my question for Senator Ron Wyden from his February 2019 town hall:
- My name is Brian Ettling. I live in NE Portland.
- Thank you for hard work in Congress and holding this event today to hear from your constituents.
- For 25 years I was a park ranger at Crater Lake National Park, one of the most beautiful places on the planet. (pause for effect)
Sadly, I saw climate change while working there with a lower snowpack and more intense wildfire season.
- Because I am very worried about climate change, I now volunteer with Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Have you heard of them?*
- They are a grassroots volunteer led organization lobbying Congress to pass the Energy Innovation & Carbon Dividend Act (HR 763).
This bipartisan bill would lower climate pollution by 40% over 12 years, while growing the economy, creating jobs, and improving people’s health.
- Could you work with your colleagues, especially Senator Chris Coons to create a Senate companion bill for the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act?”
I then shared types of bad town hall questions:
• Attacks the member of Congress
• Long winded
• Alienates the audience
• No specific ask
• Makes everyone feel uncomfortable.
• Makes CCL look bad to the community.
I then concluded by talking about how Speaking Up at a Town Hall might be out of your comfort zone. I showed a picture of the audience looking very serious before Senator Ron Wyden’s February 2019 town hall that I attended.
I then ended with one of my favorite quotes by Maggie Kuhn, American activist & founder
of the Gray Panthers movement: “Speak Your Mind, even if your voice shakes.”
Eve Simmons had some good advice in her portion of our talk, such as
• Register for the town hall. Some MOC’s won’t let you in if you are not on their attending list.
• When checking in, ask if stationary audience mics will be used. Sit as near to one as possible.
• Bring a brightly colored pen in case you’ll be given question cards to write on and turn in.
• Write out your concise question ahead of time and practice it.
• Have a secondary question prepared in case someone else asks your question first.
• Bring friends! They can applaud your question, reinforce it, and ask follow up climate questions of their own.
• Be ready to seize the opportune moment, tying in good points that have been made earlier.
• Speak slowly and clearly for dramatic effect.
Eve advised the audience to FRONTLOAD your question with…
• Thank you
• Emotion/feeling, a personal story
• Current or recent event
• Locally relevant connection
• Compelling point
• Credible source
• Memorable or catchy phrase
Like me, Eve shared example town hall questions. She then ended with a very inspiring thought:
Eve and I did not get a big audience for this breakout session. I remember us having less than 20 people in a room that could have probably held around 40 people. Except for a couple of people who had questions for us and gave us feedback that it was helpful, we did not seem to get much of a response from the audience.
One older audience member seemed skeptical that my sample question would be effective for his member of Congress. Senator Ron Wyden is a very progressive Democratic U.S. Senator. His member of Congress was more conservative and possibly a Republican. I acknowledged that when I was a constituent of Rep. Ann Wagner in St. Louis, who is a conservative Republican, I would probably be asking a different kind of question than I did for Senator Ron Wyden. The point of my talk was to help my audience think creativity how to pose a question to their member of Congress at a town hall, not necessarily mimic and copy my style of town hall questions.
Eve and I struggled at times to get our ideas and messaging in our talk in sync. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, the audience response seemed to be subdued. However, I was very proud to give this talk on the importance of Mastering Town Halls. In my experience in Oregon, I had not seen much climate advocates, especially CCL volunteers, at town halls. I hoped to raise awareness about that in some way that I could.
Attending a town hall for Senator Ron Wyden at the end of August 2019.
After asking a climate change question directly to Senator Ron Wyden at his February 2019 town hall and giving the Mastering Town Halls presentation with Eve Simmons, I was eager to attend more Congressional town halls. I especially hoped to attend another town hall in the future with a chance to engage with Senator Wyden or Senator Merkley. Over the next four months, I mostly focused on Renew Oregon’s efforts to pass the Clean Energy Jobs Bill. After I went to the CCL Conference and Lobby Day in Washington D.C. and presented with Eve, I had climate change commitments back in Oregon.
A week after the early June CCL conference, my wife Tanya and I traveled to Crater Lake National Park, where I worked as a seasonal park ranger from 1992 to 2017. I returned there as a guest speaker during the park ranger seasonal training to give a talk how to talk with park visitors about climate change. During the last part of June, I traveled to the state capitol in Salem almost daily to rally support for the Clean Energy Jobs Bill, HB 2020. Unfortunately, the Republican Senators fled Oregon during the last ten days of June to deny the 2/3 quorum rule for a floor vote. Sadly, their walk out killed the Clean Energy Jobs Bill.
For the first half of July, I was very depressed over the defeat of the Clean Energy Jobs Bill. To find a sense of renewal, I became the interim Chair of the Climate Reality Portland Chapter. I took this role to specifically organize Climate Reality events in partnership with other climate groups to pass Renew Oregon’s cap and invest bill in the 2020 Oregon Legislative session. With all the ups and downs with my climate organizing in 2019, Tanya and I were able to take a short vacation in the second week of August to visit North Cascades National Park, Washington.
After I returned from vacation, I noticed that Senator Ron Wyden had a town hall scheduled for the East Portland Community Center on August 29, 2019. This was the same location that Senator Jeff Merkley held his town hall on January 2nd. I had determination to get other CCL volunteers to join me for this town hall. I had at least four CCL friends join me for this town hall, plus Tanya joined me. I conferred with others in CCL to try to put together a great question to see if Senator Wyden would support carbon pricing, returning the revenue to households vs. investing it in solutions, while acting to solve climate change in a timely manner.
Like all the previous town halls I attended for Senators Wyden and Merkley, Wyden’s staff gave out raffle tickets before the start for anyone interested in asking a question. Unfortunately, even with six of us there in this big audience connected with CCL, none of our ticket numbers were called to ask a question. That’s how it goes sometimes. However, we still had a better chance of directly asking Senator Ron Wyden a question by attending his town hall that if we had stayed home.
Giving a climate presentation at Senator Jeff Merkley’s Portland office in November 2019
In the fall of 2019, I was very busy as the interim Chair of the Climate Reality Portland Chapter. I was planning the monthly meetings, creating agendas for the monthly Leadership Team meetings, and organizing large events, such as one that was held at a local theatre in Milwaukie, OR on September 16, 2019. We filled this theatre with over 80 local climate advocates and Climate Reality Leaders. Our event was called: Climate Legislation: Where do we go from here in Oregon? We had a panel of three speakers: Milwaukie Mayor Mark Gamba, Dylan Kruse from Sustainable Northwest and Shilpa Joshi from Renew Oregon. They talked about what we needed to do to pass strong cap and invest legislation in the 2020 Oregon legislative session.
While I was focused on leading the Climate Reality Portland Chapter, Climate Reality Project announced their 24 Hours of Action campaign scheduled for November 20-21, 2019. In past years, Climate Reality Project hosted a 24-hour webinar called 24 Hours of Reality. That was a live internet broadcast they had hosted for several years each November. Each hour of those previous live webinars focused on how climate changed impacted a country or region in a different time zone on planet Earth. For 2019, Climate Reality wanted as many Climate Leaders as possible giving presentations over a 24-hour period from Tuesday to Wednesday, November 20-21.
To participate, I immediately reached out to a local Portland organization where I previously spoke earlier that year called Thirsters. I asked if I could speak at their weekly meeting, Thursday, November 21st, 7pm- 8 pm. Always looking for weekly speakers, they immediately accepted my offer. I hoped this would inspire other Climate Reality Leaders in the Chapter to reach out to local organizations and schools to give climate change talks. Climate Reality really wanted to make this 24 Hours of Action a success. Thus, the organization reached out to members of Congress, Congressional staff and other organizations to see if they would want a Climate Reality Leader to come speak to them on November 20th or 21st. Senator Jeff Merkley’s Portland Congressional office said yes to this invitation.
Climate Reality Project reached out to me if I would be interested in speaking at Senator Jeff Merkley’s office on Thursday afternoon, November 21st. I immediately agreed to lead this talk. I participated in CCL lobby meetings at Senator Jeff Merkley’s Portland office in March 2018 and 2019. Thus, I knew the exact location of his office in downtown Portland. I met his Portland office staff previously from attending town halls and lobby meetings in the Portland and Washington D.C. offices. On November 21st, I gave this talk to six of Senator Jeff Merkley’s Portland Office staff in a beautiful conference room at their office. Their office is in a downtown Portland high rise building. The conference room has large windows that looks out into downtown, with distant views of Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, and Mt. St. Helens on a clear day.
Senator Merkley’s staff really seemed to like my presentation for them, titled My Solutions for Climate Action. They especially liked one of my solutions to “Regularly call, write and lobby your members of Congress!” As I wrapped up my visit to Senator Merkley’s office, one staff member told me that Senator Merkley and his staff especially pay attention to the issues that constituents urge him to support during their town halls. I then asked Senator Merkley’s Portland Field Representative if he would introduce me to Senator Merkley at his next town hall in the Portland area. This staff person told me he would be happy to do that.
Attending two of U.S. Senator Ron Wyden’s town hall meetings in January 2020
After my two talks for Climate Reality’s Day of Action on November 21, 2019, I next focused on the December Climate Reality Portland holiday meeting. In mid-December, Tanya and I traveled to our hometown of St. Louis, Missouri for over a week to visit family. While we were in St. Louis, I gave two climate change talks for the St. Louis Zoo, plus a Climate Reality talk at Carpenter’s Library in south St. Louis. This was a renovated library that my parents used as children growing up in the 1940s and 1950s in St. Louis.
2020 started as a new year for me for climate organizing and to attend Congressional town halls. My first event I attended for 2020 was a town hall for Senator Ron Wyden held at Roosevelt High School auditorium in northwest Portland on January 5, 2020. Tanya came with me. Thus, I had two raffle tickets to double my chances to double my chances of my raffle number getting called to ask Senator Wyden a question. I talked a couple of CCL volunteers into attending with Tanya and me. Unfortunately, my raffle numbers were not called, neither were the raffle numbers of the other CCL volunteers in attendance. Thus, we were not able to ask Senator Wyden about carbon pricing, supporting the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, or what he would do to act to solve climate change in a timely manner.
I do want to give Senator Ron Wyden credit that in each of his town halls he talks about his solutions to climate change. He always focuses on what he can do as the ranking member or Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. He primarily wants to get rid of the 44 fossil fuel subsidies that keeps the U.S. hooks on dirty energy and replacing those subsidies with 3 subsides to incentivize investments in clean energy. Yes, I do applaud everything he wants to do for climate action. He does take the issue very seriously. At the same time, I wish he would listen to climate scientists, like Dr. Michael Mann, who say a price on carbon is needed so we can reach the IPCC goal of reducing global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in half by 2030 and reaching net zero GHG by 2050. In fact, Canada discovered this when they implemented their climate change solutions. They could not reduce their emissions to the IPCC goals without a price on carbon.
Urging Oregon’s U.S. Senators to put a price on carbon kept motivating me to return to their town halls to urge them to support that policy. Thus, Tanya and I went to Senator Ron Wyden’s town hall in Wilsonville, Oregon, less than 30 minutes south of Portland, to attend his town hall on January 18, 2020. Again, I got two raffle tickets for Tanya and me hoping to urge him to support the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. This was another town hall where I struck out. My raffle ticket numbers were not called, and I was not able to ask him a question. Even if I don’t ask him a question, I still fill out a card at the welcome table stating why I am there. Furthermore, I always re-introduce myself to the staff and try to develop a good rapport with them.
Briefly chatting with Senator Jeff Merkley at his March 2020 Clackamas County Town Hall
Like the Energizer Bunny, I will never give up. Like Sisyphus in Greek mythology, I will continue to try to roll the giant boulder uphill. In January 2020, I went to town hall events for members of Congress from Oregon, Reps. Suzanne Bonamici, Kurt Schrader, and Earl Blumenauer, whom I am a constituent. I was not able to ask a question at their events. However, the most important thing for me is to show up and try. You just never know when you might be able to have a conversation with a member of Congress and ask them to support carbon pricing.
On March 7, 2020, I attended a town hall for Senator Jeff Merkley at the auditorium at the National Guard Recruiting at Camp Withycombe, Clackamas, Oregon. It was located about 10 miles south or a 20 minute drive from where I live. I found out about it on www.townhallproject.com the day before. Tanya could not make it nor could anyone else make it from CCL. It was just me.
The rumored threat of Covid-19 or coronavirus was starting to hang over everything. People were a little leery to shake hands, stand close together, and the seats at this town hall were spaced a few feet apart from each other. People were advised that if they had symptoms of any kind of cold to not come to an event like this. Like all the previous town hall events I attended, there were probably over 100 people or more at this event. I did receive a raffle ticket from Senator Merkley’s staff at the welcome table before the event. However, my raffle ticket number was not called, and I was not able to ask a question.
At this town hall, I had a breakthrough moment. I recognized Senator Merkley’s Field Representative from the Climate Reality 24 Hours of Action that I gave at Senator Merkley’s Portland Office last November. He recognized me when he saw me before the town hall. He was friendly and glad to see me. I asked him if he could introduce me to Senator Merkley after the town hall. He responded that he was happy to do that.
I waited patiently after the town hall to chat with Senator Merkley. Lots of other people were gathered around him to ask him to informally chat with him. Some of the individuals looked like Senator Merkley knew them for years and he was thrilled to see them. I enjoyed watching the Senator interact with people. He is shy and reserved, but he enjoys being around people. Those sticking around after the event were excited to have a chance to interact with him.
The Field Representative waited patiently for a chance to introduce me to Senator Merkley. While we were waiting, I gave the Field Representative my iPhone to get a picture of us. The staff person was happy to help me with this. Finally, there was a break in line of people wanting to talk with Senator Merkley that the Field Representative walked up to Senator Merkley to introduce him to me. I remember he was hesitant to shake hands or stand too close because of the possible threat of coronavirus. At the same time, Senator Merkley was very kind and generous with his time with me. He allowed me to get several pictures with him. I was able to urge him to support CCL’s Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (EICDA).
The Senator looked exhausted from chatting with all the people one on one, thinking on his feet for over an hour with this town hall, plus the town hall he did in Marion County earlier that day. He did not have a response to my request to urge him to support Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s EICDA. He did look at me very sympathetically though like he really did appreciate what I am doing and the very steep uphill climb to get anything passed on climate in the Senate right now.
I did not have a problem with this interaction with the Senator at all. I know that tired look after I have given presentations and chatted with audience members one on one afterwards. I could relate to his facial expression how hard it is to get anything passed on climate in Congress right now. Still, I wanted to get this idea on his radar and hopefully other CCL friends are doing the same thing. Even more, I wanted to be an example of reaching out to our members of Congress to support climate legislation.
This was probably Senator Merkley’s last in person town hall before the full shutdown of the covid-19 pandemic happened in March 2020. Thus, this was the last opportunity to speak with him directly until the pandemic subsided. On October 15, 2020, I went to an outdoor campaign event when my Oregon Senator Shemia Fagan ran for Oregon Secretary of State. U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley were in attendance. However, they were leery to have anyone stand close to them and we all had masks on at this outdoor event due to the pandemic. It was hard to ask questions or engage with them on policy issues because of that.
I left that March 2020 town hall feeling great. After our conversation, Senator Merkley did not shift his position supporting carbon fee and dividend or the EICDA. I did the best thing you can do in a democracy: petition and speak directly with an elected official to urge them to support climate legislation. I did my part.
Now it is up to others, especially anyone reading this (you), to call, write, email, and attend town halls to directly urge members of Congress to support effective climate legislation. Even more, I challenge you to be even more effective than me. If you are more effective than me, we will have even a better chance of success of reducing the threat of climate change.
Now that the pandemic is over and in person Congressional town halls are happening. I encourage you to attend Congressional town halls if your members of Congress or U.S. Senators are holding them. It is a great way to learn about the issues impacting your fellow citizens in your community and to hear the perspective of your member of Congress.
Maybe, if you are just lucky, you might be able to ask them a question or even urge them to support effective climate legislation.
Brian Ettling April 2023 ©