Talking carbon pricing with your legislator: Oregon Climate

Last year, when Climate Access held a panel event on the success of the carbon tax in British Columbia, Oregon Climate was watching the livestream closely.  Formed in 2013 with the aim to build grassroots support for a statewide price on carbon pollution in Oregon, the group has been making great strides with three bills to price carbon currently making their way through Oregon’s state legislature.

Oregon is well known for being a hub of sustainability with a green majority senate that was elected under a Democratic Governor, but has so far been lackluster in their uptake of new green policies. Oregon Climate aimed to take this political opportunity and create a race to the top by bringing a sense of public urgency and focus on the issue of pricing carbon pollution, and they are doing it through direct engagement.

Similar to the Citizen’s Climate Lobby, Oregon Climate encourages volunteers to meet directly with legislators to discuss a price on carbon, and develop relationships by communicating regularly with legislators via phone and email. Oregon Climate's core 30 leaders train over 1,500 volunteers to become effective advocates, so they are well versed in the policy details and able to share compelling stories and experiences.

The concept of meeting directly with your state legislator can be daunting, even for seasoned climate campaigners, so Oregon Climate makes sure the meetings are structured to benefit the volunteers as well as the legislators. Part of this is to find common ground with legislators and to lay the groundwork for a longer-term strategy should carbon pricing not pass first time around in the senate.

Oregon Climate uses a tiered sign-up structure to make sure people are only doing what they’re comfortable with, whether that be signing up to the mailing list, hosting a party or taking part in a lobby meeting. Lobby meetings happen in groups of four and each group has a more experienced volunteer who facilitates, and three newer volunteers. Volunteers can work from talking points to feel more comfortable (and make sure they remember the points they planned to raise), and take roles like introducing each group member or being timekeeper.

In the meeting, the groups make sure they tell their story of self – what is their personal connection to climate change? How have they been impacted? – and then seek to find common ground with the legislator. How have they voted on climate before? Are they responsive to constituents and do they understand climate solutions and climate impacts in Oregon?

Importantly, they ask the legislator how they view climate change to ensure it’s a dialogue where both parties feel they’ve been heard. From there the volunteers make an ask based on where the legislator is at on climate to make sure they are given an opportunity to say yes to a request. If they won’t support the house bill, will they bring an amendment forward to a committee? Could they recommend another legislator they should meet with who would support the bill? Will they agree to speak with a constituent who has been impacted by climate change?

This model of direct democracy and engagement through dialogue has been very successful with three bills to price carbon currently working their way through the Oregon State Legislature, but more importantly, it’s built trust and goodwill with the legislators while building grassroots citizen engagement calling for carbon pricing. It allows for Oregon Climate to be a known entity in the Legislature who are trusted, respected and listened to, builds the groundwork to further engage representatives and move them up the engagement ladder towards more opportunities to say yes to climate action and carbon pricing.

The next round of committee hearings on the carbon pricing bills will be held in late May or early June, and for the moment, Oregon Climate is working to flood legislators inboxes asking them to prioritize taking action on climate. However in the long run, by using dialogue and citizen engagement to directly work with decision makers to push for carbon pricing, I’d wager it’s a question of when, not if they succeed.