From Medieval classics to climate activism

Michael Twomey retired from the departments of classical studies and English at the end of the Spring 2017 semester. During his 37-year career at Ithaca College, he taught courses like Literature of the Bible and Medieval Literature.

Twomey’s teaching career concluded at the end of the Spring 2017 semester when he left to pursue a new life as a climate lobbyist with the Citizens Climate Lobby. Ashley Stalnecker, layout and design editor, spoke with Twomey about his training as a climate lobbyist and activism in the age of Trump.

How long have you been involved in activism?

Michael Twomey: Since last fall. I joined the Citizens’ Climate Lobby maybe a year before that… I was just a member and didn’t really do anything but last fall I actually got active. So, that’s the one organization I’m involved in.


“Our consistently respectful, non-partisan approach to climate education is designed to create a broad, sustainable foundation for climate action across all geographic regions and political inclinations.” – Citizen’s Climate Lobby


Were you involved in activism before the Trump administration?

MT: I wouldn’t say wasn’t involved. I was definitely paying attention and I was studying climate change and I was writing about climate change in my scholarship but I wasn’t actually politically active until the election.

Once the election started heating up and once Trump was elected especially, I got seriously involved in the Citizens’ Climate Lobby because of his appointment of Scott Pruit as director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and because of the things [Trump] was saying; his denial of Climate Change.

Share some of your experiences training as a lobbyist

MT: I’m sort of in the pre-lobbyist path, doing the phone calling, the town meetings, writing letters to the editor and presentations to public groups. That’s still a long way from being an actual lobbyist but that does mean that I’m supporting the organization and working toward sensible climate practices through it.

It’s a process. Not everyone is asked to be a lobbyist. We’ll see whether that happens or not but I also realize there’s a special set of personal skills that those people have. They have to be extremely knowledgeable for one thing. I don’t think that’s a problem for me, but there’s also this ability to talk to strangers and really get them to understand you and that’s a really rare gift. We’ll see if I have that or not.

How has the scene for activism changed since Trump was elected?

What I’ve noticed, and what I’ve been reading about, is that many many more people, private individuals who previously were not politically active have become politically active in all kinds of organizations.

People are, to a certain extent, stepping up either by just giving contributions to organizations like Sierra Club or with actual political actions ranging from protesting in the streets to working behind the scenes which is pretty much what I do in the Citizens Climate lobby.

You probably saw the Women’s March the day after the Inauguration. That’s a pretty good indication of people’s involvement… I’ve just seen lots more of that since the election than I did before.

Why do you involve yourself with activism and what does it mean to you?

I thought about this pretty hard. Especially after the election I realized there were so many things that needed attention but I also realized that I couldn’t possibly get involved in all of them so I made a decision to just focus my attention on one issue and to join an organization that is actually making progress on that issue.

For example, health insurance, social security, Medicare, immigration, women’s issues and then climate—all of these things are important to me but I had experience in the environment so I decided that’s where I had the most knowledge and that’s where I could actually make a difference.

I joined the Citizens’ Climate Lobby because…I wanted to focus on that one issue but…because I think it’s a really really good model of political activism should do.

“I realized there were so many things that needed attention but I also realized that I couldn’t possibly get involved in all of them so I made a decision to just focus my attention on one issue.” – Michael Twomey

MT: When you think of lobbying, you imagine these shady characters with briefcases full of cash lurking around…Congress, bribing congressmen but we don’t pay money. We lobby in the sense that we do talk with congressmen. And one issue we talk about is climate change. And one issue that we have is what we call a carbon fee and dividend.

This proposal is that the government would charge a fee on oil companies that produce carbon: For example, extraction, which would be through mining or drilling; importing, so that when you import goods that have been manufactured in such a way to release carbon into the atmosphere; and manufacturing itself. So, that just about covers all the ways that carbon is released into the atmosphere.

CO2 is…one of the major greenhouses gases, the other being methane. What the carbon fee does is it collects money from all of these producers of extractors or importers but it’s different from a tax in that the purpose of a tax is to raise money for the government. We’re not doing that. What we’re doing is collecting a fee which then would be returned to taxpayers and that’s the dividend part. So, we don’t raise money for the government; the net cost of governing doesn’t increase because we’re using the IRS and so it’s economically efficient.

The bottom line for this is that this idea has been gaining traction among Republicans. The second part of our activism is that we talk with congresspeople and we try to get them to join an organization in the House that’s called the Climate Solutions Caucus….It was formed by two, a Republican and a Democrat…but we do a lot to promote it. The rule about that is if you’re a congressperson and you want to belong to this caucus then you have to get a member of the other party to join with you so there’s always an equal number of Republicans and Democrats in the Caucus.


“The Caucus will serve as an organization to educate members on economically-viable options to reduce climate risk and protect our nation’s economy, security, infrastructure, agriculture, water supply and public safety,” according to documents filed with the Committee on House Administration.


Right now there are 52 people in this Caucus altogether which is double the amount at the beginning of the year. So, membership of this Caucus is growing and includes our local Congressman, Tom Reed, for the twenty-third district which is where Ithaca is. What’s notable about that is he was one of the first Republicans to come out in favor of Donald Trump. And yeah, there is that he’s a conservative Republican who’s opposed to raising taxes and he has done a lot that indicates that he might be a climate change denier but, on the other hand, he’s in favor of a healthy environment and he’s in favor of creating jobs. By promoting the carbon fee in dividends, what we’re doing is indirectly promoting the growth of renewables and that’s something Tom Reed is actually in favor of because it means more jobs for people in New York State.

In a nutshell, that is what we do. We have people who lobby in Congress by going to talk with congresspeople but the local chapters like ours do a lot behind the scenes in terms of phone calling congress people. We go to town meetings. We write letters to congresspeople and we do all that we can to bring new members in, educate people about climate change.

What was your best and worst experiences with activism on your own and with the organization?  

MT: There is one thing that I think is a really great indication of what we’re capable of. In July, a bill came before Congress for military appropriations. This bill specifically called for cutting military research on climate change. The bill that was supposed to be rushed through Congress.

The Citizens’ Climate Lobby has a special group within it called the Climate and Security Action team. Within half an hour, this Climate and Security Action team mobilized, calling Congress people and helped to drum up enough votes. I shouldn’t say they did it all by themselves because there were already a number of Republicans and Democrats that wanted to vote this thing down. They wanted to restore the Climate Study funding to the bill.

So enough people voted against the bill that it had to be revised and passed with the funding intact for climate study. I think that’s a really good example of what this organization can do. So, that means the money for climate study was kept in the military appropriations bill…The army wanted this, by the way. They want climate study because they’re really really aware of what climate change can mean from a military point of view.

When you join the organization, you start at the bottom. This means that you’re taught about how to write letters to congresspeople, how to call them, what to say, what not to say. It’s really a training experience that you get. I have been working with a biologist and the two of us have given presentations, one at Cornell and one at Ithaca College. In the Cornell presentation, essentially, I didn’t say anything because it was my first presentation so I just watched and observed. At the presentation at Ithaca College, I did actually speak for about 10 minutes and then I turned it over to the biologist. So, I’m being given more and more responsibility in terms of the public.

For me, I can see that I’ve learned some things about how to talk to people and I’m working on getting to the point where I can make a presentation by myself. So that means I don’t have any great accomplishments to point to at this point because this is a very disciplined organization in which they just don’t let you out in front of the public unless you’re a known commodity and you can be relied on to do the job properly. I’m a college professor. I’ve been talking to students for a long time, and even so, I still have to start at the bottom and that’s one of the things I just really like about this organization. They’re not just taking chances by letting people run wild in public and ruin the reputation of the organization.

In terms of accomplishments, what have I done? I’ve called Tom Reed’s office and I’ve talked with his staffers a couple of times and that’s gone very well. I got a letter to the editor published in the Ithaca Journal. These are pretty small accomplishments but they mean something to me.

One of the things we do at the monthly meetings is what we call motivational interviewing. The idea behind this is to practice talking with non-members but specifically people who are either ignorant to climate change or in complete denial about it. And it’s a really interesting exercise and it’s incredibly frustrating because I have spent most of my time talking to people who agree with me. If I talk to fellow professors or even members of my family, because my family is all Democratic and liberal, everyone I talk to essentially understands climate change and agrees that we have to do something about it and is trying to do something. When you actually try to talk to somebody who is opposed to renewable, who is in favor of mining coal, what do you say to them? And so, those exercises have been the most frustrating because suddenly i’ll find myself completely unable to function.

The way that we do this is somebody pretends to be a climate change denier so you have to try talking to this person. This person is hitting you with all the usual talking points of climate change denial. And, you know, I thought, it’s really really hard to break through that and it’s frustrating for me.

What is your prediction for the next four years and the general future of American politics?

MT: I voted for Hillary Clinton and when I went to bed on election night, I was positive that the following morning we would have the first female president and I was totally wrong about that so don’t ask me for predictions. I don’t feel like I can make predictions right now.

I’m concerned. I think that it’s important for ordinary people to step up and do what they can because what I’m seeing is that the government is in a state of disarray. And although there are many people of good will who want to do the right thing, there are many people who don’t care in the government, people who don’t care to do the right thing. They have their agenda, and so i can’t predict what’s gonna happen. I just hope that more people step up and more people turn this around.

What is your goal as a climate lobbyist?

MT: The ultimate goal is to get this carbon fee and dividend passed as a law. That would be great. That’s my personal goal, that’s the organization’s goal, so that’s what I would really like to do.

Then, we’ll see what happens after that but that’s the immediate goal. That’s why I really like the organization because it has a very specific and focused goal and it has very practical ways to achieve that goal and we’re working in the right direction. It seems like it’s happening. It’s all positive so far.

How did you get involved in environmentalism and lobbying and why?

MT: It starts with one of my kids. I have two daughters. The second one has always been an environmentalist, at least in terms of her interests… She went to school to be a landscape architect so she and I used to talk about the environment and she got interested in what is called sustainable landscape design.

The idea is that when you design a landscape, let’s say it’s a park, then it has to be sustainable which means that you have to develop ways for it to collect water by itself thus using more water. Or you use sustainable materials; if you’re building park benches or playgrounds, sustainably harvested materials.

I started to get really interested in that just by talking with her because she was learning all kinds of interesting ways to use renewables and to save water… From there I discovered a movement in literary criticism called “ecocriticism” which studies human responses to the environment. I started to write about that.


“In such areas as the study of narrative and image, ecocriticism converges with its sister disciplines in the humanities: environmental anthropology, environmental history, and environmental philosophy.” – Literature and Environment, Harvard University


From there it was only a short step to finding out about the Citizens Climate Lobby. It was actually a colleague of mine, Nancy Jacobson, in the biology department who actually I met at a climate change workshop and she started talking to me about the Citizens Climate Lobby and she urged me to join. She brought me into it.

Can you share any more experiences with activism?

MT: This summer I spent a fair amount of time in Germany. One of the things that I wanted to look at is I wanted to see what Germany is doing for sustainability and I was really blown away… First of all, the transportation is really really good. You can go just about anywhere on a train, or if not on a train, then on a bus so most people who live in cities don’t really need cars but Germany does have cars because they are just as much a car culture as the U.S. is…. But, their cars are much more efficient. Very few people drive SUVs. Gasoline is very expensive because it’s taxed so heavily. All of that is good for the environment and we could learn from that.

Another thing is that when you drive through the countryside or take the train through the countryside, you see windmills producing electricity all over the place. It seems as if they have a lot fewer objections to the sight of windmills in the landscape. It’s just amazing that wherever you go there they are.

And the other thing is I saw many more solar farms than we have in this country—really big solar farms and people with solar panels on their roofs. So they’re doing a lot to cut down on their solar emissions… It’s a very densely populated country but the air is extremely clean and the streams are very clean. Countries like Denmark are shooting to be They do a lot more for environmental protection than we do in this country.

100 percent sustainable by the middle of the century and they’re getting really close. And Chile. The amount of sustainable energy produced in Chile is skyrocketing. They’re going to be 100 percent renewable within a couple of years at the rate they’re going. So, what I found really discouraging is how kind of willfully ignorant so many Americans are about change and about the possibilities that sustainability offer for us.

Critical pedagogy and Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a philosophy of teaching and learning which has inspired many activist-minded professors and students to fight for a social justice cause. Have they had any influence on you?

MT: What he talks about is the idea that when people are oppressed they live in a state of learned helplessness, they feel like they can’t do anything about their own situation so what you have to do, you have to empower them so that they can act on their own to improve their situation. Getting climate change deniers to realize that they are oppressed would be a really tough job.

 

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