Politics + Green-Sports

How Athletes Can Lean Into the Politics of Climate Change


Mark Reynolds, the San Diego-based Executive Director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a nonprofit that is dedicated to enacting nonpartisan carbon pricing legislation, is a huge sports fan. CCL President and Wisconsin native Madeleine Para is most definitely not.

Despite their differing perspectives, the two are united about the power of sports to be a force for good

GSB spoke with Reynolds and Para about CCL, their roles in advancing the nonprofit’s advocacy for national carbon pricing legislation, as well as their thoughts on how sports and athletes can lead climate action, in spite of its political nature.

Editor’s Note: I have been a CCL volunteer since 2014 and have lobbied Members of Congress and my state legislators in New York City on behalf of carbon pricing legislation.


GreenSportsBlog: Mark, I understand that you were really looking forward to an interview in which you got to talk about sports…

Mark Reynolds: Yes, Lew, I really was. You have to understand that there are no sports fans at the CCL executive offices and I love sports! I’m from the San Diego area and so am a Padres fanatic and love going to Petco Park to watch Fernando Tatis, Jr., Yu Darvish and the rest of the Pods. So, talking with you about how sports could make a positive impact on climate is something I’m glad to do.

GSB: Before we get into the intersection of sports and climate, I would love to know about the path you took to become CCL’s executive director.

Mark: Most of my career had been in what it is known as the ‘productivity and effectiveness’ space. I specialized in helping scientists and engineers become more productive in their work habits, measuring their improvements. We worked with clients like Boeing and NASA.

I had done some work with and ultimately became friends with a guy named Marshall Saunders. Back in the 80s, Marshall had been a pioneer in the world of micro-finance and then in the 90s, he became very successful at organizing citizens to lobby Congress for more funding in support of AIDS research.

So, he called me one day in 2008 and asked if I’d be interested in helping to use what I’d learned in the productivity world to help build a nonprofit he was launching, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, to ultimately show Congress that taking serious action on global warming would be a good thing.

Fast forward to 2009, early in the first Obama term around the time Cap and Trade had passed the Senate but died in the House. Marshall, myself and a young fellow named Danny Richter…

GSB: …Now CCL’s legislative director and a true lobbying superstar…

Mark: …Were successful in getting two days of meetings with Members of Congress of both parties and their staffs. So, we’re on the Hill on Day 1. We went in the with the message that Cap and Trade was bad and that our policy, a Carbon Tax, was good.

It was a disaster. Our approach was all about what we wanted, what we thought was good. It’s like I forgot everything I knew from my productivity work!

So, we did a 180 pivot for Day 2. It sounds simple but we listened, found out what mattered to them and their constituents, what was important to them. The difference was night and day.

Eventually, through listening, responding to questions, listening some more, answering more questions, and more our policy prescription settled in on something called ‘Carbon Fee & Dividend’ that was created to lead to a significant reduction in emissions, improve public health through cleaner air and water, and generate millions of new jobs. It is, by many reckonings, the single most powerful tool available to reduce America’s carbon pollution

The policy’s writers designed it to appeal to both Republicans and Democrats. The revenues raised — instead of going to the federal treasury for Congress to allocate, as in the case of a tax — would go to every household in the form of a monthly dividend…

GSB: …Which means the size of government doesn’t go up, which should be music to Republicans’ and conservatives’ ears…

Mark: …And since, the dividend is the same for each family, based on size, independent economic analyses show that those on the bottom 65-70 percent of the income scale would receive more in dividends than they would pay in higher prices due to the fee. In that way, it’s progressive.

So, from 2009, when we had six chapters and 30 volunteers, we’ve grown to have a presence in every congressional district and 500 chapters.


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Mark Reynolds (Photo credit: Citizens' Climate Lobby)


GSB: As someone who has volunteered since 2014 and seen a good chunk of that growth, congratulations are in order!

Mark: Thank you, Lew! And we now have a bill making its way through the House, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 2307) that, if passed and signed into law by the President, would will reduce America’s carbon pollution by 50 percent by 2030, putting us on track to reach net zero by 2050.

GSB: As a CCL volunteer, I am a big supporter of H.R. 2307. Now about that bipartisan thing…It right now has 76 co-sponsors in the House, all Democrats. In prior iterations, it’s been able to get one or two Republicans. What are the prospects for GOP support?

Mark: Well, Lew, what’s interesting is that Carbon Fee & Dividend has been garnering support from conservative organizations like the Business Roundtable, the American Petroleum Institute, and the Chamber of Commerce. Which is a challenge for the more progressive members in Congress but we believe that, in the end the Left will come around once they see that this market-based solution has the best chance to pass and to result in durable change.

GSB: I hope the support from conservative groups leads to Republican votes in Congress; I have to say I’m very skeptical in the short term but am keeping my mind and ears open. I’m a bit more bullish on the Left, especially if they see that this type of policy can pass. Regardless, I am convinced that the CCL method of respectfully listening, answering questions, adjusting, rinse and repeat, will bear fruit. 

In the meantime, let’s pivot to sports, athletes and climate. What is your view of how athletes can best contribute to the climate movement, including to CCL and carbon pricing? 

Mark: Well, Lew, sports and the athletes who play them are among the most trusted public messengers. And of course more are speaking out on issues now. When LeBron James, Charles Barkley and Megan Rapinoe, to name a few, spoke out on voting rights and equal rights, their reputations weren’t hurt. They were elevated.

On climate, the impacts on sports are obvious and accelerating. In baseball, we’re seeing more rainouts. Deadly superstorms like Sandy and Harvey, wildfires, and extreme heat have impacted sports schedules. Some athletes are starting to make the connection between extreme weather and climate change.

CCL is excited to have climber Alex Honnold, star of the Academy Award®-winning documentary “Free Solo,” 2018 Olympic cross country skiing gold medalist Jesse Diggins and Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Brent Suter sign on as endorsers of H.R. 2307 and look forward to more athletes join us.

GSB: Brent Suter, an EcoAthletes Champion and advisory board member, is an integral part of a Milwaukee Sports Renaissance. His Brewers currently are atop the National League Central Division. And the NBA’s Bucks are in the NBA Finals, looking to knock off the Phoenix Suns for their first championship since 1971. So, even though Wisconsin’s own Madeleine Para is not a big sports fan, now is the right time to bring CCL’s President into the discussion. What is your take on how athletes can make a difference on climate?

Madeleine Para: You’re right, Lew, I’m not a big sports fan but I have to say I hope the Suns Fear The Deer! Go Bucks!

Picking up on Mark’s comments, when I think of how athletes can make a difference on climate, I think that elite athletes embody some of the best human qualities — overcoming obstacles, teamwork, selflessness, excellence and more — and that’s why we relate to them.

For the climate movement, including for CCL, athletes can be really important allies and messengers, reaching out to new audiences, especially to people not really into politics.

And as far as people who are already in politics are concerned, Brent Suter created a video in support of our bill that was delivered to a member of the Milwaukee House delegation. Also Members of Congress are excited to meet with athletes, so that is a big help.


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Madeleine Para (Photo credit: Citizens' Climate Lobby)


GSB: Brent is incredible, as are the other athletes who speak out on climate. We need more of them. Some athletes have told me that the politics of climate hold them back. What might you say to them?

Madeleine: Here’s what I’d say to athletes — why does anyone take risks? Because the outcome matters to them. Pro athletes wouldn’t have gotten to where they are in their careers without taking risks. There are unexpected joys in taking risks; you can’t get the results you want without them.

Now, being first, being alone is hard. But it creates a path for others to follow. And with athletes and climate, the Brent Suters, the Jessie Diggins’ are blazing that path.

As with many political issues, many people, including athletes, stay silent about what they think on climate change. The thing is, the market for climate solutions from athletes is bigger than you think! You’re an athlete — you belong to the world in a certain sense. If you speak up for what you believe in, the world will listen. Not everyone will agree; you will get pushback. But many, if not most people will be with you. And you will have made a difference.


GSB’s Take: It says here that CCL President Madeleine Para’s gets it right when she says “Pro athletes wouldn’t have gotten to where they are in their careers without taking risks. There are unexpected joys in taking risks; you can’t get the results you want without them…the market for climate solutions from athletes is bigger than you think!”

To this point, only a small but growing number of athletes have visited the intersection of politics, climate and sports. Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s relentlessly bipartisan approach to carbon pricing legislation should appeal to heretofore apolitical climate-minded athletes, thus increasing the traffic at that important intersection.



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