Followers of the chaotic US political scene know that time is extremely tight to get climate legislation with real teeth through the US Congress. Most professional observers believe that the so-called “Reconciliation Bill”, which includes most of the climate provisions, needs to get passed through both the Senate and the House of Representatives in the next 2-3 weeks or else the opportunity may not come up again for the rest of the decade.
Sadly, this is not hyperbole.
With that in mind, GSB spoke with Nancy Hirshberg, a sustainable business pioneer and a consultant with the Climate Collaborative, about the efforts to get the Reconciliation Bill passed and how sports can play a role.
GreenSportsBlog: Nancy, we’re getting close to Zero Hour on the Reconciliation Bill so I’m glad we’re talking now. Before we get into the where things stand now with the climate crisis, the bill and how athletes can play a role in getting it and other climate-related legislation passed, how did you get to be a leader in this effort with Climate Collaborative? What was your path during your sustainable business career?
Nancy Hirshberg: Thanks Lew! I’m excited to talk about the importance of the Reconciliation Bill and how athletes can help.
So, I grew up in New Hampshire in an outdoorsy family. I studied agriculture and education in college and went to work in the latter. I realized I wasn’t going to change the world in education. The combination of business and environment had tremendous power for me.
And it turned out that my brother, Gary Hirshberg, co-founded Stonyfield Farm Yogurt in 1983. He asked me to do some project work for them in 1990-91 and I was there for 23 years as head of sustainability for much of that time.
GSB: Stonyfield is one of the sustainable business pioneers. What was it like leading sustainability there?
Nancy: It was amazing to have leadership behind us as we managed everything we did with what was best for the environment in mind. Climate was always a top priority as we went all-organic, reduced our carbon impacts by reducing energy use, waste, and packaging.
GSB: Why did you end up leaving Stonyfield and what did you do next?
Nancy: Well, my team at Stonyfield was just great and was very goal-driven so I felt comfortable to leave. I left to focus solely on climate, to use my skills for even more impact. I consulted with companies like Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s and Beyond Meat, helping them with their climate strategies.
Then, six years ago, at the time of the Paris Climate Conference I was on a panel at the Net Impact Conference with several women in the natural products industry. We were amazed and disappointed that the industry was not represented in Paris. So, we formed Climate Collaborative to engage natural products companies and other businesses on climate.
We now have more than 700 companies involved, including natural products, beauty, travel, apparel, food, personal care and more. The Climate Collaborative is helping them move from measuring emissions — lots of companies are doing that — to actually reducing them. And we provide opportunities for the companies to engage their elected officials on policy, both from company leadership and through grassroots, employee activism.
For instance, we’ve worked closely with Ceres over the years to bring hundreds of businesses to Capitol Hill either in person or virtually to meet with their lawmakers to discuss climate action. We also worked closely with America Is All In to make sure that businesses were well represented in the coalition of leaders to scale climate action around the country.
GSB: What precipitated Climate Collaborative joining the fight to get the Reconciliation Bill passed? Before we get to your answer, what follows in green is an aside for our readers who are unfamiliar with the bill and its context. If you are familiar, please skip to Nancy’s answer.
The Biden Administration is trying to push both houses of Congress — the House of Representatives and the Senate — to pass two significant and sizable spending bills. Both chambers are narrowly controlled by Democrats: They only have a 4-seat margin in a 435-seat body. In the Senate, it’s 50-50.
And that’s not all.
Most bills must have 60 votes to break a filibuster to get through the Senate. If not, the minority will kill the bill. The exception are “budget reconciliation” bills, in which a simple majority is all that’s needed. The majority can pass one bill under reconciliation per year and only bills that have to do with budgeting can use that tactic. One more thing: If the vote is 50-50 in the Senate, Vice President Harris casts the deciding vote for the Democrats.
Back to the bills themselves: The $1 trillion “Infrastructure Bill,” covers traditional hard infrastructure — bridges and tunnels, roads, water, broadband access, and a small bit for climate. It has bipartisan support in the Senate, with 69 committed yes votes (all 50 Democrats plus 19 Republicans).
The “Reconciliation Bill,” also known as Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan, proposes to spend $3.5 trillion more over ten years. This is where the climate provisions are found, including funds to develop clean energy, EV infrastructure, and more. All 50 Republican Senators have pledged to vote “no”. So, the Democrats need all 50 votes to pass it using reconciliation. Right now, there are a couple of holdouts, most notably Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
What about the House, you ask? There is a dispute among progressive and moderate Democrats. The latter wants the smaller infrastructure bill to pass right away and consider the reconciliation ‘later’. The progressives don’t trust that the moderates will take up the reconciliation bill and so want them to go through together. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the “two bills at the same time” approach was the way to go but backed off on Monday, saying the House must pass infrastructure first to give President Biden, whose poll numbers are down, a much-needed win. The progressives are trying to get assurances from the moderates in both chambers that they will take up and support the Reconciliation Bill in October before they vote yes on Infrastructure. Pelosi, who never schedules a vote unless she knows she has the votes, has put the infrastructure bill on the calendar for this Thursday.
Finally, why all the urgency? Why do these bills need to pass now, either together or one after the other? Because as of November, we will be less than a year away from the 2022 mid-term elections. Traditionally, a new President’s party loses seats in the mid-terms. Given the tight margins and Biden’s slump there’s a good chance that one or both chamber will go Republican, which means climate legislation would essentially be impossible to pass.
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OK, now back to Nancy Hirshberg’s answer to the “what led Climate Collaborative to get involved with the reconciliation fight” question.
Nancy: The August IPCC report was so clear that we are in a Code Red situation on climate, or to use a sports analogy, we are at the two-minute warning on climate. And, even if all businesses in the Climate Collaborative achieve serious emissions reductions, there is no way we’re going to get where we need to go without serious policy. An economy-wide challenge like climate needs an economy wide solution. That is the role of the federal government, to address challenges that cannot be tackled by the private sector alone. Federal climate policy is essential!
So, we at the Climate Collaborative decided we had to step up to the plate, to leverage our companies’ relationships with our consumers to show that our voices matter more than the oil industry’s. After all, 82 percent of Americans support the goal of 100 percent clean energy¹.
We thought about developing a campaign for our businesses and others to call their members of Congress to support the reconciliation bill and then encourage their employees and consumers to do the same.
It all came together over the last couple of months as we got closer to the deadline.
I thought that a business version was needed so Climate Collaborative launched the Call4ClimateNOW.com campaign in August for businesses, employees, and customers to call their House rep and US senators. It’s a simple way for businesses and the American public to let their lawmakers know we need climate legislation NOW!
GSB: That’s great! Having done some of this kind of work before, I know that it can be hard to get people to make calls. How do you overcome that?
Nancy: You’re right, Lew. Our research shows that there are two main barriers for people to take climate action:
- People don’t know what to do and,
- They think it won’t make a difference.
On #1, we provide folks with exactly what they can do and make it simple for them, providing a script and the phone numbers for their lawmakers. As for making a difference, there are data that shows that phone calls are effective. You can be sure that staff count every call that comes in and report on it every day.
GSB: How is it going so far?
Nancy: We have 170 companies involved and thousands of calls have been made. But really, the closer we get to a vote, the more calls come in.
GSB: What’s the state of play in the House and Senate on reconciliation?
Nancy: The action really is in the Senate. As you noted, the House isn’t a done deal, the hope is that it will get across the finish line, whether in tandem with the infrastructure bill or soon after. In the Senate, if only one Democrat votes “no”, then it’s dead. Of course, the plan could also be greatly watered down, removing many of the climate provisions.
GSB: It really seems to me like it’s coming down to Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. A big coal and gas state and a state that President Trump won by 30+ points. How is your group handling Manchin and other potential Democratic fence-sitters like Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona?
Nancy: Well, first of all, every Senator matters, and every voter matters so we are urging companies and their stakeholders to visit Call4ClimateNOW.com, regardless of location. Senator Manchin will be key. We hope any of your readers with West Virginia ties will call Senator Manchin’s office and let them know that you want to see bold climate action.
GSB: Dear readers in West Virginia, please give Senator Manchin and a call through Call4ClimateNOW. If you’re not from the Mountaineer State but know people who are, please urge them to call! Same thing with Arizonans and Senator Sinema. You’ll/they’ll get a friendly staffer or voice mail, will take two minutes. Couldn’t be easier. Nancy, how can sports help with Manchin and on efforts like Call4ClimateNOW more broadly?
Nancy: I have to be honest, while I love being active and participating in sports, I don’t watch a lot of sports, but even I know that sports are HUGE. Environmental nonprofits reach one audience, business leaders reach another audience, but sports and athletes reach yet another — and much bigger — audience!
Athletes are trusted voices— much more so than business leaders or certainly politicians — in fact, they are among the most trusted in the advocates in the United States and beyond. People need to hear these messages from people who they respect, and sports figures are revered. They have an incredibly powerful podium.
Clif Bar, one of our Climate Collaborative companies, is a powerful example of athletes being a force for good. Their athletes did a series of Instagram posts in support of Call4ClimateNOW — it was one of their top performing posts in the last year!
GSB: That’s great to hear! Now, we need to get some West Virginia athletes to call Senator Manchin to vote YES on reconciliation, to vote YES for the climate. The most famous athletes from the Mountaineer state are NBA legend Jerry West and Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss. Climate Collaborative needs to find a way to get to them!
Nancy: Absolutely! If we get to talk with them or any athlete, we’d make sure they’re aware of this summer’s IPCC report. We’d let them know that 1 in 3 Americans experienced a climate event this summer and it is clear that if we don’t act, it will get much worse. We’d let them know that they should tell their lawmakers that climate should be above politics. And we’d let them know that we can solve this if we pull together and play like a team!
¹ Source: Climate Nexus, October 2020
Photo at top: Nancy Hirshberg (Photo credit: Nancy Hirshberg)