Fleeing the burning city of Sodom, Lot’s wife famously looked back -- despite God’s order not to -- and turned into a pillar of salt. The writer Kurt Vonnegut said it was for that act, the turning back, that he loved her so much: It was such a human thing to do.
I, too, fled what felt like a burning city recently -- Washington, D.C. – just as the shutdown began. I was there with a Who’s Who of snow-sports illuminati from the nonprofit Protect Our Winters. Assembled were some 17 athletes, climbers and businesspeople, including three-time Everest summiteer Conrad Anker, two-time Olympic snowboarding gold medalist Seth Wescott, David Ingemie, the head of the snow-sports industry’s trade group; and executives from Burton, Black Diamond and K2.
Our mission: Convince members of the House and the Senate that they need to act on the climate crisis, and urge them to support (or at least not oppose) President Obama’s plan to use the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.
The visit had been planned for months; it pulled athletes out of training, executives out of boardrooms, and climbers off the mountains. But unfortunately, the shutdown started the night of our arrival. Two of our most important meetings, with the EPA and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, were instantly cancelled. But then something surprising happened.
We ended up having more and better meetings with more lawmakers than we’d had on any past visits. It was as if, in the heart of the dysfunction, certain elected officials decided they had something to prove -- maybe that they could at least listen to constituents, even if they couldn’t act. And so, even as federal employees were being furloughed across the nation, a few elected officials in D.C. showed up for work.
Many disagreed with us, of course, but they all listened, including Sens. Susan Collins, R-Me., Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Jon Tester, D-Mont., and the chief of staff for Michael Bennet, D-Colo. Climate champion Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., set up a press conference on the capitol lawn for us; Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., stopped en route to another meeting to give us a pep talk.
The athletes took time out for this trip because they see climate change as a threat to their livelihood and the economic future of their sport and sponsors, and also to their passion, to a piece of themselves called winter. Forrest Shearer, a professional snowboarder who has been featured frequently in the Patagonia catalog, said quietly at dinner that he’d come to Washington because “it’s my duty.”
Our last meeting of the day, before the government shut down altogether, was with the outgoing Democratic senator from Montana, Max Baucus. He seemed exhausted by the dysfunction in Washington. Baucus was one of the driving forces behind the updated Clean Air Act, and recently introduced climate adaptation legislation. Coming from a coal state, it was clear that climate policy was a tough issue for him. Indeed, in a letter to the president, he had expressed discomfort with Obama’s use of the EPA to regulate CO2 -- the very action we were in D.C. to defend.
But Baucus engaged with our group at the end of the day for so long that it was almost awkward. His wife called. He left to call her and came back. His staffer handed him a note. He looked at it and said: “Can you ask if we can call him back?” He said: “I’m staying here because I care about this issue.” But, he pointed out, he was also working on health care, on tax reform and on immigration. And progress was slow. We talked about how the senator had even discussed potentially putting a carbon tax on the table as part of a tax reform deal. The attempt hit a wall. What Washington had become, the meeting suggested, was both baffling and deeply frustrating to Baucus, a 35-year veteran of the Senate known for his ability to work across the aisle and make deals.
Washington today seems to be an inhuman place. The real people are suffering from the shutdown out in the hinterlands, like the kids who work for concessionaires at national parks and now get no pay, or the guy who told NPR that he’d spent $30,000 to raft the Grand Canyon with his family and friends, renting gear and taking kids out of school and planning it for a year. His dream vacation was destroyed when the national parks closed.
As we got ready to leave the city, pro snowboarder Danny Davis, a 20-something stuffed into a suit, sporting a burly mustache and unruly curls, said our talk with Baucus had been the best meeting -- by far -- of our long day. The senator was, he said, “a real person.” Maybe the best advice in Washington today comes from an ancient Hebrew saying: “In a place where there are no people, try to be a person.”
Auden Schendler is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is the board chair of the nonprofit Protect Our Winters and lives in Colorado.