Audubon Climate Heroes

What One Success Story Reveals About Talking to Politicians on Birds and Climate

A California volunteer is building bridges with her legislator on climate change and birds, even if they might not agree on every issue.

It all started in fall 2015, when Rosalie Howarth of Walnut Creek, California, attended a town hall meeting hosted by her Republican legislator, Assembly member Catharine Baker. Howarth listened as many other constituents voiced concerns and questions, then she spoke up about the need to address the urgent problem of climate change. The reaction from the room was mostly eye-rolling, groaning, and dismissal, Howarth recalls. It was as if she had brought up UFOs. But Baker took the issue seriously and talked about the importance of new technologies to combat the effects of climate change.

Encouraged, Howarth followed up by emailing Baker and asking her to vote “yes” on two proposed bills to cut carbon emissions, SB 350 and SB 32. Baker sent a handwritten reply thanking her for the feedback and sharing that she had voted in favor of SB 350. (Baker opposed the other bill, SB 32, which failed to gather enough support in the Assembly and may be reconsidered this year.) SB 350 passed after a groundswell of support from advocates across the state, including a March 2015 trip to the statehouse in Sacramento organized by Audubon California. This legislation will reduce the emissions driving climate change by increasing requirements for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Howarth was “grateful and amazed” by Baker’s response. Though she doesn’t identify as a Republican herself, she continues to communicate with Baker via email, and the two had the chance to meet face to face during a visit to Sacramento later that fall. There Howarth and several other Mount Diablo Audubon Society (MDAS) members shared their concerns about climate change and other issues affecting birds, including proposed development and rodent poisons that kill raptors such as owls and hawks.

This February, Baker spoke at an MDAS meeting with more than 110 members in attendance. Recently the lawmaker hosted a “walk and talk” town-hall meeting by inviting her constituents on a hike in Shell Ridge Open Space—protected parkland with a network of trails. Howarth and other chapter members joined the hike with extra binoculars and helped point out birds such as Acorn Woodpeckers and Western Scrub-jays, while other attendees identified wildflowers.

Learning More About Climate Change

Howarth has worked for radio station KFOG in San Francisco for more than 30 years, mainly as a DJ hosting acoustic and world music shows. She’s also a longtime birder, who describes her small yard—filled with feeders—as a “bird riot,” frequented by many species such as climate-threatened House Finches and Pine Siskins. She became engaged with the issue of climate change through her interest in meteorology and her voracious reading of newspapers, newsletters, and magazines such as Scientific American and National Geographic. Its impact on birds and other wildlife alarmed her.

“Wildlife always gets dead-last consideration,” she says of humans’ development of Earth and its resources. As she puts it, people keep saying to wildlife, “‘We’re going to use this now—move over there.’ And the ‘there’ is forever getting smaller and smaller and more cut-up.”

Howarth has encountered other people dismissing climate change in her community, as demonstrated by a recent letter to her local newspaper scoffing at the consequences of a 2-degree Celsius temperature rise. But she believes that more people learning about climate science could help turn the tide. She also feels energized and encouraged by her conversations with Baker. “If we can identify, cultivate, and support independent thinkers like her,” Howarth says, “there may be hope!”

How to Talk With Your Elected Officials

As a professional communicator, Howarth offers this advice for how to connect with legislators on conservation issues:

  • Attend town halls or ask for a meeting. “Addressing representatives requires that you respect their time and come prepared to give your best elevator speech on each subject. Be brief, be powerful, be impassioned, and quote facts and statistics,” she says. 
  • Invite a local lawmaker to speak at one of your chapter meetings. If she or he accepts the invitation, promote the event to make sure as many people as possible are able to attend. This helps show how many people care deeply about bird conservation and other environmental issues.
  • Begin building bridges early. “It’s really important to contact your local representatives not only on issues that have legislation pending, but [also] on issues you care about, just to get it on their radar,” Howarth says. That way, when they hear from another constituent, or they see something a representative is doing in another district, they will recognize it as a pressing issue.
  • Be polite but persistent. It also doesn’t hurt to ask how you can help support the lawmaker’s priorities, such as an upcoming bill that could use additional public input or expertise. “Above all, get involved,” says Howarth. “Those who oppose your views and threaten what you value certainly do. And even if you get booed . . . something good might come of it.” 
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