Rep. Welch urges students to ‘hang in’ on climate action
MIDDLEBURY — “I admire you guys, I really do. It’s great to be here,” Congressman Peter Welch told a group of Middlebury College student activists Monday as he met with them to discuss ways to address climate change and share his reflections on effective leadership in the face of tough challenges.
Repeatedly throughout the discussion, Welch, 68, thanked the students for their leadership and compared the work of today’s young activists on climate change to the battles his own generation waged in the Civil Rights Movement.
“The students of Middlebury have been leaders for years,” he said later, reflecting on the meeting. “This issue of climate change is the moral issue of this younger generation. They’re providing extraordinarily important leadership and I wanted to acknowledge that and thank them and also encourage them to hang in.”
About 25 people, mostly students, together with a few community members, gathered around the table in a small conference room in La Force Hall for an intense, hour-long discussion. The diverse collection of students had come to Middlebury from all over the United States and as far away as South America and Asia. Most were members of the student-led Sunday Night Group, which Middlebury students founded 10 years ago and whose earliest members were part of the founding of the climate-action nonprofit 350.org.
For Welch the opportunity to speak with student activists about climate change was clearly a high priority, both personal and political.
“This is a pretty tough time in Congress, but it’s also a very important time at the local level to find young people who are willing to lead and hang in,” Welch continued. “It was also a great opportunity for me to talk about some of the complexities on the human level, having just gotten back from going into a West Virginia coal mine and having an immense amount of appreciation for the dignity of those coal miners whose livelihoods are being affected. Those miners didn’t cause climate change. And what I appreciated about the students was their emphasis on justice — that has to include help for folks who are going to be impacted, like coal miners, to make the transition. It was really a moving opportunity, a moving experience for me to see these young people, who have been so engaged — not just in advocacy but in trying to come up with practical steps to actually transform the way we build our economy.”
In an especially poignant moment, Welch described what it had been like for him as a young college student to meet Martin Luther King Jr. at the Ebenezer Baptist Church and how that opportunity had informed his perspective on public leadership.
“It wasn’t just that there was constant physical danger for him, but that he was up against enormous odds all the time and he didn’t display anger even in the face of constant rejection and danger. Constant. That interior core he had where he believed in the morality of what he was doing — that’s what I found so powerful about him,” said Welch.
The five-term Democratic member of the U.S. House pulled no punches in describing the current gridlock in Congress and the governance problems that arise when groups eschew debate and compromise for the tactic of threatening to shut down the government if their demands aren’t met on a particular issue.
For the Vermont Democrat, who serves on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, trying to meaningfully address climate change in the Republican-controlled Congress is a complex issue, given how many of his colleagues reject the well-established science on the issue. Welch good naturedly joked that “when it comes to climate change, I’m working with some of the top minds of the 18th century. I literally have a bunch of people who say they don’t believe in it.”
Given the current hostility in Congress to climate action, Welch emphasized both the critical importance of local activists, such as the students in the Sunday Night Group, and the importance of finding alternate strategies to effect change in Congress, including listening attentively to opponents and reaching across the aisle on whatever patches of common ground can be found.
Energy efficiency, Welch noted, is one place where he has been able to build consensus in Washington. Another place, he noted, is in his work with West Virginia Rep. David McKinley to craft legislation to assist coal miners displaced as the economy transitions away from coal. The duo’s “odd couple” pairing from across the heatedly divided sides of the climate debate has garnered its share of attention over the past year.
Just days before coming to Middlebury, Welch had been in West Virginia, where he toured a coal mine and met with miners to hear their concerns, as part of legislation he and McKinley are co-sponsoring.
Welch’s trip to West Virginia and his legislative efforts on behalf of coal miners resounded with the Middlebury students’ own deeply articulated concerns to connect social and economic justice to their campaign to reverse global warming. Repeatedly students emphasized the importance of mitigating the effects of climate change on communities most likely to feel the worst impacts, including communities in poorer parts of the globe, indigenous communities and persons of color.
As the wide-ranging discussion progressed, students brought up almost every aspect of climate policy and action imaginable. Students asked about the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, the just-that-day announced Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement now facing approval in Congress, President Obama’s historic accord with China on climate change, and a host of other complex policy issues.
On campus, the Saturday Night Group has just kicked off the academic year with its Climate Justice Weekend, part of the Know Tomorrow Climate Reality Project uniting student activists nationwide. In the upcoming year, students said, they would continue to work on getting Middlebury College trustees to divest the school’s approximately $1 billion endowment from fossil fuels and will work together with other campuses to further the divestment movement nationwide. The SNG will also continue its opposition to the Vermont Gas natural gas pipeline and will work to build awareness about the important connections between climate action and social justice issues.
Esteban Arenas, a member of the SNG who is majoring in Environmental Studies with a focus on Environmental Policy, said that he had been drawn to the group even before arriving on campus from his native Colombia. Indeed one of his first activities when he arrived as a freshman last September was to go with the group to New York City to join the over 300,000 people taking part in the 2014 People’s Climate March.
“That really excited me because I’d never been to something that big for the environment,” Arenas said.
For Arenas, Welch’s visit underscored that “college students have a very impactful role in terms of policy and action, and we can definitely influence how things are perceived in Congress.”
He was especially struck by the logical and constructive steps Congressman Welch has taken to address the climate change opposition in Congress.
For sophomore Maddie Stewart-Boldin, who’s from New Hampshire, Welch’s comments about the gridlock in Congress made her think more about the importance of working on congressional campaigns to elect more legislators who truly care about environmental issues, so that climate-action advocates like Welch won’t be so outnumbered.
“I came here today because it was a really important opportunity for us to ground the work we do on the advocacy level — hearing how our voices are reflected in Congress and hearing Congressman Welch’s perspectives about how he is maneuvering in the congressional sphere and trying to push for what we all believe in,” she said.
Throughout the discussion, Welch urged the students to keep taking concrete steps to put their concerns into action.
“What really inspires,” Welch told the students, “is that you’re doing your work methodically in a considerate way, where you just keep at it even when you suffer setbacks.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].