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Traverse City high schoolers convince their Congressman to join climate caucus

Listen to today's Environment Report.

The climate solutions caucus in the U.S. House is a group of more than 60 Democrats and Republicans who want to address climate change. Representative Fred Upton from St. Joseph just joined the caucus.

Last fall, Representative Jack Bergman, R-MI 1st District, announced he was joining the caucus. He represents northern Michigan.

A group of Traverse City high schoolers were the unlikely lobbyists who helped convince Bergman to join the caucus.

Learning to become lobbyists

Elliot Smith and Delaney Jorgensen are two friends passionate about protecting the environment.

Smith says he’s been thinking about these issues for a long time.

“When I look back on this period, I want to know that I did everything that I could have,” he says.

He helped start an environmental advocacy club at Traverse City Central last school year, and he recruited his friend Delaney Jorgensen to join.

Jorgensen says unlike Smith, she hadn’t thought much about climate change before then.

“I kind of grew up in another world not really thinking about it too much because I lived surrounded by beautiful nature and I didn’t really even think about the fact that it might be in danger,” she says.

In June, the students went to a conference in Washington D.C. held by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Jorgensen says they chose sessions at the conference to learn how lobbying works. And then how to use those skills in the real world on real life members of Congress.

“We decided which ones we thought would be the best for our meeting with Representative Bergman, because that was the most important meeting to us,” says Jorgensen.

The students’ goal was to convince Bergman to join the Climate Solutions Caucus.

Supporters say the caucus is a hopeful sign that bipartisan action on climate change is possible.

But others doubt that, and say it’s giving cover to Republicans who don’t actually support real action on climate change.

Bergman does not dispute that the climate is changing, but he did support President Trump taking the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement.

But Elliott Smith says the students felt like they had an opportunity to sway Bergman to join the caucus, because of Bergman’s enthusiasm for the outdoors.

“So we knew that there was the potential there for him to shift on climate change,” says Smith.

The meeting

At the beginning of the meeting, the congressman told the group he could meet with them for half an hour.

The plan was for Delaney Jorgensen to tell a story about her great-grandfather, a man similar in many ways to Bergman.

It was a story about how her great-grandfather had seen the natural world change around him for the worse.   

“I drew that story out as long as I could because we had the 30 minutes. I was giving as much detail as possible about the little pond where he used to fish that dried up and every single element that I thought would emotionally convince him to act,” she says.

Jorgensen says the tone of the meeting shifted after she told the story. Bergman became quieter and seemed more serious.

“Pretty quickly after Delaney told that story, another person who came with us just piped up and said will you join the House bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus?” says Smith.

And Bergman said yes.

“What stood out is their passion, their level of detail; their organizational skills,” says Rep. Bergman.

Bergman says he’d already been considering joining the caucus, but the students convinced him.

He says Delaney Jorgensen’s story about her great-grandfather, and about the pond he used to fish in that dried up connected with him.

“I caught my first fish in the Black River outside of Ironwood with my uncle. And where I live now, about 50 miles east of that, all of my grandkids have caught their first fish literally right off of our dock. It kind of struck a nerve for me as a little kid and also for me as a grandfather,” says Bergman.

As for the caucus, Bergman honored his pledge last September, when he officially joined the group.

It’s not clear yet what Bergman will do as part of the caucus. Here’s what he said in a press release in September:

Michigan’s First District is home to some of our nation’s most cherished natural resources and I’m proud to join my colleagues to examine ways to promote and protect these resources,” Bergman said. “Michiganders understand that our Great Lakes and natural resources are worth protecting – for our environment, for our economy, for our kids and grandkids, and for the future of the Great Lakes region.”

The students are planning to meet with Bergman again next spring.

Copyright 2021 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

Students celebrate following the meeting with Rep. Jack Bergman.
Suzannah Tobin /
Students celebrate following the meeting with Rep. Jack Bergman.

David Cassleman