Last fall, northern Michigan’s congressman announced he was joining the Climate Solutions Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s a group of more than 60 Democrats and Republicans who want to address the challenges of climate change.
Some environmental advocates applauded Rep. Jack Bergman’s (R-Watersmeet) decision, including a group of Traverse City high schoolers. They were the unlikely lobbyists who helped convince Bergman to join the group.
Friends passionate about the environment
Elliott Smith and Delaney Jorgensen are two friends passionate about protecting the environment. The pair are seniors at Traverse City Central High School. 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,” Smith says.
Smith helped start an environmental advocacy club at his high school in 2016, and he recruited Jorgensen to join. Jorgensen says she hadn’t thought much about climate change before then.
“When I was growing up it wasn’t really something that was on my radar,” Jorgensen says. “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.”
Trip to D.C.
With some guidance from local climate activists, the new club took off. In June, the students went to a conference in Washington, D.C. held by the Citizens Climate Lobby. Jorgensen says the conference was a chance to learn how lobbying works, and then to use those skills in the real world on real life members of congress.
“At the conference you have two days of training, and there are breakout sessions that you can go to,” Jorgensen says. “And so we looked at all of them – all of us students – and we decided which ones we thought would be the best for our meeting with Rep. Bergman, because that was the most important meeting to us.”
The students’ goal was to convince Bergman to join the Climate Solutions Caucus.
Dozens of Democrats and Republicans have joined the caucus since it was created two years ago. Supporters say the group 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 himself is skeptical about the scientific consensus that people are the primary reason the earth is warming.
But the students felt like they had an opportunity to sway Bergman to join the caucus because of his enthusiasm for the outdoors.
Smith says he was the most nervous he’s been in his life before meeting with the congressman.
“I think I felt the pressure because this was an issue that mattered to me for so long and finally I had this opportunity where there was this influential Republican who we knew had this love for nature,” Smith says. “So we knew that there was the potential there for him to shift on climate change.”
At the beginning of the meeting, the congressman told the group he could meet with them for half an hour. The students had only expected 15 minutes of his time at the most. The plan was for 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,” Jorgensen says. “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.”
Jorgensen says the tone of the meeting shifted after she told the story, and Bergman became quieter and seemed more serious.
Next the plan was to talk about how climate change could affect the Great Lakes.
But that’s not what happened.
“Pretty quickly after Delaney told that story another person who came with us named Adrian just piped up and said, ‘will you join the House bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus?’" says Smith. “And everyone’s face was a little shocked.”
This was not what the group had planned.
But Bergman’s response was immediate – and unexpected.
“His exact words were, ‘you know what, I’ll make a commitment to you today to join the caucus,’” Jorgensen says. “And for us, I think hearing a Marine general say the word commitment was huge.”
Bergman says the group stood out because of their passion, level of detail and organizational skills. He says he’d already been considering joining the caucus, but the students convinced him.
He says Jorgensen's story about her great-grandfather connected with him.
“I caught my first fish in the Black River outside of Ironwood with my uncle,” Bergman says. “And where I live now, about 50 miles east of there, all of my grandkids have caught their first fish literally right off of our dock. [The story] kind of struck a nerve for me as a little kid and also for me as a grandfather.”
The meeting went on after Bergman committed to join the caucus, but with all the excitement Smith says he had trouble thinking clearly about what to say next.
Bergman invited them to meet with him later in the summer, and then the meeting ended.
“We were out in the hallway,” Smith says. “I was just smiling so big, tears coming out of my eyes. We had a big group hug.”
Optimism for the future
Today Elliott Smith and Delaney Jorgensen are seniors in high school and looking to the future with more optimism than before.
“We’re very fortunate to know the people that we know and to have the opportunities we have to meet government officials and talk about this issue on the radio and be able to really express how we feel,” Jorgensen says. “When you have those opportunities and you have that fortune, you have to do something about it.”
Smith says he now has more faith in Congress and in government in general to do the right thing on climate change.
“Republicans, just like Democrats and everyone, want the best for our country and the people in it,” Smith says. “And I think when you are willing to talk to people in a way that connects to what they believe in ... I think Republicans don’t have to be the enemy. And I think working with them is the way forward on issues like climate change.”
The students are planning to meet with Bergman again next spring.
As for the caucus, Bergman honored his pledge when he officially joined the group last September.