The Room Where It Happens: Unlocking the Power of Citizen Lobbying to Fight Fossil Fuels

When I first heard the term “lobbyist” in a high school government class, I instantly pictured older men in suits, roaming the halls of Congress with briefcases and nefarious intentions. It seemed that such people always worked for companies or industries trying to have undue influence over our congressional representatives, coaxing them into passing pro-industry or polluting policies. It wasn’t until I had been in the climate movement for a few years that I finally learned that “lobbying” did not require anyone to be a professional lobbyist. In fact, it could serve as an extremely useful tool for your cause or campaign!

Essentially, “lobbying” refers to meeting with congressional officials, or their staff, to share a perspective, expertise, or news that advocates for a particular cause or policy. Traditionally, it has largely been these large industries that have the resources to employ squadrons of professional “lobbyists” whose entire job is solely to consistently lobby particular members of Congress for their corporate bosses. But, that does not mean that ordinary people can’t also employ this tactic. In fact, it is one of the best ways to counteract the power of the fossil fuel industry. In 2022, the oil and gas industry spent $124.4 million on federal lobbying amid record profits, according to an analysis by OpenSecrets.

So, what can lobbying look like for someone like you or me? Given the popularization of virtual meetings during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, lobbying is all the more accessible to everyday people without having to be physically present in Washington, D.C..

To get started, begin by researching contacts for staff in the office of a congressperson you’d like to meet with. Often, the staff play a much more involved role in actually writing bills and creating policy for their congressional office. Don’t underestimate the impact you can have by meeting with them. And, often, they will be young professionals not much older than you.

Offices are typically organized to have “Legislative Aides” or “Legislative Assistants” that have portfolios of issue areas that they focus on. For instance, if you want your congressperson to vote against a fossil fuel-friendly bill, try contacting their Legislative Aide that handles their energy and environment issues portfolio. If you can’t find their contact, you can always reach out the “Scheduler” or “Legislative Director” in each office and ask them to connect you with the appropriate aide.

When you reach out, explain what you’d like to chat about, particularly specific policies or bills that you will be advocating for or against. Request a half-hour virtual or in-person meeting and come prepared with some questions for your legislative staff. It is also particularly effective to come prepared with “leave behind” materials that summarize your policy position and can be left with whomever you met with. Make sure to explain your position in depth, along with your personal experience or motivation for it. Telling your story can be extremely effective! If you’re a constituent of the district, mention that in your outreach and during the meeting as well.

Personally, I’ve been lobbying for about four years now, focusing on opposing pro-fossil fuel legislation, and advocating for more environmental justice provisions in existing bills as well. The more you participate in these meetings, the more they become second nature. I highly recommend bringing along a friend to make it even easier! Most recently, I’ve lobbied against fossil fuel industry handouts in appropriations packages, as well as the “Dirty Deal.” Along with some other fellows and advocates at the Rachel Carson Council, I’ve also advocated for a Congressional Resolution in support of the monumental Juliana v. US youth climate litigation. For issues ranging from wood pellet production to offshore drilling, the Rachel Carson Council is already putting this tactic to use at the federal and local level.

And your lobbying advocacy doesn’t just have to be limited to big federal environmental legislation— make it local to you and your campaign. For instance, you could meet with your state house or state senate representation and push them to introduce a bill that mandates fossil fuel divestment at all public universities in the state. These legislative offices also love working with constituents and advocacy groups to craft these bills and policy, so make sure to offer your experience and expertise to them.

These same tactics can be used to lobby university officials as well— most universities around the country are structured very similarly to our government. At Vanderbilt, we have a Faculty Senate with committees structured similarly to the federal government, and we can reach out to professors on particular committees such as “Student Affairs” and encourage them to introduce resolutions on behalf of our divestment campaign. Ultimately, the most important thing to remember is that lobbying is not just a tool reserved for powerful industries or individuals— by breaking it down, you too can exercise it for your cause or campaign!

Aaditi Lele, RCC National Environment Leadership Fellow – Vanderbilt University

Aaditi Lele is a junior at Vanderbilt University and a second-year Rachel Carson Council National Environment Leadership (NERF) Fellow, campaigning for fossil fuel divestment. She also serves as the Policy Director at Zero Hour, working to bring youth into environmental justice policy advocacy. She can be reached at [email protected]