Solid Liberal and GOP Congressman being civil to one another

Unlikely trio: an archaeologist, a Republican Congressman & renewable energy

Despite being told there was no point in ‘talking to the enemy’, Grantham Scholar Theresa Nelson got time with a Republican Congressman to discuss renewable energy. She left with renewed faith in democracy.

In the UK, town halls are associated with jumble sales or the local council. But in the US they have traditionally been the focal point of local politics. At town halls constituents can ask questions of their governmental officials, such as mayors, congressmen, senators, water and school boards.

Since the 2016 election, town halls have become quite hostile. The American people are angry and frustrated for a myriad of reasons, including the fact that fewer congressmen are holding such forums and facing their constituents.

Some congressmen, including my own Congressman Mike Kelly, have decided to hold tele-town halls instead. Although this is a convenient way to include members of large districts, questions are more heavily vetted by congressional aides. As a result hostility from constituents can be avoided.

Tele-town hall

Although I try not to stereotype members of the GOP, I did not expect my question about renewable energy to be chosen for the town hall. The Congressman and I are on opposite sides of the political spectrum. I am a ‘solid liberal,’ and Kelly is a member of the GOP. Plus Kelly is a participant in the Marcellus Shale Caucus, the Congressional Coal Caucus and the Natural Gas Caucus Additionally, Kelly serves on the House Committee on Ways and Means (he helped to pass the Trump Tax Plan).

If his taking my question was a shock, then his response was less surprising. “I have no problem with sustainable, renewable energy. But the cost in many cases far, far exceeds what people are spending right now to keep their homes warm, lights on, the air conditioning working, and all the other things we are doing.”

As much as I wanted to interrupt and correct the Congressman on this point, I am fairly certain that constituents are muted whilst the Congressman is answering questions during a tele-town hall. Of course, this would not be the case in a public town-hall meeting.

Congressman Mike Kelly talks renewable energy

I’m not against renewable and sustainable energy,” he continued. “As we keep going forward we should keep trying to expand on them. But our standards, coal, natural gas, and oil, these have always been the standards for us. We just do a better job with it than any other place in the world. Am I concerned about the change in climate? Yes, I’m concerned about the changes in climate… The United States does play a role, but the rest of the world also has a responsibility… I’m just saying that for right now we have to go with our standards. Because that’s what keeps us competitive, helps us to drive our economy. And we need to make sure that we can compete with any other place in the world.”

So, unsurprisingly for a Republican on various non-sustainable caucuses, Kelly believes we should use the natural resources which our district is rich in (e.g. Marcellus Shale, Natural Gas, Coal, etc). However, I did get another surprise – he promised to listen to anything I had to say about about ‘bringing sustainable energy to our district’.

So, I took the Congressman up on this and when I was back in the states this January. True to his word, Kelly met with me.

Meeting a GOP Congressman to talk about renewable energy

Congressman Kelly and I talked for over an hour about the difficulties of bringing renewable energy to our district. Aside from the plethora of fracking and coal throughout the district, there are apparently problems with building windmills in Lake Erie. Although Lake Erie has great potential for providing wind power, there are environmental issues, including animal migrations, Lake Erie’s pollution, and algae blooms.

With regards to Solar Energy, western Pennsylvania (especially Pittsburgh, just south of PA-03) is known for its dreary days. However, PA-03 has nearly as much Solar Energy Potential and Wind Energy Potential as other districts that have solar and wind farms. Furthermore, Pennsylvania limits solar buyback, which makes solar power (on the individual house level) less appealing.

Overall, with regards to bringing wind and solar, Congressman Kelly seemed to be concerned about the following:

  • Individual freedom—he wants his constituents to have multiple options for energy sources.
  • Solar and Wind Energy Storage—how do we do this cheaply and efficiently?
  • Infrastructure—what infrastructure changes would be needed throughout the district?
  • Subsidies for renewable energy—at what point does the government stop giving subsidies?

The polarization of American Politics

As it stands, the biggest hurdle any politician in America faces when it comes to talking about ideas not normally associated with their party is the polarization of American politics. Today, in the United States, there is extremely divisive language used by both parties. We’ve seen this divisiveness in American media outlets. And research polls show that polarization has increased dramatically in less than a decade (see diagrams below).

Pew research poll investigating the political polarization of the politically engaged members of the American public. In 1999, differences were not so great.
Pew research poll investigating the political polarization of the politically engaged members of the American public. In 1999, differences were not so great.

I will be the first to admit that I had my doubts about meeting with a GOP Congressman of Western Pennsylvania to further discuss Renewable Energies. Polarization makes it extremely difficult for districts like mine to become more reliable on renewable energies.

When I asked Congressman Kelly how to get over this hurdle, he said education is the answer. Specifically, going into schools and participating in public engagement activities which teach children about renewable and non-renewable resources.

“People do the wrong thing not always because they’re bad people,” he stated. “But because they don’t know that it’s the wrong thing to do”.

Although such an education initiative may take a few years to get running, Congressman Kelly stated that he would ‘definitely be interested’ in helping.

A waste of time?

Pew research poll investigating the political polarization of the politically engaged members of the American public. In 1999, differences were not so great.
Pew research poll investigating the political polarization of the politically engaged members of the American public. In 1999, differences were not so great.

Many of my friends and colleagues said that meeting with Kelly was a ‘waste of time,’ and ‘not worth the energy.’ I do not feel this was the case. However, I did leave the meeting with reservations. Congressman Kelly has a few misunderstandings about renewable energy and its effects on the economy, and is still very much tied to coal, natural gas, and oil.

(There are also a few ethical differences he and I have which are unrelated to sustainability issues. Kelly was an original co-sponsor of the Defund Planned Parenthood Act, and still actively pursues defunding it, which is another blog in itself.)

Renewable hope

However, I also left the meeting optimistic. Because my Congressman, a member of the GOP, was willing to discuss an extremely polarized topic with a constituent from the opposite side of the political spectrum. And Kelly acknowledged that climate change and sustainability are pivotal issues we must address. Further, he discussed issues within our district surrounding renewable resources. Finally, he talked about overcoming one of the biggest obstacles PA-03 faces with bringing in renewable energy: political bipolarization.

Although American politics are chaotic now, I am proud that I was able to take part in my democracy. And from over 3000 miles away! Proud to have had the opportunity to meet with my Congressman and have a meaningful conversation about renewable energy in our district. Proud that my Congressman made an effort to meet with his constituent at an odd time of year, and, made sure to meet with me while I was home. And proud that my democracy allows me to have such access to meet with government officials and discuss important issues.

I look forward to meeting with Congressman Kelly in the future. And I hope to work with him to bring renewable energy to our district.