Funder gatherings are a little bit different from most of the conferences I’ve attended. First of all, the early morning sessions are extremely well-attended and filled with lively discussion. Second, these meetings tend to have fewer talking heads and more focus on dialogue, which I find to be an energizing and refreshing format. The Environmental Grantmakers Association 2013 Federal Policy Briefing in Washington, DC (February 26-27) was no exception. Over 100 grantmakers from across the country gathered at the Pew Charitable Trusts conference center in Washington, DC to talk about the path forward on Federal issues given the re-election of President Obama, a divided Congress, and game-changing climate-related events like Hurricane Sandy, unprecedented drought, and destructive forest fires. When I arrived for the first morning plenary, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon was already rolling with his remarks to a standing room only about where we are in the transition towards a new energy future.
One of the best sessions I attended was called “What Did the 2012 Election Mean for the Environmental Community?” A panel of polling experts, moderated by Washington Post environmental reporter, Juliet Eilperin, discussed what was learned in the 2012 election, how the current electorate is different in its demographics and attitudes from years past, and what these changes might hold for the future on the environment. Ruy Teixeira with the Center for American Progress shared his data about millennials, the demographic cohort born between 1980 and 2000. The goods news is that Teixeira thinks the millennials, estimated to make up 36% of voters in the next decade, are the most pro-environment generation this country has ever seen. Celinda Lake, President of Lake Research Partners, shared her sobering research showing that most Americans think that we can adapt to climate change (and therefore are far less motivated to do anything about it right now) and that so long as the economy remains sluggish, people feel the environment is less of a priority. Christine Matthews, President of Bellwether Research, gave us a glimpse of how environmental issues are faring in conservative circles. She confirmed that the era of bi-partisanship on the environment is officially dead. Reality check: the environment is the second most polarizing issue between democrats and republicans, right behind opposing views about the social safety net.
While some of this was discouraging to hear, the overwhelming attitude of the session was one of optimism. With over 70% of 18-29 year olds supportive of alternative sources of energy, and the fastest growing segments of the electorate leaning strongly in favor of environmental interests, there is a lot to be optimistic about –we have a tremendous opening for progress on the environment if we resist the urge to take the easy route. We’ve got to aim for the result that we really want, instead of what we perceive to be the most politically feasible in the moment. We also need to do the hard work of building a scaffolding of public support that is informed by and responsive to the needs and concerns of quickly growing sectors of the electorate that support progress for the environment.
In keeping with the dominating theme of climate, Secretary of HUD, Shaun Donovan, who chairs the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, gave remarks about the innovative partnerships he and the Obama administration are working on to ensure that recovery from Sandy reaches the communities most in need, and sets into motion a comprehensive planning framework that that takes into consideration equitable access to housing and transportation in order for communities to be more resilient in the future. Donovan’s vision was refreshing and encouraging.
All in all, the briefing provided a good caffeine boost for environmental grantmakers.