Each year, the Hoosier Environmental Council hosts a gathering called Greening the Statehouse. This year’s GTS, held on Saturday, Nov. 14 at UIndy, was a record-breaking event for HEC, boasting the highest number of attendees (450) and the largest number of sponsors in the organization’s history.

HEC, the state’s largest environmental policy organization, stages Greening the Statehouse to educate constituents about current and upcoming legislative issues.

Executive Director Jesse Kharbanda began the day with a moment of silence for the victims of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, then talked about the upcoming Conference of Parties (COP) in Paris (Nov. 30-Dec. 11) as being “the most important meeting of the 21st Century.”

Hyperbole? Not to my mind. With climate impacts already imperiling the planet, the COP effort to commit to carbon emission reduction is long past imperative, and now looms as a sheer survival strategy.

Kharbanda emphasized that getting involved in climate change action is a “moral obligation” for Hoosiers, in part because our elected officials (he cited Governor Pence and Senator Joe Donnelly) play “an outsized role” on the national stage for their refusal to support the EPA Clean Power Plan, designed to reduce carbon emissions over the next decade and half, while giving each state latitude as to how to make those reductions.

Finally, Kharbanda remarked that if we can have success in Indiana in shifting the state toward clean renewable energy and “green” jobs, that success will be inspiring to other states and countries accustomed to Indiana’s coal-centric business-as-usual approach.

It’s essential to put his remarks into context: Consensus science has established that carbon emissions from human beings is altering the chemical balance and warming the planet unnaturally. A warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor. That, coupled with sea level rise and other climate impacts, is resulting in more extreme weather and concomitant public health and ecosystem threats.

Not grappling with this scientific reality means our leaders cannot adequately prepare for the increasingly extreme impacts of climate change that will affect our food, water, energy and transportation infrastructures.

HEC invited Earthjustice’s Lisa Evans, a nationally known coal ash expert, to be keynote speaker. Evans told the audience, “Indiana is ground zero for coal ash….” Indiana has the most coal ash sludge lagoons in the country: 84. Coal ash, a byproduct of coal plant combustion, contains numerous toxic chemicals and has been known to contaminate its surroundings, including soil and watersheds. Moreover, Evans said, “the politics of coal ash are often as toxic as the coal ash itself” — especially given the release of the long-awaited EPA federal safeguard regulations for coal ash.

Evans suggested to the audience they work with utility companies in ensuring that coal ash deposits in Indiana are dealt with responsibly. “Shake hands with Goliath,” she advised, “but bring your slingshot.”

Evans, like Kharbanda, invoked Sen. Donnelly, asking HEC constituents to encourage Donnelly to not support any bill that weakens EPA public health protections from coal ash contamination.

Next up on the schedule was a report from two Indiana chambers of commerce: Mark Fisher, Vice President of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, and Arvid Olson, Chairman of the Chamber Council of Greater Lafayette Commerce. This was a lively exchange between two leaders dedicated to trans-partisan progress in their communities. We were encouraged repeatedly to find “common interests” with business leaders and policy makers, to make our communities more vibrant — and less brain-draining.

Is “feeding the world” hogwash?

HEC often brings in elected officials to provide event-goers with tips on how to make an impact in the legislative sessions. Senators Mark Stoops (D) and Mike Crider (R) were engaging and helpful in their common-sense recommendations.

Another essential session, led by Amy Heart from SunRun Home Solar and Julia Friedman from Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, walked us through the economic argument for growing our clean energy economy in Indiana. One attendee, Peter Schubert, Director of Richard G. Lugar Center for Renewable Energy, said, “While the economic risks [of the Clean Power Plan] are much discussed, the conversation should also include consideration of the economic opportunities.”

Closing out the day was a presentation on agriculture, by Dr. Jane Frankenberger, Purdue Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, and Chris Baggott, owner of Tyner Pond Farm and co-owner of Husk. HEC regularly focuses on the environmental and economic impact of industrial agricultural, including pesticide and fertilizer run off.

(I was fortunate to watch Baggott’s recent TEDx talk, also held at UIndy. His provocative suggestion was to remove grocery stores from the food system equation. You can see his talk on Youtube.)

Baggott began his ten-minute talk on Saturday by telling the assembled he is “kind of a Republican,” and that he doesn’t appreciate his farm being called a “small farm.” He suggested that the term “alternative farm” might be more accurate, as the phrase “small farm” suggests an elitist — and expensive — approach to farming.

Baggott took on the twin myths of our agricultural system, saying that food monopolies (like Tyson, for example) “wrap themselves in the flag” of the image the family farmer and the oft-cited idea we are “feeding the world.”

Monopolies are not going to concern themselves, Baggott suggested, with the environmental consequences of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and mono-cultural practices. Farming is not a free market economy, Baggott maintained — in this country, at least. He named the places to which he has traveled and whose agricultural systems he has studied: China, Peru, Ecuador, Cuba, Africa. Baggott said it’s not CAFOs and grocery stores that maintain those food systems. Rather, it’s a more producer-to-consumer arrangement via open-air markets and technology.

Dave Parsons, who traveled from Bloomington to attend, said the most significant thing to him about the Greening the Statehouse event was “the variety of people who came to talk about the importance of air, water, and sustainable use of resources. Many mainstream businesses, universities and entrepreneurs are supporting the movement to a more environmentally just future.” Parsons is a member of the Monroe County Environmental Quality and Sustainability Commission.

Who ya gonna call?

Throughout the day, a clear motif was present: Senator Joe Donnelly, a Democrat. Of most immediacy is the federal-level threat to the Clean Power Plan through what’s called a Congressional Review Act. In fact, by the time you read this article the CRA may have already been triggered in the Senate. The CRA is a seldom-used tactic in Congress to override a regulation. In this instance, the CRA would try to override the U.S. Supreme Court decision that supported EPA’s stance it can regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act.

At the GTS event, many in attendance — on stage and in the crowd — feared Donnelly will vote in support of the CRA, potentially dooming the Clean Power Plan.

Well into the day’s schedule, Jesse Kharbanda stood at the lectern and announced he was going to call Senator Donnelly, right that moment, and hoped that the audience would join him in leaving a voicemail.

You can see a video of that phone call here.

Hundreds of attendees approached the lectern and told Donnelly: “Support the Clean Power Plan; oppose the Congressional Review Act.”

It was a spontaneous moment of climate action that thrilled event-goers, an instance of collective shouting juxtaposed with the earlier moment of silence.

Each year, HEC names a number of award winners. One winner was Linda Porter, OFA IN State Lead for Climate Change, who received the honor of Climate Advocate of the Year during the awards ceremony. Afterwards, she cited as the day’s penultimate event not her award, but the phone call to Sen. Donnelly: “For me, the most impressive thing was Jesse Kharbanda's group call to Senator Donnelly. With the CRA vote breathing down our necks, early this week, the call was empowering, inspirational and provided hope for the Senator to be on the right side of history.”

This sentiment was echoed by one of the event’s youngest attendees, 14 year old Adara Duncan, a freshman at North Central High School. Duncan said, “Greening the Statehouse was an amazingly enlightening experience! It was riveting and educational to watch all of the presentations. The highlight,” she added, “was our group-wide call to Sen. Donnelly. It was truly inspiring to see so many people at this fantastic event.”

To detail all award winners (that also included NAACP’s Denise Abdul-Rahman as Environmentalist of the Year) would exhaust space allotment for this article. Please go to hecweb.org to learn more about the event and the winners, as well as opportunities to act — including a petition to Joe Donnelly.


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