At 12:45 on a muggy Thursday afternoon in Washington, D.C., guitar notes rang out in the crowded cafeteria of the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill. Stern-looking suit-clad men and women huddled over lunch or papers, or deep in conversation, were startled out of their activities by a flash mob of elderly citizens.
"We're on a planet that has a problem," they chanted, gesturing and swaying in the front seating area, "We've got to solve it, get involved, and do it now, now, NOW!" An impassioned guitarist stood atop a chair and strummed on.
And just like that, in a few minutes it was all over, appended with exuberant clapping, congratulatory greetings and the distribution of pamphlets. Mitch Whitaker, 22, a House intern, who was hunched over his lunch when the singing burst out, expressed surprise at what had just occurred. "I had no idea it was happening," Whitaker exclaimed. "This is pretty cool!" he said as he watched the advocates leave the cafe, determinedly clutching their files, folders with studies, photographs and newspaper clippings, ready for the second part of their program -- lobbying House and Senate lawmakers on climate change issues.
Members of 100 Grannies pose at the Capitol. Photo courtesy of 100Grannies.org.
Among those who lent their voices to the climate demonstration was Barbara Schlachter, a 70-year-old grandmother of two from Iowa City. She and six other women represented 100 Grannies, an Iowa-based advocacy group that Schlachter founded. The rally was part of a two-day event organized under the banner of Elders Climate Action. 100 Grannies was one of several organizations that participated in the demonstration and a daylong orientation program Wednesday in Washington, where they were coached in lobbying and other activities and attended talks.
The keynote speaker at the orientation was James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who rang the alarm about climate change decades ago and has emerged as a leading voice in the United States advocating for action on climate change. "We have a bond," Schlachter said. "We go a long way back." Like Schlachter, Hansen is from Iowa. Schlachter also was one of more than 100 people arrested along with Hansen at a Keystone XL pipeline protest in Washington, D.C., in 2011.
Hansen was one of the reasons Schlachter started the 100 Grannies: Uniting for a Liveable Future group, which was officially founded in 2012. Around Christmastime in 2010, when her daughter announced that she was expecting her second child, Schlachter was reading Hansen's book "Storms of My Grandchildren." She remembers thinking, "What kind of a world am I leaving behind for my grandchildren?"
Soon, Schlachter and a friend gathered a group of eight other like-minded older ladies to her house to brainstorm about what they could do. That evening, Schlachter recited from a poem by Drew Dellinger about an elderly person haunted in dreams by future generations asking, " [W]hat did you do while the planet was plundered?"
A push for the Clean Power Plan and cap and dividend
As one of the grannies explained, one doesn't technically have to be a grandmother to be a member of the group but only has to demonstrate some understanding of climate change issues and have time to engage.
The mission of 100 Grannies, Schlachter said, "is to call attention to the reality of the climate crisis and the need to reduce our use of fossil fuels and the need to increase our use of renewable fuels." But what drives its members is their deeply felt concern for the future of their grandchildren, an anxiety that forms the underlying theme of their activities. Back in Iowa, they organize sit-ins, lecture series and movie screenings.
"You can sit at home and you can read and you can despair, or you can get out and find the other women who are concerned about this -- and do something about it," Schlachter said of how their numbers have steadily grown over the past three years.
As the seven women sat eating lunch in one corner of the Longworth cafeteria before the rally started, their conversation turned to Hansen's speech. Paula Sanchini, 64, said she understands why they did not heed his call for action on climate change decades ago. "I understand why nobody was doing anything then; he did not have all of the information," she said, "but there is no excuse for it now."
About 80 elderly people were in D.C. for the two-day event to pressure lawmakers to act quickly on climate change. 100 Grannies has two key demands -- its members are asking their lawmakers, especially Republicans, to support the Clean Power Plan and refrain from blocking funding for it. They are also pushing for a carbon fee-and-dividend program.
Schlachter actively lobbied as part of the Citizens Climate lobby before she retired. But for some of the other members, it hasn't come so easily. "We are out of our comfort zone, but we are doing it," one member said as they headed out to the Russell Senate Office Building to meet lawmakers. "We are as older women less threatening," said Jan Stephen, 71, "so people listen to us without getting defensive."
Though climate change is their main focus, they say they are concerned with all environment-related issues, including unsustainable agricultural practices, use of plastic bags and water pollution.
For now, their ire is directed at those occupying positions of power in Congress who they believe are not aiding the fight against climate change. "I just don't understand why the Congress people can't do what's right. I understand in my head, but it's like, come on!" Stephen said.
"Maybe we should be blocking the doors to the House and Senate," Mary Beth Versgrove, 63, suggested, with a hint of exasperation.
But apart from the nervous energy that was clearly visible on their faces, there was also a sense of satisfaction. "When my grandchildren will ask, 'What did you do?'" Hall said, with feeling, she will have an answer now: "I came to Washington, D.C."