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How the Sierra Club is adapting to the political challenges of the 21st century


How do you persuade red states to go green? Well, that's one goal of the Sierra Club, the country's oldest environmental group. Our colleague Steve Inskeep spoke with its executive director, Ben Jealous. And Jealous says that Republican-led states are benefiting from green projects, though the politics haven't caught up yet.

BEN JEALOUS: More than 70 of the Republican congressmen who voted against the Inflation Reduction Act have seen jobs increase in their areas. And those jobs are, frankly, the types of jobs that we haven't seen increase in this country in decades. They're jobs making stuff. There's jobs installing things that we made here. We're trying to reach, frankly, the people who will benefit most and first from these shifts.


Would you go so far in your persuasion as to say, never mind what I'm telling you about the planet, never mind if you don't agree with any of it, this is still in your interest to go for the jobs?

JEALOUS: What Dr. King taught his lieutenants, several of whom trained me when I was a young organizer in the Deep South, is that if you're comfortable in your coalition, your coalition is too small. And so absolutely, start with people where they are and lead them towards you. That's what Dr. King did in his "Letter From A Birmingham Jail" when he was, you know, talking to the jailer. And he said, how much do you make? When the guy told him it was so small, he said, well, then you should join the movement 'cause you'd be better off, too, right? He didn't talk to that guy about, you know, the righteousness of moving beyond racism or, you know, any of the other objectives of the civil rights movement of the early 1960s. No, he looked right at him and said, brother, you would make more money if you joined us.

INSKEEP: You gave me a number. You said that when the Inflation Reduction Act came up for a vote, which included climate subsidies, there were 70 Republican lawmakers who voted no, but then have ended up with extra jobs in their district as a result. Do you think in those votes, those Republican representatives were representing the views of their constituents who elected them?

JEALOUS: No. And I think, honestly, the Republican Party has been very lockstep doing the bidding of the oil and gas industry against the interests of their voters for a very long time.

INSKEEP: I can see your argument that it's counter to the interest of their constituents 'cause you're saying we're bringing jobs, but is it possible that it is not counter to the wishes of their constituents? Maybe their constituents agree with their congressmen on this issue.

JEALOUS: It's certainly possible. But what I would say is every time that these factories open, you see Republican officials there. Every time that new jobs are created in the district, you see them celebrating it. And when you talk to folks on the street about whether they want to see more factories, whether they want to see these new technologies built here, the answer is absolutely. It's been a long time since we've opened up factories as fast as we're opening them up now. I mean, even in Joe Manchin's West Virginia, there are two new solar panel factories. That's a big deal.

INSKEEP: I was just, as you were speaking, thinking of Joe Manchin, who is one of the senators whose campaign in 2024 will decide control of the United States Senate. And he's a Democrat in a very heavily Trump-voting state. Do you think that if you went to West Virginia canvassing for environmental policies like the kind that Joe Manchin ultimately did vote for, that you could make your case to a West Virginia voter who has mainly heard that coal mines are closing?

JEALOUS: Absolutely. You know, I ran for governor of Maryland, and Western Maryland and West Virginia share a long border. And what you hear from folks when you're in places like Cumberland, Md., is that they're eager to see manufacturing come back, and they're eager to feel like manufacturing has a future. And folks who dug coal have realized in recent decades that the days of coal are limited. There's only so much coal in those mountains, and they've seen their mountains that they love blown up and streams destroyed. And yet they want to believe that women and men can go out there and make a good living with their hands and that that has a future in our country. And the only thing that really promises that future are the technologies of the future, and those are increasingly green technologies. I mean, it's the only technologies that are actually going to help us make sure that this planet remains a place where we all can live.

INSKEEP: Ben Jealous of the Sierra Club, thanks so much.

JEALOUS: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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