‘Moms Clean Air Force’ Lands in Trenton to Spread Word About Kids and Pollution

Grassroots group relies on mothers and children to put a human face to environmental problems

Rev. Craig Hirshberg, executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey, with kids from "Moms Clean Air Force."
While “green” activists run up against Gov. Chris Christie’s resistance to strengthening environmental regulations, a new advocacy group is trying to use the persuasive power of children’s health — and of children themselves — to sway elected officials in favor of passing stalled legislation.

Moms Clean Air Force, a four-year-old group founded by the Environmental Defense Fund, had its strategy on display yesterday at the State House, where its blogger moms and other supporters held a press conference while their children wore the organization’s distinctive bright red T-shirts.

MCAF’s New Jersey chapter was founded about a year ago and has linked up with the Sierra Club and other groups to advocate for a list of environmental issues, including limiting emissions, promoting renewables and energy efficiency, and blocking the proposed Exxon Mobil settlement. Members were planning yesterday to meet with legislators with kids in tow, said Trisha Sheehan, an MCAF regional field manager from Woodbury.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said Moms Clean Air Force provides a welcome addition and alternative to well-known environmental lobbying groups like his.

“Politicians have a harder time trying to ignore mothers with children than environmental lobbyists,” Tittel said after the press conference. “It helps to have other groups send a message, but it also helps when you have children, which politicians like to have their pictures taken with and be nice to.”

Although it is Christie who has blocked many goals of environmental activists rather than legislators, Tittel said putting more pressure on the state Senate and Assembly would still be helpful. He said Democrats have gone along with the governor’s diversion of Clean Energy Fund monies to general government expenses, and Republicans have declined to support efforts to force Christie to rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which he pulled out of in 2011.

“It’s important for us to make some of those Republicans squirm a little bit and maybe they will realize that they should do their jobs and protect the environment rather than protect Christie,” Tittel said.

The speeches on the State House steps were part of MCAF’s Mama Summit for New Jersey, one of 17 it is holding around the country this year. Among the speakers was Leigh Garofalow, a Bloomfield resident and green blogger whose 6-year-old daughter Abby stood next to the lectern as she spoke.

“New Jersey isn’t the same as when were kids,” Garofalow said. “Life here is just different, and I just really want to see a change. My son has asthma, my daughter’s friends have asthma, many of the mothers I’m friends with were happy to hear I’m coming here today to talk about the fact that their children are living a life that’s very different, with worse air quality, than we had when we were kids.”

After the speeches, the participants headed inside for a quick advocacy training session given by the League of Women Voters and the Sierra Club. Sheehan said they planned to spend the afternoon talking to elected officials and handing out stickers for them to wear.

MCAF was cofounded by the Environmental Defense Fund and activist mom blogger Dominique Browning in spring 2011, and initially joined the effort to push the federal Environmental Protection Agency to issue its Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule limiting power plant emissions. The rule was finally issued in 2012, though the Supreme Court is considering a legal challenge by industry and some states.

The EPA rule was a good first issue for the organization because of the impact of mercury-tainted fish on pregnant women, said Anneka Wisker, MCAF’s program manager in Washington D.C.

[related]“People hear they’re not really supposed to eat tuna when they’re pregnant, but they usually don’t really know why or can’t really make the connection,” Wisker said. “We kind of made that full-circle for folks, through messaging. We have a great infographic on our website. It shows how the pollution gets into the waterways and then eventually into our bodies and impacts the developing fetus.”

“Obviously it wasn’t just us and our influence that led [the toxics standards] to pass, but I would say that we definitely had an influence,” she said.

While it started as a group of bloggers and an email-alert network, which has grown to over half a million members, over the past three years MCAF has turned its focus to on-the-ground state-level advocacy, Wisker said. It has lately ramped up hiring, adding its 17th state organizer in Missouri. Funding comes from the EDF and private donors.

The group distinguishes itself by pitching a message about health, particularly children’s health, rather than the environment, Wisker said. That perspective “gets you into certain doors you wouldn’t otherwise,” she said. In just the past few years other environmentalists have also shifted their message from distant concerns like the fate of polar bears to close-to-home worries like childhood asthma, she said.

“You can even see the way the Obama administration has been talking about it and messaging about climate change. The president multiple times when he’s talked about climate in the past year, his main connection is health. One of his daughters has asthma, so he said that in a recent speech,” Wisker said.

Sheehan was galvanized to start the New Jersey branch of Moms Clean Air Force after her family was sickened by vinyl chloride gas released after a Conrail train derailed in Paulsboro in November 2012.

The group has worked with other organizations to assemble a list of priorities. They currently include opposing the Exxon Mobil settlement and barring the use of settlement proceeds from going toward general budget needs; overriding Gov. Christie’s veto of a bill banning the dumping of fracking waste; and updating the state four-year-old Energy Master Plan.

The master plan “was supposed to be renewed, it hasn’t been, and it relies heavily on shale and fracked gas and the expansion of pipelines though our state,” climate change activist Harriet Shugarman, who teaches at Ramapo College and runs the ClimateMama website, said during the press conference. “Natural gas, fracked gas — it’s a fossil fuel, it’s not a bridge to the future, it’s a bridge to the past. It threatens our children’s health and it threatens their future and their now.”

The group’s other priorities include pushing for a state plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and for passage of S2444/A4224, which would require a ramp-up in sales of electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind. It also wants the state to promote energy efficiency and better indoor air quality, particularly in schools.

By pushing legislators to focus on cleaner air, the MCAF parents are both helping protect their kids and breeding a generation of active, involved citizens, said Nancy Hedinger, the president of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.

“You’re modeling engaged citizenship for your children. You’re teaching your children that democracy is not a spectator sport,” she told the group. “Keep speaking out and standing up. We know that mothers will always be an unstoppable, formidable force when it comes to protecting our children and communities.”