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Mothers of Invention: How Moms Clean Air Force are influencing the air quality landscape in America

Mums, moms and mothers are famously active in demanding better air quality around the world. We have Mums for Lungs in the UK and in India there is Warrior Moms, but the undisputed mummy of them all is Moms Clear Air Force in the USA. It is the oldest, with one and a half million members it is certainly the largest and you’d be hard pressed to find another group as influential.

Paul Day spoke with co-founder Dominique Browning to discover how this collective of activists came together.

Your background is in publishing but have you always been environmentally aware?
Yes, for a long time I’ve been very worried about global warming so when I decided I was done with magazines I wanted to get into the environmental space, but nobody would interview me for a job because ‘what did I know?’ I was a magazine person, right? So I started writing a column for Environmental Defense Fund about their work, going around and interviewing people about ‘what do you do?’ And ‘how are you solving these problems?’

President Barak Obama with Dominique Browning

When was this?
This was right after the failure of the Waxman-Markey Bill [aka: American Clean Energy and Security Act 2009] and a lot of research was finding that one of the big problems was that nobody was explaining to regular voters why they needed to care about climate change .

So I was interviewing people about their environmental work and every single time I would get to the end of the interview and say, ‘Okay, that sounds really interesting but I don’t really understand what you just said to me. I’m educated and intelligent but you are using jargon, inside speak. We need to communicate here.’

Around that time blogging was the new thing and I was noticing all these so called ‘mommy bloggers’ out there. And they were extremely concerned about toxic chemicals and about trying to save energy and being green.

So putting all of that together, I thought, let’s try to harness all of the energy that mothers have around protecting their children and let’s use language we can all understand to explain what the problem is here. And that was the genesis of Moms Clean Air Force.

Were you a mother yourself at this point?
I have two sons but they were grown up and gone out of the house and I felt like, ‘oh, I can still be a mother here.’
Did you find it difficult to bring all these people together?

It was a couple of other mothers on the board of Environmental Defense Fund, who heard me and got excited about it and two of them, Hanne Grantham and Sue Mandel became my co-founders. And then the General Counsel at EDF also really got it. And so we started brainstorming about how to build up a membership that would engage on these issues.

And that was the green light but it took a while to get there. Now, in my complete naivety, I thought we were going to be able to start by fighting for climate legislation but I had underestimated the depths of depression, politically, that the environmental country had fallen into after Waxman-Markey. There was no hope of climate legislation and politicians were losing races, because they were expressing concern about climate change.

Then one of my co-founders here said, you know, we’ve been working to try to get mercury regulations from coal-fired power plants in place, and you could work on that. And that was the second green light, because I remember when I was pregnant being told don’t eat tuna fish, or other large fatty fish because it’s full of mercury. But I never knew that that mercury came from coal-fired power plant emissions raining down.

Once we started talking about that, and connecting the dots between coal plants and mercury and carbon emissions, it opened up the possibility of things we could talk about. It drew a lot of people in because every mother with decent health care is told, ‘don’t eat fatty fish’ and everyone could relate to it. So that was when I realised how to find personal stories.

At what point did you decide to focus just on air?
My focus was climate change and it grew into air because of the understanding that if you get air regulations right you do a lot to cut carbon emissions, or methane and other VOC emissions pretty rapidly as well.

There’s a page on your website about ‘Big Wins’, what was your first Big Win, where you thought ‘I can’t believe we just did that’?
Getting the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards passed the first time around? It had really been log-jammed and we were able to bring to the table a lot of unlikely partners, including evangelists who wanted to engage on air quality and protecting unborn babies. And business concerns who didn’t want it to be seen as aligning themselves with poisoning our food. And Mercury is a particularly pernicious toxin. So helping get that across the line was an enormous win.

People might say that with one and a half million mums, they can’t all be doing something but you’ve come up with a concept called ‘naptime activism’ a way that people can do things with a minimum amount of effort..
The idea is to make it really easy to engage. Even if all you do is point and click and sign a petition, that matters because by law EPA has to collect all those signatures. And it also means that people are reading our message, and they’re reading the information. And even if they do nothing, they’re being educated.

What are the big battles you’re fighting at the moment?
Right now, we have a tsunami of EPA regulations coming out, not only in the classic ‘cars and trucks and power sector’, but petrochemical regulations are finally starting to come out and those have been a really long time coming. We’ve got generations of people who have suffered terrible abuse at the hands of the petrochemical industry in the Gulf

What’s your relationship like with the EPA, do they find you slightly annoying or do they appreciate what you’re doing?
I think we were the first group of regular people who started to understand how EPA works and what they need to hear, and to push them to show that we really care. They just go make these rules and nobody’s paying attention. So our relationship is constantly being calibrated, right? Because there are some rules where we say that’s not good enough. And there are other rules where we say bravo!

Excuse my ignorance by does your relationship with the EPA alter depending on who’s in the White House?
That’s not ignorant at all! I was shocked myself at how radically EPA can be altered by a president’s selection of administrator. Under the Trump administration, we spent four years fighting every step of the way. In fact, we had an Earth Day Celebration under Trump’s EPA, and I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times saying ‘I’m not celebrating I’m fighting.’

The Inflation Reduction Act must be something you couldn’t have dreamt about under Trump…
It’s a huge investment in a lot of things that could be extremely beneficial to cutting what I call climate pollution. For example it includes a major investment in electric school buses, which seems small if you look at like three buses in this town and five buses in that town but that’s one of the largest public transportation fleets in the country. So we’ve been working with communities to help them apply to get this funding and understand what benefits can come of electrifying a bus fleet.

Did Biden campaign with the Act in his manifesto or is that something he developed?
He campaigned hard acknowledging that we had a huge climate problem and secondly he was promising to do serious things about it, innovating a kind of all-of-government approach. It wouldn’t just the EPA, but the Department of Energy and Department of Transportation, and even the Defense Department, would all have to be more climate aware. So it was very much a part of his promise to voters.

Is it possible that a change of political regime could undo things very quickly?
In some cases, yes. Mercury is a very good example, because the previous administration tried to basically take away the entire reason to regulate mercury. So you lose a lot of time trying to rebuild from that. And you lose good people who are not replaced by an administration that doesn’t want a strong EPA.

At the same time, the overall trajectory is towards electrification and towards clean energy. You look at Texas alone, which seems on the face of it, like the most retrograde of states, and yet, they are one of the biggest suppliers of wind energy. So, you know, the market starts to change, investments have been made, and those don’t get rolled back so easily.

Is there anything you want to add?
You know, I do this more than anything else as a mother and every week we have meetings and I hear from people I work with about their triumphs, where they’ve been, their appointments to mayoral boards, whatever. And I have a grandchild now who is seven years old. And I look at him and think when he’s my age, what kind of world is he going to have? And what can I do to try to make that better?

School Bus photo:  Sarah Silbiger for Moms Clean Air Force.

Obama with Dominique Browning photo: Pete Souza

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