The current debate surrounding climate change consists of most Democrats calling for urgent action and most Republicans either denying its existence or questioning its severity.
So conventional wisdom would suggest that legislation combating climate change in this Congress would be dead on arrival, falling into the abyss of the partisan divide.
But the Outdoor Industry Association, which represents the multibillion-dollar businesses of outdoor gear and food manufacturers and resorts — all directly harmed by the effects of climate change — is seeking to reframe the debate and bring about bipartisan action.
It’s an industry that lives at the intersection of business interests and environmentalism and Patricia Rojas-Ungár is its advocate in Washington. She’s the new vice president of government relations for the group, and she sees the outdoor industry as uniquely positioned to change the dynamics of the climate debate. “The outdoor industry can help serve as a bridge to a bipartisan conversation,” she says.
Rojas-Ungár is no stranger to the legislative process. Before joining the Outdoor Industry Association, she served as vice president of public affairs for the U.S. Travel Association, a lobbying group for hotels, restaurants and state tourism bureaus.
In 2011, when she was 37, Washingtonian magazine named her one of the 40 most influential lobbyists under the age of 40 and credited her with helping the travel association secure enactment of a 2010 law that created an advertising campaign to promote foreign travel to the United States, which had lagged after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Before that, she spent a number of years on Capitol Hill, first as an aide to California Democratic Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard and then on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee for Democrat-turned-independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. She’s originally from Mexico, emigrating to the U.S. at the age of 4.
The association has over 1,200 members, among them DuPont, Amazon, North Face, L.L. Bean and Patagonia.
Rojas-Ungár is confident that educating members of Congress on the industry’s outsized economic impact will get its policy agenda heard on Capitol Hill. She says outdoor sports make up an $887 billion market and support 7.6 million jobs, bigger than the agricultural or mining sectors.
The industry is distinctively threatened by climate change. Winter sports are most affected. Ski resorts are fretting about shorter and warmer seasons. But hotter summers are no fun for runners, hikers and bicyclists. When precipitation patterns change it can increase pollution flowing into water bodies, hurting kayakers and fishermen. And the increase in extreme weather and catastrophic natural disasters has also done untold damage.
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Every business that operates in the industry is affected and endangered by the climate crisis in one way or another, and Rojas-Ungár believes the ubiquitous nature of the industry will be a major strength in her advocacy efforts. “The outdoor industry is unique in that we truly are located, whether through retail stores, manufacturers, outfitters, guides and more, in every congressional district in the country. There is no congressperson who can say they don’t represent constituents who are part of the outdoor industry — this means our interests and issues are key whether it is urban Los Angeles, rural Kansas or suburban Virginia.”
The association has produced a report detailing how much people spend on outdoor gear and recreation in each of the 435 congressional districts.
Rojas-Ungár contends that if representatives and senators come to accept that failure to act on climate change means endangering constituent jobs and spurring negative economic consequences in every locality in America, it has the potential to spur them to action.
The Outdoor Industry Association pursues a vigorous policy agenda outside of Washington as well, in state capitals. The centerpiece of the agenda is the group’s advocacy for sustainability, conservation and climate action measures. Some highlights of the agenda include defending conservation laws like the Wilderness Act, which protects vast swaths of federal land from development, and the Antiquities Act, which allows presidents to create national monuments.
It was vocal during the partial shutdown of government agencies last month, urging lawmakers to reach an agreement as the shutdown wreaked havoc on public lands and the businesses that rely on tourism around national parks and monuments.
The association also wants Congress to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which supports conservation efforts with fees companies pay to the government to drill for oil and gas offshore. The program expired last September, but Congress is moving to renew it. The Senate will soon consider a bill (S 47) by Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski to do so. But it’s not yet clear whether House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, will accept the Senate measure.
But the biggest lift is undoubtedly framing the issue of climate action as business-friendly.
Rojas-Ungár is hopeful she can and that more Republicans in Congress will come around. “There are so many good, thoughtful people in Congress, which is why I have some optimism,” she says.
This article first appeared in the "Influencers" section of CQ Magazine in February. Click here for more information on subscribing to CQ News & Policy.