The Fight Against Climate Change Obstructionism

My brother recently introduced me to an organization which his neighbor had introduced to him.  It’s called the Citizens Climate Lobby, and its goal is to fight climate change.  While this is a goal shared by many people and many nonprofit organizations, the Citizens Climate Lobby is different in the fact that it is specifically designed to try to fight climate change in a way that’s a lot more likely to produce actual results than most other environmentalist organizations. While every environmental group agrees that we need to take action, likely through government intervention to regulate carbon emissions, the reality is that getting political support for taking action is hard.there is not enough support for such actions among voters.  The CCL exists for the very narrow and specific purpose of generating bipartison support for a specific type of CO2 regulation.  The approach is called Carbon Fee and Dividend, and is designed to fix the political weaknesses that made Cap and Trade a nonstarter for many conservatives.

The magic of Fee and Dividend

Fee and Dividend works by imposing limits on carbon emitted by energy generation, and collecting a fee from companies that exceed it.  The collected money is then redistributed among all citizens.  In this way, emitting CO2 is discouraged, alternative energy sources are incentivized, citizens get a financial windfall, and the whole thing is revenue neutral.  That’s a huge deal, because for the 97% of republicans who have signed a pledge never to raise taxes, any new revenue to the government is an absolute dealbreaker.  It also pursues federal action on climate change with something that totally squares with laissez-faire economics.  Personally I don’t care whether the solution to the climate crisis uses a free market solution or not, but the fact is that appealing to those who do can make the difference between our country taking action and doing nothing.  While volunteering with the CCL, I’ve met climate skeptics who say that imposing a fee will raise the cost of making energy and that will gets passed to the consumer. I’ve also met people who are hardcore supporters of taking action on climate change who are wary of moderate solutions that don’t go far enough.  One person I spoke with wanted to see the people who support fossil fuels get punished, like people who drive gas guzzlers, for example.

The beauty of any method that imposes a cost on carbon (including Fee and Divided), is that imposing a cost on the production of energy is just correcting for the fact that right now, fossil fuel energy is mispriced.  There’s a cost to the cleanup for any environmental disaster, and right now carbon emitters get away with not paying it.  By adding a cost to carbon production, that error is corrected.  Yes, in the short term oil and natural gas will cost a little more than they used to.  But that’s not because going forward they’ll cost more than they should- it’s because by forgetting to include the cost of fixing the environmental damage, the price of energy has been wrong all along.  So to the person who thinks taking action will hurt the economy, we’re just fixing a problem we’ve overlooked since the industrial resolution.  The temporary economic effects of weaning off hydrocarbons is nothing compared to the cost we’ll pay in the long term if we keep using them.  And to the people who ask if gas guzzlers will be punished, no.  The dividend they get with be the same as everyone else, and it will offset some of the increase in the cost of fuel.  But for those who didn’t drive an SUV, there will be more dividend left over after they fill up their car.  So it isn’t a punishment, just the accurate cost being reflected, and motivating everyone to look for energy that’s actually cheap, even when you include the environmental impact in the price.

What not to do

On October 30th National Geographic released the highly anticipated documentary, Before the Flood.  As the effects of climate change continue to mount, action on this critical issue becomes more and more urgent.  There was a time when that last sentence would have said that evidence was mounting, but tragically we’re way past that point.  The evidence is unambiguous, and its the effects that are now drawing headlines.  In light of this, a well made documentary to call attention to this problem would seem to be cause for hope. This is because right now, the obstacle that stops us from meeting this challenge isn’t a lack of options- its that we can’t take any legislative action to fight this problem without the political capital to do so.  And that political capital can only come from an electorate that demands change.

Tragically, Before the Flood may do more harm than good.  As the movie opens it begins following its producer and narrator, Leonardo DiCaprio.  Cast here as a selfless hero, the opportunity for this documentary to change minds begins to disappear like a collapsing ice shelf.  The reason that a shrinking but still massive fraction of american, 36%, don’t support action to fight climate change is because the issue has become politically polarized.  The reality of climate change is accepted within the Democratic party.  It is routinely dismissed among Republicans.  I share the frustration and outrage of everyone who wants to avert this catastrophe, and watches helplessly as a massive institution uses its incredible resources to thwart an attempt to save us all.  But when we demonize the people who don’t believe in climate change we just force them to retreat further into their own insular party, and make it harder for them to join the fight against climate change.

As well meaning as Leonardo DiCaprio is to lend his star power to a worthy cause, the presence of a famously progressive celebrity is the last thing that’s needed.  Just as Al Gore unwittingly  reminded conservatives where the battle lines were drawn when he made himself the face of the fight against climate change with An Inconvenient Truth, Before the Flood cripples its ability to reach the very people who need to see this most.

When we talk about fighting climate change, we should ask ourselves, which do we want more?  To smugly bask in our own righteousness, while shaming those who are not so enlightened?  Or to actually solve this problem, by showing respect for people who don’t agree with us, changing their minds, and enlisting their help to solve this problem?  If your answer is the latter, you should be a member of the Citizens Climate Lobby.

For more information about  the Citizens Climate Lobby, check out https://citizensclimatelobby.org/

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