As the City of Pensacola begins to embark on a climate change task force, our region is faced with some tough decisions about our future, even as many still reject the science surrounding the dangers of greenhouse gases and carbon emissions. Fortunately, there are organizations, such as the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), that work hard to find free-market approaches to combat both climate change and its effects. Business Climate spoke with CCL Conservative Director Peter Bryn about reaching out to the deniers, advocating for a Carbon Fee and Dividend Policy, and saving our world from this highly politicized issue.
How do you marry climate change science with your conservative politics?
I’ve always accepted the science on climate. Politically I’m independent but I’m a strong believer in markets and a properly functioning marketplace. I actually don’t see that at all in conflict with the fact that when you have an externality, you have to account for it. I think there’s a strong place for the free enterprise system to solve this problem. We’re seeing that with energy efficiency and electric cars and stuff like that, some of which has been spurred by incentives and mandates and some of it has been spurred by consumer interest.
You focus heavily on the Gulf Coast area. How does climate change affect those areas specifically?
Sure. There’s two ways to answer that. There are actually climate impacts, whether it’s more hot days or increased storm activities. In just about every city, I ask people what they’ve seen. A lot of people will say drought. The impacts of course vary, and it’s really important to focus on the local. When we go talk to people, I ask people, “What is the iconic image of climate change?” And of course the answer is a polar bear. Well there’s not many polar bears in these parts. If you’re trying to reach people on climate change, polar bears isn’t going to do it. You have to talk about the flood last month or localize it in some way as much as possible.
The second way I would answer that question is in terms of policy. What do you do about climate change? If we put a price on carbon, the opportunity for the Southeast is big. I’ve been real impressed with the amount of industry moving to the South. There are a lot of high-tech jobs in industries that are well-positioned to benefit from a clear price signal on carbon. I think this state has a lot of expertise in how to reduce or eliminate emissions from fossil fuels. This part of the country is a lot better positioned to benefit from this transition.
You have a strong focus on local participation. Is that more successful that top-down federal mandates?
In a sense, we’re doing both. Our focus is local and our goal is to build the political will locally for a national policy. We start local working with chambers of commerce, mayors, business leaders in the community, etc. to get their support. That’s our goal. Then they start to share that support with their member of Congress, pushing them to the point where they think it’s politically palatable to support this. Then we have this consistent policy that allows everyone to work together to reduce carbon emissions. Once that happens, let’s go back local again and the solutions become local, whether it’s insulating homes or installing solar or whatever.
Our goal is to get active chats with every Congressional district in the county in order to get local support for this national initiative.
How do you get buy-in on this issue in these conservative states?
It’s a multi-prong approach. We try to get meetings with city and faith leaders. These are people whose support we’re going to need a lot of, but for whom by and large climate is not on the radar. So we preach to the unconverted by and large. But we also talk to the converted to start chapters and continue the dialogue with these people and hopefully eventually earn their support. It’s a process. You have to identify your supporters and you have to have respectful dialogue with those who disagree.
We ask people, “How can your community participate in this?” I think that makes it less scary for them. Put it in terms of local weather. Take the party politics out of it. And if you are in a conservative place, say you want a market-based solution that is good for the economy and the environment long-term. Climate change is going to cost a lot if we do nothing but create a lot of jobs if we do something.
Tell me about the Carbon Fee and Dividend policy.
So believe it or not, Exxon-Mobil, environmentalists, Al Gore and George Schultz all agree on the same carbon policy. It enjoys broad support from many in the environmental community as well as the business community. It’s a three-legged stool.
First, put a price on carbon. It’s basically a carbon tax for oil, coal, etc. Put a fee on it. We do it upstream not to be punitive on fossil fuel producers, but just because administratively that’s the simplest way to do it. You start it low and escalate it slowly and predictably over time. That puts a clear price signal into the market place that emitting carbon and greenhouse gases is going to get more expensive, so regardless of who you are, you have a clear picture of the future. So people know they either have to fuel switch or do it more efficiently.
Second, we say don’t actually make it a tax. Make it revenue-neutral. What we mean by that is don’t let the government keep it. Take all that money and give it back to citizens on an equitable basis. Everyone from Bill Gates to you gets the same check. That offsets two of the major problems of the carbon tax, one of them being that it’s a tax, the other being that it tends to be very regressive, because it hits low- and middle-income people harder. You’re actually putting additional dollars into households.
Third, a border adjustment. If you’re trading with a country without a similar policy, you apply a tariff or a rebate as it goes over the border. That levels the playing field because if you’re in the US making airplanes, your cost just went up and you don’t want to be at a disadvantage to your international competitors. That prevents jobs and emissions from leaking overseas and encourages other countries to jump on board so they don’t have to pay that tariff.
And that’s the main focus of CCL right now?
That’s fair to say. Our two goals as an organization are a livable world and to empower volunteers. Empowering people is really core to what we try to do. But you’re right: we’re pretty laser-focused on that policy because we believe it is the first best step to solve this problem. If we found a better approach tomorrow, we would switch. It’s not core to what we do, but it is the focus.
And did you pioneer this initiative?
This is our flavor of it. There are others who talk about this kind of approach. Others might call it a revenue-neutral carbon tax. There are some DC think tanks—conservative and liberal alike—who really like it. They’ve all played a role in crafting our version of the policy.
Some other countries have adopted something similar, so it works. Canada just adopted one, for example. If you give money back, things become a lot more important to people.
Why would big oil companies be interested in this type of policy? It seems like they’re usually the bad guys according to environmental groups.
Exxon in particular has gotten more vocal and proactive on this, as opposed to reactive, which is what they were before. Among the big oil names, there’s generally been pretty aligned policy proposals, even starting with cap-and-trade. First and foremost, despite whatever history may have existed, these companies know this is an issue. As a good steward, they know something has to be done. And they know something is coming, so they’d prefer something transparent and predictable as opposed to huge government regulation or a band-aid approach where one state has one rule and another has a different one. To be honest, companies have been preparing for this for a while.
Fifteen years ago, these companies would’ve been considered oil companies, but now they’re oil and gas companies. They figured out how to apply their core competencies and their existing infrastructure and apply it to gas in a lot of areas and still make a lot of money. So they see a huge opportunity to displace coal with gas. They’ve prepared their business for this transition, and now they need a price on carbon to help make that transition happen faster.
Tell me more about CCL.
We’re organized by local chapter. Each chapter meets on a monthly basis typically and we break our activities into five categories: development, lobbying, media outreach, and finally endorsements. That’s where the community leaders get involved. Every community is different and has different influencers. That’s the power of having these local groups who know their community.