"Growing Grassroots Political Support for a Price on Carbon"
by Erica Flock
In July 2011, the Brisbane Times reported that Australia’s carbon price was dead in the water. Polling revealed that support for the legislation was low and that Prime Minister Julia Gillard had done a poor job explaining the bill. Down in the trenches, mud was flying: a politician compared a progressive activist organization supporting the carbon price, GetUp!, to the Hitler Youth League (GetUp!, by the way, is also the organization that produced this moving and wildly viral video in support of marriage equality last fall).
Despite ferocious opposition, the carbon price squeaked through the Australian parliament months later, sending a jolt of optimism through the global community. Like other climate bills, it ended up being pockmarked with holes gaping enough to drive an SUV through, but one of the largest per-capita carbon emitters in the world was clearly willing to throw its hat in the ring on climate action. The skeptics had been proven wrong.
Here in the U.S., activists perked up at news of Australia’s carbon price but overall seem hardened to federal policy after the American Clean Energy and Security Act failed to pass in 2010 (many environmentalists were opposed to the hulking and imperfect bill anyway, adding another layer of ambivalence). And don’t even mention the attitude in Congress. “We’re busy enough fighting off attacks on the EPA” is the mantra Democratic Congressmembers and environmentalists alike are fond of repeating these days.
But like crocus bulbs shifting under the frozen ground, a movement has been building for federal climate policy. And the time is right: belief in climate change among the general public has just taken an upward turn, according to Brookings.
Partly due to the pressure applied by groups like Citizens Climate Lobby, politicians and other leaders are beginning to warm up the public on carbon pricing.
NASA Climate Scientist James Hansen has been promoting fee-and-dividend legislation for years, recently appearing on MSNBC with Treehugger’s Brian Merchant. Soon after, the Washington Post editorial page released a small flurry of pieces on carbon taxation. First, that famous tag-team, Reps. Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, along with former Republican House members Sherwood Boehlert and Wayne Gilchrest , endorsed a carbon price in an op-ed:
We could slash our debt by making power plants and oil refineries pay for the carbon emissions that endanger our health and environment. This policy would strengthen our economy, lessen our dependence on foreign oil, keep our skies clean — and raise a lot of revenue.
Then the paper’s fickle editorial board endorsed Pete Stark’s existing carbon tax bill (H.R. 3242 – the Save Our Climate Act) currently languishing in committee. Leadership on the issue from politicians, even from well-known liberals like Stark, is sorely needed. Especially when the public, for better or worse, forms opinions based on their statements.
The LA Times editorial page, too, has been drumming up support for a carbon tax. Their neighbor to the north, British Columbia, passed a carbon tax three years ago and the evidence of its success is a hopeful sign.
Just do it. Put a price on carbon, one way or another. How much is levied, and where and exactly how it’s levied, aren’t as important as the principle that we all pay something for emissions.
In Canada — and in California — it will take time, and trial and error, to get climate change regulations off the ground and working. It’s difficult, yes. Complicated too. But it’s not economic or political suicide.
One can’t deny some heavy lifting is in order, but with luck we can learn from our past missteps. The environmental community will need to better communicate its goals, think outside the insular lobbying strategies of yore, and truly work with groups across the political and interest spectrum from unions and environmental justice groups to business and religious leaders, and especially Republicans.
That last point may seem like a joke in the current political climate but behind the scenes, many Republicans do support a carbon tax. David Roberts of Grist has even gone as far as calling carbon pricing a fundamentally conservative policy. Case in point: Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney’s economic advisor Gregory Mankiw is a strong proponent of a carbon tax, and his observations about the resistance to the policy reflect Roberts’ own:
In the debate over global climate change, there is a yawning gap that needs to be bridged. The gap is not between environmentalists and industrialists, or between Democrats and Republicans. It is between policy wonks and political consultants.
Among policy wonks like me, there is a broad consensus. The scientists tell us that world temperatures are rising because humans are emitting carbon into the atmosphere. Basic economics tells us that when you tax something, you normally get less of it. So if we want to reduce global emissions of carbon, we need a global carbon tax. Q.E.D.
We’re encouraged by statements from conservatives like Mankiw, Boehlert and Gilchrest, but what’s really moving us these days is the growing army of committed citizen lobbyists around the country we’ve seen jump into the lion’s den. They’re inspiring us to rethink our rote pessimism, and the idea that the general public can’t be rallied around this issue.
Regular folks from Tallahassee, Florida to Kansas City, Missouri are spending evenings and weekends and taking time off work to visit their representatives and senators, write letters to their town newspapers and build support for climate legislation at the local level. And their work is sophisticated enough to rival the big guns. When Citizens Climate Lobby leaders in one of our local chapters visited the office of a powerful Republican in Congress to make the case for a carbon tax, they were told they were the most well-prepared citizen lobbying group the staffer had ever seen.
Erica Flock is a co-leader with the DC chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby, a nonpartisan volunteer group dedicated to helping people exercise their personal and political power for climate action.