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.

Citizens Climate Lobby operates on the belief that politicians don’t create political will: they respond to it. It’s both an overwhelming and empowering idea. We’re appealing to the highest common denominator in people, motivating politicians to cast off their cowardice and soul-search on the legacy they’re leaving the planet with.

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.

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19 Responses to Growing Grassroots Political Support for a Price on Carbon

  1. Paul Magnus says:

    People are not interested unless they think there’s a threat to themselves or family….. its getting them to recognize this threat that makes them convert.

    Scientist and leaders must clearly and forcefully show the connection to extreme events effectively.

    More Americans now believe in global warming –
    After several years of finding that fewer and fewer Americans believed in man-made climate change, pollsters are now finding that belief is on the uptick.

    “In general, however, scientific studies weren’t high on the list of influences among people polled.

    Now, however, both the science and the weather are convincing more people that a change is really happening.”

  2. Dick Smith says:

    The fact that Dr. Hansen serves on the board of Citizens Climate Lobby gives it instant credibility. But, it’s CCL’s commitment to working in every congressional district that will make a difference in the long run. If your congressional district doesn’t have a CCL chapter, you should be the one to get it started. It will make a difference.

  3. Paul Magnus says:

    Economist get it at last … and are doing something about it…. The airline perspective is a good vehicle for starting a practical global application of pricing carbon which can be adapted to other sectors.

    This is one way to get nations working on regional and global standards of carbon pricing.

    Climate Portals shared a link.

    Economists Back EU Emissions Plan
    A group of U.S. economists, including five Nobel laureates, have written a letter to President Barack Obama backing the EU’s controversial emissions-limiting scheme for the airline industry.

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    Thanks for this effort, Erica. It tells me that there may actually be a few Republicans in Congress who don’t jump when they get a call from an oil industry lobbyist.

    Do you have a strategy to overcome Republicans’ ability to stall action in the Senate with only 40 votes? Right now, climate change denial is pretty much an official plank of the Republican Party. Senators, whose campaigns are expensive, are loath to run away from one of their major sources of campaign finance.

    Maybe you should target the deniers in the Senate through a focused campaign along the lines of the Dirty Dozen in Congress (many of whom ended up being culled as a result). If this effort is relentless, and has backing for the long term, you would have a chance.

    I’ve done time in DC. Politicians who don’t like your ideas will send a staffer to politely placate you, but you would be wasting your time and theirs. Instead, initiate campaigns to defeat denier Congressmen and Senators, at the primary and general election levels. Republican Senators’ allegiance to fossil fuels will hurt them with their voters. Most Democrats won’t call them on it, so it will take people like you.

    Right wing politicians are not nice people, but secretly like to get spanked. Grant them this wish.

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    btw, Romney won’t pay attention to Mankiw on this issue. Don’t get your hopes up. Everything Romney says on the stump is marinated in oil. It won’t be Nixon goes to China, either, because Nixon did not have to betray his backers to make that trip.

  6. Dick Smith says:

    Some encouraging news. According to the National Journal, “most” Republican members of congress: (1) accept the science of global warming; (2) are troubled that the fringe elements of their party have captured the center on climate change.

  7. clays says:

    If you’re going to pass a carbon tax please do it before the election.

    There is a MAJOR factor missing from all this analyse. A factor that gets ignored every time you guys talk about this stuff…


  8. David F. says:

    We better act quick. Is anybody else extremely alarmed by the current weather? It’s obvious that this airmass isn’t natural and is only possible due to the elevated greenhouse atmosphere. Temperatures have been climbing well into the 70s, with dewpoints above 60 the past couple days. Michigan had at least three tornadoes, including one strong tornado near Ann Arbor. This weather is supposed to continue for the next seven to ten days, with temperatures possibly exceeding 80 degrees some days.

  9. Dan Miller says:

    Jim Hansen believes (and I agree with him) that the “Fee and Dividend” approach to putting a price on carbon may be the only one that will really work because (1) by giving 100% of the money back to the public, you can actually get the fee high enough to make a difference, and (2) when combined with tariffs on goods that come from countries without their own fee on carbon, you will “encourage” (i.e., force) other countries to implement their own fee. Without the whole world working to reduce CO2, it won’t make enough of a difference.

  10. Dan Miller says:

    I should also note that as Dr. Hansen says in his recent TED talk, we only have a few years left to begin reducing CO2 emissions (not just slowing the rate of increase) if we want to stabilize climate this century. Waiting 10 years will be too late.

  11. Elli Sparks says:

    As the frequency of wacky weather increases and the quality intensifies, people will want to do something. Thank goodness Citizens Climate Lobby is there.

    I’ve been involved for a year now. I am so grateful for this group. I appreciate their coaching and support.

    Congress is in a difficult position, with all kinds of money from fossil fuel industry affecting decisions and elections. That’s why doing the right thing is going to be harder than anything any member of Congress has ever done before. It is also going to be the most rewarding thing they have ever done.

    I am going to do what I can do to open the door for my member of Congress. Whether they walk through or not is up to that member of Congress and will certainly affect all of us.

  12. Brooks Bridges says:

    CCL has a link to express your support for H.R. 3242 with PopVox,

    From the site: “Your letter will be sent to your representative or senators in Congress and posted anonymously on”

  13. Francis says:

    Climate changes all the time, to think that this era is any different from the previous 4.5 billion years due to a minuscule trace gas at 0.039% of the atmosphere is ludicrous. Nobody denies that CO2 isn’t a “greenhouse gas”, nobody denies it causes some warming. But it pales in comparison with natural influences, it is insignificant, no matter how many blog posts are written to claim that it does.
    Move on people, nothing to see here.

  14. ozajh says:

    At least you admit the planet is 4.5 billion years old. I suppose that’s a start.

    According to geologists, we have had during that period periods where virtually the entire planet was covered by ice, and periods where there was no permanent ice at all, and a sea level over a hundred feet higher than today. I would prefer neither.

  15. Ziyu says:

    So how fast have natural influences changed climate? And why does the 0.039% statistic matter? You’ve shown nothing. Just because .039% FEELS small doesn’t mean it is. It only takes a little bit of substance to cause an effect, an example being ground level ozone, measured at parts per BILLION. Having .039% of that in the air would kill you. Similarly, .039% of CO2 in the air is going to cause mass extinction eventually. If we keep emitting, we will accelerate the trend. So the word of the day is: truthiness. You’re saying what you FEEL like is true but not actually supporting it with valid science.

  16. John Atkeison says:

    Move on troll, you’ll fool nobody here!

  17. Jon says:

    I’ve been a group leader with Citizens Climate Lobby for almost a year and am thankful for their work/support as well. These are some of the most caring and committed people I’ve ever met.

    If you don’t have a chapter in your Congressional District, please consider starting one. Climate Progress readers are some of the most well imformed folks around (minus the occasional troll), we can use your help!

  18. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    Let me re-do the math a wee bit. The 0.039% is in increase over the 0.028% of 39% (rounded to two significant digits). That 0.028% has been largely responsible for the stable climate the planet has experienced from the end of the last ice age until the beginning of the industrial revolution. I agree with those blog posters who’ve been posting that it matters. Now what were those natural sources again?

  19. gery katona says:

    I’m intrigued by the Citizens Climate Lobby and need to get involved. I love (H.R. 3242 – the Save Our Climate Act) as the best solution to reducing CO2. But at this point in time, it has zero chance of ever getting out of committee because taxes are such a sensitive issue with people. Humans evolved with survival instincts which means everybody thinks of themselves first and foremost. That is a hard barrier to overcome. But this bill gives the tax back to the consumer and then they can decide how to use it which plays into their self-preservation wiring. I hope something like this happens in my lifetime, but I’m not holding my breath. Heck, I would happy to see all coal plants converted to natural gas. The politicians are telling us about all the jobs being created by fracking and those could replace those lost in the coal industry.