A Trial Lawyer Finds his Mission in Life… Stopping Climate Change and Saving the World, That Is.

I learned about Citizens’ Climate Lobby (“CCL”) in late May of 2013 when I read an article in the New York Times about them called, “Lobbying for the Greater Good.” It explained their legislative proposal which I was taken by. I’ve favored a carbon tax for many years, but was always concerned about what it could do to low and middle income people and also its potential impact on the economy. But primarily my concern was what would happen to middle and lower income people. The proposal resolved that problem by giving all the money back to the public on a per capita basis.  A light bulb went off. That’s perfect, that’s exactly what we need.

CCL’s proposal is elegant in its simplicity.  A fee is placed on carbon emitting fossil fuels at the point of extraction – mines or well heads.  The fee is imposed at the port of entry for imported fuel.  CCL proposes to begin with a fee of $15 per metric ton of carbon that was emitted.  A fee of $15 per ton equates to about 15 cents per gallon at the pump.  The fee increases $10 per ton each year until carbon emissions are 10% of 1990 levels. 

By imposing a fee on fossil fuels at the point of extraction, the price for fossil fuel paid by consumers increases and renewable energy becomes more competitive.  The increased fossil fuel cost will work its way through the system so that consumer energy costs will rise and the price of goods and services will increase to the extent they consume fossil fuels for production or delivery. 

In order to avoid economic disruptions that might be caused by increased prices and to protect low and middle income folks from the negative consequences of increased prices, all money collected is returned to households.  This “dividend” is critical and distinguishes CCL’s proposal from other carbon taxes.  It also avoids the economic disruption caused by depending on regulations to reduce carbon emissions.  With a regulatory solution there is no relief for low to middle income folks.  With a fee and dividend, the lives of lower and middle income people are not disrupted and everyone, not just utilities, will be incentivized to move away from fossil fuels.  It is projected that people at the 65th percentile of income and below will come out ahead which will increase their disposable income.

There is also a border adjustment which places a tariff on goods imported from countries that do not similarly price carbon.  The border adjustment will protect our domestic industries and spur countries like China to take action.  The border adjustment is another feature missing from a regulatory model.

CCL’s hopes to convince Congress to act by building relationships on Capitol Hill with all members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, recognizing nothing will get done unless you get Republicans on board. Republicans currently control Congress and even in past years when they haven’t controlled Congress, they have enough means to make a difference. CCL needs to have buy-in across the political spectrum and the approach of lobbying in a respectful manner seemed to me the most effective methodology to get something done.

I was so taken with CCL that I found them on the internet and sent a contribution. And then, lo and behold, a few weeks later CCL’s founder, Marshall Saunders, called to thank me for sending the money. When’s the last time you got called by the founder of a big organization?

That said a lot to me-- he said you know we could use a group in your area, and I asked what was involved. He told me and shortly thereafter I listened to the CCL’s introductory call on Wednesday night. Next thing I knew, I was deciding how to fit it into my life and how to go about finding some folks here in the Winston-Salem area to get a CCL group going.

I had not been active in environmental circles although, I had been on nonprofit boards, and I started figuring out how to find people interested in getting a chapter going here. As with so many things, people are busy, perhaps some at first don’t understand the proposal. But over time, we got enough people together to do what we call a Group Start, and we did so in January of 2014. A bit surprisingly to me, we have been going ever since, sometimes better than others, but we now have a core group. We’ve had several letters to the editor published in the Winston-Salem Journal and several op-eds I have written have been published in the Winston-Salem Journal, Winston-Salem Chronicle, Triad Business Journal, Charlotte Observer, Raleigh News & Observer and Fayetteville Observer.

It was my first time ever submitting letters to the editor or op-eds.  I had never done anything like that before. I do a lot of writing as a lawyer, and figured I needed to lead by example. So I submitted a letter, and Elizabeth Motsinger submitted a letter.  Both letters got published.

Seemed like we were on a roll, so I did an op-ed that got published in March of 2014-- I submitted that op-ed about a month or so after we had our Group Start meeting.

In addition to writing letters to the editor and op-eds, I have written several letters to members of Congress and have lobbied in Congressional offices.  CCL’s mission is to build the political will necessary to persuade Congress to address climate change.  To do that we work to raise the public’s awareness about the issue to educate the public about CCL’s solution, which is why we write letters to the editor, op-eds and do outreach such as tabling at Earth Day events.  In addition, we reach out to members of Congress by writing letters, calling their offices, submitting emails and, most importantly, meeting with them.

The first time I went lobbying in D.C. in 2014, I had a face-to-face with a representative from upstate New York. I happened to be with a group of New Yorkers, and we had a really interesting meeting with him, but it also brought home the realities of what Congress people may face if they stick their necks out in any way.  This particular Congressman liked CCL’s proposal, but was very concerned about being attacked for doing anything that could cause energy prices to increase, even if all the money is returned to the public, and even though his district gets most of its electricity from hydropower.

I’ve now been to D. C. four times to lobby on Capitol Hill and am going back in a few weeks. I met with Senator Richard Burr in his office in Winston-Salem for an hour in 2014, and we are planning to meet with him this June in his Washington, D.C. office. I have met with Representative Virginia Foxx in her Clemmons office-- that was last September.

All in all we have had some very good meetings on Capitol Hill, very little pushback on whether climate change is real or not. Most often it is not discussed, and it is just assumed it is a problem that needs to be dealt with.  Many Republican offices are interested in learning about CCL’s proposal, but we have not yet had any Republicans step forward to say they would sponsor a bill.

There are several hopeful signs that something positive will happen.  Last September, Rep. Chris

Gibson (R-NY) introduced a resolution with 10 Republican co-sponsors urging the House of Representatives to explore ways to mitigate climate change.  The Gibson Resolution can be found at http://gibson.house.gov/uploadedfiles/environmental_stewardship_resolution.pdf. 

An outgrowth of the Gibson Resolution is establishment of the bi-partisan Climate Solutions Caucus by Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL).  Rep. Curbelo is a freshman from South Florida who is very concerned about climate change.   The rule for a house members to join the caucus is that they must do so in pairs, each pair must have one Republican and one Democrat. If a Democrat is interested in joining, they have to go find a Republican and likewise a Republican who is interested needs to go find a Democrat. The Climate Solutions Caucus now has 12 members.

They had their first meeting recently on April 21, and received a presentation from Statoil, which is a Norwegian oil company, about why they want the carbon pricing. 

https://citizensclimatelobby.org/a-successful-liftoff-for-climate-solutions-caucus/  Jay Butera, a CCL volunteer extraordinaire, almost single handedly got a CCL group established in Florida. He attended that meeting on Capitol Hill.

Jay is a story unto himself, he is a retired businessman who recognized that Florida is ground zero for climate change in the United States. So he went to Florida and started hanging around local congressional offices and other places and put in the legwork to start groups there. Jay is instrumental in what’s going on in trying to get the Climate Solutions Caucus going.

One of the major risks of climate change is sea level rise, and we are seeing the effects in South Florida right now.  I don’t know the frequency, but I’ve read and heard about it and seen videos of sunny day flooding in Miami Beach. The rock below Miami Beach is limestone, which is porous, and with the sea level rise at times of high tide, water seeps through the limestone, comes up through the storm sewers, and floods downtown.

This is similar in some ways to the increased instance of tidal flooding in Norfolk, Virginia. Norfolk has apparently had some tidal flooding over the years. They used to have two or three a year and now they have 10 or 12 a year.

There are similar issues in Charleston, South Carolina.  I understand that Mark Sanford, former governor of the state, is a strong believer in climate change and may join the Climate Solutions Caucus. He now represents a coastal area and is well aware of what is happening in his district. Back to the CCL Carbon Fee and Dividend plan. CCL’s proposal is unique and different from carbon ‘taxes’ I’ve seen, thus we prefer to use the word fee instead of tax. It’s not really a tax because the government does not keep any of the money and that’s crucial. All of the money is rebated to Americans, and everyone gets the same amount. It will be a full share for an adult, you’ll get the same check I would get, we would get the same check Bill Gates would get, and then there’s a half a share per child who’s 18 or younger up to two children per household. The monthly dividend would equate to roughly $600 for the first year, per family of four. In about 10 years, the rebate would be about $3,500.

There was an economic analysis done of the proposal that found it would help create about two million jobs within 10 years. The Gross Domestic Product would increase about 75 billion dollars per year and the CO2 emissions would drop about 50 percent within about 20 years.

We would be at 50 percent of 1990 levels by 2035 which is more of a reduction than under President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. I don’t know how long it’s projected to get to 10 percent of 1990 levels, but of course all this time 100 percent of the money collected keeps being rebated monthly to families.

Fossil fuel energy prices will increase. The $15 per metric ton fee say on petroleum, would be about 15 cents per gallon at the pump. So, it phases in over time, and it doesn’t really create any tremendous price shocks, but businesses and consumers expect it will be there and know that 10 years from now gas should be a dollar more expensive than it is today just because of this fee. Of course coal and other fossil fuels will likewise go up in price. But the rebate will more than cover the increase for most Americans.

Now switching to what CCL is doing to promote our Carbon Fee and Dividend plan. CCL meets annually in Washington, D.C. Last year for example, I was in a meeting with Senator Burr in his office, and we had a wonderful meeting. We had a very cordial conversation. We usually get good questions raised from the Republican offices about the proposal, they are trying to dig deeper, trying to understand it better. No one’s committing to do anything, but no one is telling us that it’s never going to happen. They’re interested in the proposal and want to learn more and consider it.

Further, we don’t get push back on climate change-- they realize sooner or later something is going to happen. Perhaps we want it sooner, but they realize something is going to have to be done. I was in a meeting with an aide last year for a South Florida Congressman. He said he was fairly new on the job and was just learning. He asked good questions, and you can tell from body language whether a person is receptive, and he was.

I think we have had some developments over the past year that give us more things to talk about. In the House we have the Gibson Resolution, and we can start discussing that with our Representatives. The Gibson Resolution includes a description of what I believe is true conservatism—it’s along the lines of stewardship of the environment, risk management based on objective data, and lowering risk. The root of the word conservative is conserve; we should conserve our resources for our children and our grandchildren and leave the natural Earth, as good as we found it, if not better. That resolution has not come up for a vote. They now have at least 13 sponsors, a good starting point.

In the Senate, we have an environmental working group with four Senators, Lindsey

Graham (SC), Lamar Alexander (TN), Mark Kirk (IL), and Kelly Ayotte (NH). Kirk and Ayotte are from purple states, while Alexander and Graham are from solid red states.   In addition, Sen. Graham recently offered an amendment stating that climate change is real, and that the United States should lead in addressing it.  This Senate amendment has nine co-sponsors, four Republicans and five Democrats.

In summary, I like to say the proposal is elegant in its simplicity.  At the most basic level of taking care of low and middle income people who would otherwise struggle economically as the prices go up, the rebate eliminates that problem. The rebate also adds to the monthly income of all but wealthy Americans. And then you have the transparency aspect of it-- everyone sees what’s coming in and what’s going out. It doesn’t get muddled in the tax code, you get the buy-in from people actually getting monthly checks which is critical.

Further, the effect of this monthly rebate can promote renewable energy and energy conservation. Even if under current law, you get a tax credit for installing a solar array or additional insulation in your house, a lot of people don’t have capital needed to make these improvements. But if you are now receiving rebate money as well as the tax credits, and you plan ahead, pretty soon you could have the means to do so.

Finally, CCL has grown a lot in the years since I have been involved. For example, for the conference in D.C., in 2013, they had 320 people. The first year I went (2014), we had about 630, then in 2015, we had 900 people.  More chapters, more members-- everything is going up exponentially. It’s been great fun to watch-- I am really looking forward to this year’s D.C. CCL conference meetings, the Congressional lobbying, etc. It happens on June 19-21.  Please consider joining us. Go to www.citizensclimatelobby.org.