Finding the Bright Spots

CLIMATE TALK

  When four Lewes societies paraded figures of Donald Trump on Bonfire Night last month, his election to The White House had still seemed unlikely; unreal.  But in a matter of days the recently ratified UN Paris Agreement on Climate Change was looking vulnerable under a future President who had previously talked of "scrapping" it.  He has since declared he has “an open mind” on the deal, but could a single administration manage to sabotage a worldwide agreement that had taken decades to reach? 

Whatever the impacts of the new American government, we live in Topsy-Turvy times and Talking Up Climate Solutions will be more important than ever, depending on the efforts of us all.  Learning about potential financial mechanisms, robust enough to accelerate action taken locally, nationally or internationally, should be an important part of this - for as long as fossil fuels are “cheaper” than low carbon alternatives they will continue to be burned. Taxing “bads” not “goods” as Herman Daly once put it would factor in their true costs, making them more expensive and allowing alternatives to transition more quickly. But how?!

 
When teaching Business English to foreign executives a few years back, “Switch” or “How to Change Things When Change is Hard” by Chip and Dan Heath was unexpectedly illuminating.  How refreshing to learn that what looks like people’s laziness or resistance is often exhaustion at a lack of clarity. The assumption too, that action happens in an ANALYSE-THINK- CHANGE manner overlooks how analysis tends to overwhelm when problem-centred...


Demonstrating how an entrenched culture can be shifted if a problem is simplified; a path re-shaped; the emotional power of a much simpler SEE-FEEL-CHANGE avoids getting bogged down in too much analysis.  Finding and celebrating the “bright spots”- things that work already -will get people moving. Provided there’s a strong beginning and ending, excitement and hope create positive spirals and new identities – from which further change flows.  

There have been endless claims that taxing carbon will clobber the poor and destroy the economy, an accepted assumption that blocks action without being thoroughly tested – and why one particular bright spot in Canada is so very interesting.   

In 2008 a severe beetle outbreak, recognised to have been “facilitated” by global warming, was devastating millions of hectares of pine forest in British Columbia.  For the first time ever, the environment had overtaken concerns about healthcare or the economy in the polls, and a carbon fee with a difference was introduced by the provincial government.  It was revenue neutral – every single dollar generated (about 1 billion a year in 2013) was returned to British Columbians through reductions in other taxes – thus offsetting rises in fuel prices.


Although not perfect as a model (the plan was to gradually increase the fee for only 4 years and stabilise it for 5 after 2012) it worked on both economic and environmental fronts, quelling initial opposition when seen to be fair (the biggest polluters would be paying the most) Spurring a 16 per cent reduction in fuel efficiency on all fuels at a time when the rest of Canada saw an increase of 3% per person, this could not be attributed to the global recession, nor pre-existing trends. The carbon “tax shift” had also reduced carbon pollution without hurting the economy or causing inflation.


At about the same time, a non-partisan, non-profit grassroots advocacy organisation Citizens Climate Lobby was started in Texas by founder Marshall Saunders, who had a background in microcredit in Bangladesh and believed that Congress could be reached with the right strategy. Teaming up with “Results” a group that had successfully worked on global poverty, the aim was to create the political will to sustain “a liveable world” by empowering people to have personal and political breakthroughs. With an emphasis on building relationships with everyone - starting on common ground rather than differences - it aimed to appeal to people from different parts of the political spectrum.  


Its singular focus was national climate legislation to enact a steadily rising Carbon Fee and Dividend proposal, where money would be raised from fossil fuel companies at source (mine, oil well or port of entry) and recycled back into the economy via dividends to the public. The belief was that this stood the best chance of gaining the widest support - accomplishing the most environmental good while causing the least economic harm to business, which would have a clear signal but time to adjust. The word “fee” rather than “tax” was adopted to keep conservatives listening (the government wouldn’t keep or spend the revenue) while the dividend would protect low income households and avoid liberal objections to regressive taxation.  A study by REMI (Regional Economic Models) estimated that a  revenue neutral carbon fee in the US starting in 2016 would reduce CO2 levels 50% below 1990 levels by 2036, the economic stimulus of recycling the revenue back into the local economy adding 2.8 million jobs and saving 230,000 premature deaths from improved air quality.  A strong "beginning" that could spur many other solutions...

   Endorsers of this proposal include economists such as George Shultz ex Secretary of State under President Reagan who called it an “insurance policy” against risk, to renowned scientists such as NASA’s James Hansen and writers and environmentalists Jonathan Porritt and Bill Mckibben.

As the purpose is to level the playing field, all existing subsidies of fossil fuels, including tax credits, would also be phased out over the 5 years following enactment, an extremely important incentive for innovation and efficiency, making clean alternatives more attractive.  As the Heath brothers pointed out in “Switch” "tweaking" a default environment will make the right behaviour a little easier and the wrong behaviour harder.  There could be cross party agreements and Carbon committees acting like central bankers, setting a carbon tax in the same way as interest rates are fixed today.  Taxing the carbon content of imports would certainly lead to a contraction in world trade, but it would make local production more important. This pragmatic lever would also mean the coalition of the "willing" wouldn't be disadvantaged by the unwilling.  

By 2016 CCL had made huge inroads, with 315 chapters worldwide, including Citizen Climate Lobby UK and its new London chapter six months ago.  Holding hundreds of meetings with members of Congress in the US, forming bipartisan groups in the House of Representatives and filing a joint Resolution at the California Assembly this September that urged Congress to enact a revenue neutral scheme refunding money to the bottom 2/3 of American households, the significance lies in the fact that the process allows Republicans to engage in the issue and come to the table with conservative solutions to climate change, thus turning down the heat on Climate and creating a stepping stone to meaningful dialogue.      

It had been hoped that President Trudeau's decision to implement a rising national carbon price in 2018 (leaving the provinces to determine the mechanism, whether tax or cap and trade) would inspire the rest of the world - particularly the US - with talk of British Columbia's "carbon funded tax cuts" (it has the lowest personal income tax rate in Canada and one of the lowest corporate rates in North America).

It's early days but since The Election, membership of CCL groups in the US has "exploded." It would be a wonderful irony if it took a climate-denying President to get the rest of the nation - and world - alarmed enough to get moving.  In my own case it's galvanised me too.  The plan is to hold local events next year in the hope that a Sussex CCL can be launched: I hope to see you there!
 
Judith Knott