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Citizens Climate Lobby: Now is the time to act on climate change, Alaska

Bill Sherwonit

It is a strange aspect of northern life — not to mention frustrating and disheartening — to live in a place, Alaska, where the effects of climate change are so pronounced and where, at the same time, so many residents seem unconcerned, uninformed, unconvinced, or simply in denial.

I can’t recall exactly when I became aware of climate change and global warming; sometime in the 1990s. Since then I have written a number of articles, essays, and commentaries about our changing climate and its effects on Alaska’s landscape and life forms. And in a variety of small ways, I’ve lessened my own day-to-day “carbon footprint.” Now and then I’ve felt guilty that I haven’t done more, but I’ve assured myself that others are leading the charge, while I put my attention on other environmental and conservation issues. Alaska’s wildlife politics, for instance. And wilderness advocacy.

Still, I’ve known I could — and should — do more. There is, to my knowledge, no more pressing environmental issue than climate change. Pressing, at least, if we’re concerned what happens to humans, other species, and the larger Earth community over the next several decades. As many others have commented, one of the great challenges in addressing this catastrophe-in-progress is that most of the impacts are not immediately apparent and therefore don’t seem urgent—though it appears America’s recent abundance of “super storms,” historically unprecedented wildfires, and prolonged, severe drought in much of the country seem to finally be getting the public’s attention while wreaking havoc across the continent.

Devastating consequences

The sense of urgency also grows, I suspect, when we who are parents and grandparents began to seriously wonder what kind of diminished or horribly damaged world our children and grandchildren may some day inherit and inhabit. I have a daughter and grandkids, whom I’ll be visiting soon. Maybe they’ve been on my mind, nudging me to do more.

Besides that, I happen to be among those who believe it’s unacceptable that our actions are likely to have — and in some instances, are already having — devastating consequences on other species. I suppose I could accept the fact that we humans might, in the long run, destroy ourselves or make things really hard on our species for a long time to come. What I can’t abide is the harm we’ll also do to other species, other life forms, if we do choose the path to self-destruction. Why should our ignorance, denial, and greed take them down, too?

I know, I know. The climate has changed many times in the Earth’s long history. But we’re the culprit now. We know the current problem and that we’re the primary cause of it. We understand the dangers. And the solutions. And still we procrastinate.

You may be wondering where I’m going with this. Is this simply more doom and gloom stuff, a guilt-tripping diatribe? No. I’m writing to share some of what I’ve recently learned about a nationwide citizens’ effort — actually it’s an international campaign, because Canada’s also part of it — to address the climate crisis. And it truly is already a crisis for people who live in some areas of the world, including parts of Alaska. You must have heard about the coastal residents of Northwest Alaska, whose villages are being washed away by increasingly stormy seas.

Citizens Climate Lobby

Several weeks ago, while attending the local Unitarians’ Sunday morning forum, I listened to a guy named Jim Thrall talk about the Citizens Climate Lobby, a grassroots movement intending to “create the political will for a stable climate” and a livable world. Thrall is a retired aquatic biologist whose knowledge of climate change and ocean acidification reaches back to the 1960s. “Neither of these issues is new for scientists,” he explains. “But what we didn’t know then is how big the problem would become or how fast change would occur.”

A grandfather, Thrall learned about the Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) about five years ago when a friend, Roger Hudson, introduced him to the work being done by Marshall Saunders. A former real estate broker who’d become deeply involved with RESULTS (a nonprofit citizens lobbying group that works to end hunger and poverty), Saunders in 2006 became alarmed by what he’d learned about climate change and he joined an effort to spread the word about global warming. But eventually he realized that the solutions he was offering his audiences “were not a match for the problem.” Taking what he’d learned from RESULTS, Saunders in October 2007 formed the CCL.

Given his own growing concern and Saunders’ vision, Thrall agreed to form an Anchorage chapter of the CCL. That was about five years ago. In the years since, the Anchorage group has numbered between 10 and 15 participants, with a core group of about five people. And the larger U.S.-Canada CCL community has grown from a few chapters to nearly 90. The goal is to eventually have a chapter in every one of the nation’s 435 Congressional districts.

Groups across the U.S. and Canada meet by teleconference the first Saturday of every month, with a defined format. First, a guest expert (in the science, economics, or politics of climate change) addresses those in attendance, with the goal of making CCL members conversant in climate change and associated issues. Next, various chapters give updates on “action items” they’ve recently accomplished. And finally, time is devoted to the month’s “laser talks,” essentially short, focused talks about some aspect of climate change, because, as Thrall explains, “You never know when you’ll have the opportunity to speak briefly with someone who can make a big difference.” Members of the state’s congressional delegation, for example, or someone on their staffs.

CCL members are asked to do what they can to keep climate change in the public’s consciousness, whether by writing letters to the editor or opinion pieces, or meeting with local groups. As the CCL’s name suggests, participants are also expected to contact political leaders, especially members of Congress and their staffs. Whatever their political leanings, the key, says Thrall, is “to approach them with respect, in a non-confrontational way. We want to develop long-term relationships and become known as a source of solid information.” Thrall and others in the Anchorage chapter have communicated with Alaska’s two senators and lone representative in the House a number of times and found some reasons to be encouraged, even if no Alaskan in Congress is among those leading the charge to tackle climate change.

Carbon fee and dividend

While recognizing there are several ways to address the challenge of climate change and the transition to a clean (or at least cleaner) energy economy, the CCL has been—and remains—focused on what it calls a “Carbon Fee and Dividend” approach. In short, the group is promoting Congressional legislation that would place a tax, or fee, on all fossil fuels—whose development and use produce the so-called greenhouse gases that are the primary cause of the current climate change phenomenon—from coal oil to natural gas.

The fees would be based on the amount of carbon in any given fossil fuel and would be charged “at the source” of the fuel, whether oil well or coal mine. But of course that new cost would be passed along to other businesses and eventually reach consumers. For that reason, the carbon fee program would also include a rebate — the dividend part of this approach — to us consumers. Or, put another way, to us citizens.

The CCL proposes that 100 percent of the fees or taxes collected by the program go back to U.S. households, to help with increased expenses. “We think that makes good sense,” Thrall says, “especially since a lot of people don’t trust government to spend money in a very wise way.

The real beauty of the carbon tax,” he adds, “is that it spreads through the entire economy. Both businesses and individuals will have a strong motive to change their energy consumption habits, to look at clean energy alternatives and conserve energy when possible. Everybody has incentive to conserve.”

From $15 per ton to $150 per ton

The carbon fee/tax would initially be small, say $15 per ton for the producer, but then grow each year by $10 to $15 per ton until finally reaching $150 per ton or thereabouts. At that point, clean energy will be on a more equal economic footing with carbon-based fuels. Such a gradual increase will give both businesses and people time to adapt.

Here’s another beauty of such a carbon fee: it recognizes that the development, production, and use of carbon-based fossil fuels has real costs that are not usually taken into account when companies calculate their “bottom line.” There are costs to the landscape, to the atmosphere, to the oceans and other waters, to other animals, and, certainly not least, to human health. And to the future of our species and the planet.

There’s lots more to learn about this citizens lobby effort and the carbon-fee-and-dividend legislation it is backing. I’ll write more about it down the line, but you can also get more information at the Citizens Climate Lobby website and even check out the CCL’s Carbon Fee and Dividend FAQ. Or you can contact the Anchorage chapter at cclanchorage(at)citizensclimatelobby.org. Anchorage residents can also attend the monthly teleconference meetings, the first Saturday of the month, 8:45 a.m. at the Brayton Kaladi’s café (6921 Brayton Drive).

Jim Thrall recently moved south to be closer to family—including his grandkids, whose future has been a big part of his own motivation—so George Donart, a clean energy proponent, has taken over as the Anchorage chapter’s chief organizer and plans to keep the momentum going. And building. The longer we wait to act, the more extreme the coming changes will be. If not for the planet or yourselves, consider taking action for the sake of your children or grandchildren. Or, if you have no kids, consider your neighbors, both human and wild.

Bill Sherwonit has contributed essays and articles to a wide variety of publications, both traditional and online, and is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness" and "Chugach State Park: Alaska's Accessible Wilderness," the latter a collaboration with photographer Carl Battreall. He has closely followed and written about Alaska's wilderness and politics since the mid-1980s.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.