Climate change group finds common ground with opponents
JEFFERSON CITY - Eleven concerned citizens sat quietly in the living room of Jefferson City residents George and Kathy Laur on a recent Saturday afternoon. Their eyes were trained on the hummingbirds that swarmed the yellow hibiscus on the back patio, but their ears were tuned to a speakerphone that buzzed with excitement as nearly 200 groups like them from around the world joined the monthly conference call.
These Jefferson City and Columbia-area residents make up one of a growing number of chapters of Citizens' Climate Lobby, an international organization. The chapters share a common goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and what they think are the potential - yet preventable - impacts of global climate change.
The organization holds a conference call each month for members to share stories and to host guest speakers. The number of chapters has doubled in each of the past five years and includes 197 chapters in the United States, Bangladesh, Canada, Sweden and Nepal.
George Laur started the local chapter one year ago after retiring as director of publishing and Web development for MU Extension. He said he was attracted to CCL, as the group is commonly called, because of its focus.
"It had a solution," Laur said. "It's a positive solution. And they had a plan for getting it done."
The "solution" that Laur referenced is a carbon tax and dividend. CCL proposes that fossil fuels be taxed at the point where they first enter the market - at the well, mine or border - based on the amount of carbon dioxide they would produce when burned. Carbon dioxide is one of the primary greenhouse gases. The revenue from the tax would then be paid to the public in monthly or annual dividends.
The idea is that the additional cost of fossil fuels would cause a shift toward cleaner renewable energy sources.
Laur said this revenue-neutral tax is meant to be a solution that would appeal to both conservatives and progressives. The revenue from the tax would go to the public instead of the government.
Conservative opponents of carbon taxes said the government should not influence the free market. The Institute for Energy Research is a non-profit group that identifies itself as a "free-market voice in the energy debate." The institute's director of communications, Chris Warren, said the group is opposed to any tax on fossil fuels.
"A carbon tax would have negligible impacts on global temperatures, but would be disastrous for our economy," Warren said in an email response to a reporter. "Even if the U.S. were to stop emitting CO2 emissions altogether, the temperature impacts would be negligible. This is because countries like China and India are driving the increase in CO2 emissions - not the U.S. The goal of a carbon tax is to take more money out of taxpayer pockets and give it to the federal government."
To address such claims, CCL commissioned a study by Regional Economic Models Inc., which provides economic impact studies for several government and private-sector clients. The report, released in June, predicted that over the next 10 years a carbon tax would create 2.1 million new jobs, reduce emissions by 33 percent and prevent 13,000 premature deaths associated with air pollution.
"We have good studies that show a carbon fee would have significantly more impact than EPA regulations require," Laur said. "We've designed this in a way so that if other countries want to do business with the U.S., they also need to institute carbon pricing. And that will have a major impact on greenhouse gases."
Laur's group hosted a regional CCL conference in Jefferson City Sept. 13 to educate new members on the goals and efforts of the organization and to motivate current members to continue their work. About 40 participants from Missouri and surrounding states attended the conference. Most were mid-career or retired professionals, and their backgrounds were diverse - from packaging engineers to school teachers.
CCL national Executive Director Mark Reynolds spoke at the conference about the organization's strategy of finding common ground with legislators who have opposing views.
"What informs that view that we can appreciate?" Reynolds said. "Maybe then we can get further along with them."
One method of finding that commonality is to relate the issue of climate change to people's personal relationships with the land, he said.
"We know they have things about the planet that they want to preserve, too," Reynolds said. He asked conference participants to share with each other their personal experiences.
Marie Steinwachs, director of the Missouri Environmental Assistance Center at MU, attended the conference as a member of the Columbia-Jefferson City chapter of CCL. She told of her experience as a child growing up on the Florida Gulf Coast and of the threats that a changing climate pose to it.
"I have a deep spiritual connection with that beach," Steinwachs said. "I love those spots, and they still bring me peace. Will my grandchildren still be able to experience that?"
Reynolds said CCL tries to emphasize the urgency of dealing with climate change without creating panic. "If all you do is tell people the problems associated with global warming, you hurt more than you help," he said.
By Reynolds' indications, CCL has a short time frame for getting a carbon tax through Congress. "We're functioning as if we have to get something done next year," he said.
Bob Haslag, a resident of Centertown and member of the Columbia-Jefferson City chapter, said the stakes are high.
"If we don't get this right," Haslag said, "nothing much else is going to matter in the long run."
(Photo: Don Scott, center, director of sustainability for the National Biodiesel Board, speaks at the Citizens' Climate Lobby regional conference in Jefferson City on Sept. 13. CCL is an international organization that promotes a carbon tax for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.)