Bike Rider/Scientist Learns How to Talk About Climate

“I found that the word ‘climate’ has been defined as a political issue. It was always a science issue for me,” retired climate scientist David Goodrich told The Christian Science Monitor’s Amanda Paulson. “You can talk about the latest drought that’s going on, or the big heavy rains we’ve been having, and on the coast you can talk about, ‘Boy, there’s been a lot of flooding.’ But if you say, ‘Isn’t that climate change?’ or ‘Isn’t that sea level rise?,’ there’s this wall that goes up.”

Goodrich was discussing his 4,208-mile cross-country bike trip, one of the half-dozen epic bike rides he has undertaken since 2000. His experiences are the raw material for his recently published book A Hole in the Wind (Pegasus, 249 pages).

A former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist who served as  director of the UN Global Climate Observing System in Geneva, Goodrich returned to the United States in 2011 to find a nation and a people in denial, according to a Goodreads review. Concerned that Americans are willfully deluded by misinformation about climate that dominates media and politics, Goodrich thought a little straight talk could set things right. As they say in "Animal House," he decided that "this calls for a stupid and futile gesture on someone's part, and I'm just the guy to do it."

Setting out from Cape Henlopen, Delaware, on the Atlantic coast, Goodrich discussed climate with audiences varying from laboratories to diners to elementary schools. “Over and over, across the country,” Goodrich discovers, the topic is deemed too hot (sorry) for polite conversation. “You could talk about the weather,” he concludes, “but not the climate.”

In Virginia in 2012, Goodrich notes, the General Assembly did not pass a study on sea level rise until its title was changed to “recurrent flooding.” And in Florida — the state most imperiled by the trend — officials with the Department of Environmental Protection were coerced into replacing “sea level rise” with the anodyne “nuisance flooding.”

The author also got a good look at some notable changes in his country. “When I first rode across Kansas in 2011, it was amazing how much wind I was getting and how few wind farms there were. That has changed completely,” he told The Christian Science Monitor. “There’s been a huge growth in wind farms across the Plains. Oklahoma is competing with Wyoming for who’s got the biggest wind project; Texas is the biggest wind-producing state. These places are not where you would necessarily find people saying climate change is real, but they’re a huge part in the move toward renewable energy. You don’t necessarily have to buy into climate change to be a part of the solution.” (The book’s title captures Goodrich’s yearning for a break from gale-force headwinds in Kansas.)

While ascending 10,276-foot-high Cameron Pass in northwestern Colorado, Goodrich searched the surrounding hillsides in vain for the green carpet he recalled from an Outward Bound stint there in the 1970s. Because of the tree-toppling mountain pine beetle, “the forests of Cameron Pass were gone. As my breath came back from the climb, there was a slow realization of what had happened. I could remember hiking in the Colorado high country 40 years ago, rock and snow and pine up to the tree line. It was our playground, a place to test ourselves, a place to listen to the quiet. Now it was a ghost forest.”

During his journey to coastal Waldport, Oregon, Goodrich took in a toddler's beauty pageant, a tornado in Missouri, and a mined-out uranium ghost town in Wyoming. He explored rust-belt towns and their relationship with fracking. “Happily, Goodrich is a good enough reporter — and a sufficiently gifted stylist — to make the miles fly by,” wrote Fallow in The Post. “And he must have propitiated the cycling gods at the start, for he suffered only one flat tire the entire ride.”

Fires & Storms: Running Up a Big Bill

It’s been quite a year. Consider this lineup: Franklin, Gert, Harvey, Irma, Jose, Katia, Lee, Maria, Nate, and Ophelia. Thanks to those hurricanes, 2017 has become the first year in more than a century in which 10 Atlantic storms in a row reached hurricane strength.

The record for the most weather-related disasters doing more than $1 billion in damage is 15, set last year. So far, 2017 has had 12, most recently the California wildfires. As of late October, the toll for those fires, some of which were still burning, was: 42 people dead, 8,400 homes destroyed, and 271,000 acres burned.

Hurricane Katrina still reigns as the U.S. weather-related disaster with the highest price tag: $160 billion. Hurricane Harvey ranks second ($86 to $108 billion), followed by Hurricane Irma ($64 to $92 billion), according to the National Climatic Data Center.

Despite all those eye-opening figures, many politicians continue to insist that taking steps to counter climate change would threaten our economic health. A more plausible view is that failure to take action will devastate our economy and impoverish our children.

That’s certainly the message from a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued October 23 and picked up by Reuters, which wrote: “The U.S. federal government should adopt a strategy to manage climate change risks, as their cost to the government may rise as much as $35 billion per year by mid-century. “Our government cannot afford to spend more than $300 billion each year in response to severe weather events that are connected to warming waters," Republican Senator Susan Collins said in a statement responding to GAO’s findings. "I hope the release of this analysis will cause all of us to think more broadly about this issue, take a harder look at the economic consequences of inaction, and use what is known about climate risks to inform federal policy."

Tomorrow’s weather isn’t likely to be any better. "Within the next three decades, floods that used to strike the New York City area only once every 500 years could occur every five years, according to a new scientific study," AP reported. "The study, performed by researchers at several universities and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, primarily blames the predicted change on sea-level rise caused by global warming."

More and more Americans are getting the message. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released September 28 found that 55 percent of Americans surveyed say climate change is responsible for the severity of recent hurricanes, which is far more than the percentage who held that view shortly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The quickest and most promising way to protect ourselves is to create a carbon fee. That would accelerate the transition from fossil fuels, which generate greenhouse gases, to renewable energy sources. As Congress struggles to cut taxes without sending our national debt to levels never before experienced, it should turn to a carbon fee to bring in the kind of money that could offset the lost revenue that would result from tax cuts. It’s a chance to achieve TWO major national goals in one bill.

Business Community is Key to Carbon Fee

If enough of the business community speaks up in favor of a carbon fee, it will become the law of the land. That’s the number-one message we heard during two years of meetings with some 300 senators, House members, and congressional aides. Most of them were open to this solution to climate change, but they need to see evidence that business leaders “back home” are on the same page.

Can we mobilize those leaders? The latest encouraging sign came last week from Business Forward, a group of small business owners, executives, entrepreneurs, and investors from across the United States. This trade association held a series of briefings with CEOs and economists from across the ideological spectrum to examine specific tax proposals and their potential impact on business. The conclusion: Many business leaders agree that pricing carbon is a simple, fair, and market-based solution. It decreases the need for federal regulation and can reduce emissions more quickly and equitably.

So Business Forward is gathering signatures from its members for a letter to the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee. It reads, in part:

We are writing to urge you to consider a federal tax on carbon. ...Pricing carbon is a simple, fair, and market-based solution. It decreases the need for federal regulation and can reduce emissions more quickly and equitably. Placing a price on carbon will encourage innovation, accelerate the commercialization of low-carbon technologies, and stimulate economic growth. Because these fees would be collected at the source (well, mine, or port), implementing a carbon tax is simpler than other forms of taxation. By adjusting fees on American exports and foreign imports, we can ensure our exports remain competitive—and push other nations to follow our lead.

The proceeds of this tax could be returned to the American people in the form of a regular dividend or offset the cost of the tax rate cuts you have proposed.

This action came on the heels of a September report, the first major study of corporate carbon pricing since President Trump’s election, documenting that more than 1,200 global businesses, including General Motors, Disney, and Shell, are moving to embrace a carbon price.

The findings are based on information disclosed to CDP, formerly known as Carbon Disclosure Project, an organization that helps investors, companies and cities track greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the companies’ sustainability reports. The CDP found that 517 companies have put a price on carbon and 732 are planning to do so in the next two years.

“Carbon pricing is a tool that is rising on the corporate agenda. It has grown across all sectors and geographies,” Manjyot Bhan Ahluwalia, the lead author of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions report, told The Washington Post.

“Some companies may choose to do this with a carbon fee, assigning a sum of money to CO2 emissions,” Sophie Yeo wrote in that Post story. “The revenue will often be used by the business to fund emissions reduction measures such as purchasing renewable energy or boosting energy efficiency. Microsoft, for example, implemented a carbon fee in 2012. It has ranged from $5 to $10 per metric ton of CO2, and the revenue has enabled the company to reduce its emissions by 9.5 million metric tons.

“...Despite Trump’s exit from the Paris deal, many chief executives think it is just a matter of time until they face more stringent climate regulations. They figure that moving to an internal carbon price ahead of time would reduce the shock.”

“Corporations should seize this opportunity to have a seat at the table and do their part to address critical global challenges,” wrote Stephen Badger, chair of Mars, Inc., in a Washington Post op-ed. “In time, they will realize the returns on investment in a sustainable future.

“Mars has launched our new Sustainable in a Generation Plan to invest $1 billion over the next few years to tackle urgent threats facing society. …Business not only has a seat at the table; it has a vested interest in collaborating with everyone at the table. So let’s grab this opportunity with both hands.”

Another business community leader who believes a carbon fee is the way to go is Gregg Sherrill, executive chairman of Tenneco and former chairman of the National Association of Manufacturers. He sees the fee as a sensible way to pay for tax cuts so that we don’t send the national debt even higher.

We are working with the American Sustainable Business Council, which supports “measures that bring market forces to bear by making explicit the hidden externalities of fossil fuel economy. These measures include levying a price on carbon emissions, eliminating tax subsidies for fossil fuels and ending implicit subsidies, such as leasing federal lands that contain coal or oil at rates below the fair market rate.”

We encourage every business person to take a close look at a carbon fee. If you agree that there is no better way to tackle climate change, now’s the time to speak up.

Lindsey Graham Backs Carbon Fee

The drive to enact a carbon royalty (or fee) received an important boost last week. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham became the first Republican in the Senate to publicly endorse a "price on carbon” to fight climate change.

"I'm a Republican. I believe that the greenhouse effect is real, that CO2 emissions generated by man is creating our greenhouse gas effect that traps heat, and the planet is warming," said Graham. "A price on carbon—that's the way to go in my view."

He said that he is working with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D, RI) on legislation. Whitehouse and Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) introduced a carbon tax bill in July, appearing at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) to announce it. Graham, who said he would take the idea to the White House for consideration, called for climate change legislation during the 2016 election but did not mention a price on carbon explicitly.

From our meetings with scores of senators and their aides over the past three years, we know that a number of them privately support this free-market idea or are at least open to it. We will try to persuade them to join Graham in speaking out publicly.

But we also know that an important factor in their willingness to do so is support of such a fee from business leaders in their states. That’s why we are working with a growing coalition to develop this support. Our partners include Business Forward, the Evangelical Environmental Network, the American Sustainable Business Council, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Graham’s statement is the latest sign of GOP movement toward national action to counter climate change. In February seven prominent Republican elder statesmen, including former Secretaries of State James Baker and George Shultz and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, proposed a carbon fee with all proceeds being paid as a regular dividend to taxpayers. Meanwhile, the House Climate Solutions Caucus continues to grow and now has 56 members, half of them Republicans. The latest additions are Pat Tiberi (R-OH), Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), John Larson (D-CT), and Chris Collins (R-NY).

Like Graham, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) spoke last week about the importance of action, though he did not indicate his preferred solution. "I believe it is our responsibility to safeguard our environment and protect the planet," he said. "Climate change is real and requires pragmatic problem-solving to address."

This increasing receptiveness to a royalty fee coincides with the GOP’s drive to pass tax reform legislation. Because tax reform proponents are having trouble finding a way to make up for the revenue reduction that large tax cuts would cause, we are continuing to make the case that a carbon royalty could prevent a tax cut package from driving up the national debt--while enabling the United States to do its part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is dealmaking season in Washington, and we intend to do whatever we can to move this idea into the final bill.

Reasons to Be Upbeat

Harvey, congressional gridlock, the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris accord, climate change deniers in high places…. These are just some of the things that can discourage someone who believes we need to take action on climate change.

But there are also reasons to be upbeat:

  • While Congress has a disproportionate number of members who are content to sit on their hands as the climate changes at an alarming pace, the House Climate Solutions Caucus has grown to include 52 members--half of them Republicans.

  • After a bipartisan vote in July left climate language in the annual defense authorization bill, Climate Solutions Caucus Co-Chairman Carlos Curbelo voiced optimism that lawmakers may actually begin to engage earnestly on the subject. "We have a lot of Republicans, even from the deep South, who everyday come to me and say, 'Well, let's talk about this climate change thing and sea level rise,'" Curbelo told a Florida radio station. "There is growing interest, and my hope is that we can build that coalition, that bipartisan coalition, as quickly as possible just so that we can advance common-sense policy solutions."

  • The House Problem Solvers Caucus now includes 43 Republicans and Democrats. Founded by Congressmen Tom Reed (R-NY) and Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), this caucus hopes to build support for common-sense solutions to climate change, health care, immigration, and other challenges that have stymied Congress.

  • Nine northeastern states agreed recently to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by an additional 30 percent by 2030--on top of the 40 percent reduction achieved since 2009. And California has just strengthened its emission-reduction program.

  • Seven GOP luminaries continue to advocate a carbon fee proposed by the Climate Leadership Council: James A. Baker, III, George P. Shultz, Martin Feldstein, N. Gregory Mankiw, Henry M. Paulson, Jr., Thomas Stephenson and Rob Walton. They call it “a conservative case for a climate solution.”

  • More and more corporate leaders are calling for pricing carbon and other action to counter climate change. Leadership is coming not only from individual CEOs, including some with major oil companies, but from organizations such as the American Sustainable Business Council and Business Forward.

  • The horror of Harvey is a stark lesson in the threats posed by climate change. Harvey cannot be blamed on climate change, but scientists believe that the amount of rain was increased by rising temperatures.

  • Seventy percent of Americans now support requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax paired with cutting other taxes (like income taxes), according to a recent survey by researchers at Yale and George Mason universities. Two-thirds of independents and slightly under half of Republicans polled back those policies.

  • The  most plausible option for enacting a carbon fee is a tax reform bill that employs the fee to pay for tax cuts, and there is a growing determination among Republicans to pass such legislation this year. Their eagerness means that they will be more inclined to bargain. Politico’s Nancy Cook had this quote: “People are feeling optimistic because they do not see failure as an option. They’ve put all of their eggs in one basket now, and that basket is tax reform,” said one source familiar with the administration’s tax talks. “The fear of failure on this will cause people to agree with things they may not normally agree to.”

All of this is not to say that it’s time to bet your Tesla on passage of a carbon fee this year. But there are some promising forces at work, and those of us who support such a fee should keep making the case. If an opportunity develops, we must seize it.