How a Carbon Tax & Dividend Would Benefit the Midwest

People often assume environmental policies are bad for the economy, but this belief was debunked in a big way at the last Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) Annual Conference in June 2014.

I was in the audience when Scott Nystrom of Regional Economic Models, Inc (REMI) gave a great presentation on jobs growth that would result from a national Fee & Dividend-style carbon tax (hereafter F&D). This is the same policy that CCL has been lobbying on for the last five years.

Having glanced at the report before the conference, I knew the big-picture details: that a carbon tax escalating $10/ton of carbon per year with revenue returned to households would add 2.2 million jobs over ten years. Improvements in air quality would save 13,000 lives a year. Emissions would decline by 33 percent.

What surprised me from Scott's presentation though was the specific benefits F&D would have on the Midwest, my homeland.

The Great Lakes states (what the Census Bureau refers to as East North Central - ENC) will benefit from such a policy more than any other census region studied - in terms of better health, population growth, and more jobs.

Here's Scott talking about the benefits to health and migration, in particular:

Here are some other choice graphs from the report, keeping in mind that ENC is the dark red:

When it comes to jobs growth, most of the benefits will appear in healthcare and retail. In ENC, there's a nearly 2% growth in employment by 2035 under this policy. The manufacturing numbers might seem like a concern to a state like Michigan, but Scott explains that most of the losses are in areas you'd expect, oil and coal production. Interestingly, auto manufacturing comes out ahead (these two graphs are national numbers):

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And finally, take a look at the dramatic change in the Great Lakes States' energy mix. No wonder health outcomes would improve so much. Green is wind, blue is coal:

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 11.57.31 AM.png

A proposal that grows employment, improves health, prevents premature deaths and brings people back to the Midwest? Even if you don't care about climate change, this is policy that Midwestern lawmakers should be pushing big-time.

To watch Scott's full presentation, click Part 1 and Part 2.

Going Green is Going Nowhere

green n. a. Lacking sophistication or worldly experience; naive. b. Easily duped or deceived; gullible.

Forgoing Metro, I rode by bike (recently christened "Bertha" by my friend David) to the office yesterday for the first time this year. The traffic in Bethesda was worse than I remembered it, clogging up side streets. The river of cars filled with solo drivers on Little Falls Parkway gushed through traffic lights while I waited to cross. "Why are these people in cars?" I asked myself.

Were these folks magically whisked to the Netherlands, would they simply buy more cars on their arrival because they like them so much? I think a significant portion of them wouldn't. And not because they're inspired to "go green" by the forward-thinking Dutch, but because the system there is designed for bicycles.

The Dutch had to push hard for this system change, and it had only tangential connection to environmentalism: mostly they got fed up with the number of kids dying in car accidents and turned out en masse on city streets to protest the situation. That and cheap gas disappeared. Leaders responded by building bicycle infrastructure and, voila, cycling shot up. Today, about 30% of the country's population gets around exclusively by bicycle. In the US? 2%.

"They're really making bicycling attractive," [International urban affairs professor at Virginia Tech University, Ralph] Buehler said. "People who normally drive, they know it will take five Euros for parking and take 10 minutes more than if they bike."

I bring up this story because an Atlantic Cities article I recently posted on the Citizens Climate Lobby Facebook page sparked a debate about the efficacy of individual vs. collective action. That article, Maggie Koerth-Baker's "Why Your 'Green Lifestyle' Choices Don't Really Matter" argues that all the recycled paper towels and bamboo floors in the country don't hold a candle to changing policy when it comes to building a better world.

I'm with Maggie on this one. And so is Annie Leonard, who makes the same point in her video The Story of Change. Going green, she says, is "like trying to swim upstream when the current is pushing us all the other way".

Many commenters on our Facebook wall took issue with this perspective:

If people do not make green lifestyle choices, those with the political power to make infrastructure changes will not see them as necessary. 

There is very little chance of systems change being implemented without a large push from what is now a "lifestyle" sector. 

It is an ill-conceived logic to decry these choices as ineffective. I think "lifestyle choices" are a powerful tool to point up to others what choices they have made without considering the alternatives. 

Articles with these kinds of titles assist in making people think doing nothing is ok. It's not. We all have to chip in.

I get the idea of personal responsibility, sure. I get around without a car. My roommates and I recycle and buy renewable energy credits for our electricity. But our culture stresses the personal responsibility aspect of environmentalism way too much, to the detriment of much more effective solutions. Lifestyle changes are the only way most people in the US know how to engage in change, and companies comfortable with the status quo are happy to encourage that. But it's a road to ruin, as the absence of strong chemical regulations shows:

Brock noted that she does everything in her power to give her kids a healthy future. However, as she has learned, what a parent can do may not be enough when product labels don't list every chemical ingredient, or when a chemical's safety remains untested. In order to uncover what chemicals were triggering rashes and breathing troubles in her daughters, for example, Brock said she spent a long time "playing detective" with what they were eating and applying to their hair and skin.

In addition to rejecting the "lifestyle" argument by pushing for policy change, scrapping the "green" label might be a good idea too. Witness students involved in the fossil fuel divestment campaign who've understandably become irritated by greenwashing and by being boxed into an esoteric interest group:

Photo: Fossil Free
Environmentalism may have been hijacked by our consumer culture, but maybe it's a blessing in disguise. We've been given the opportunity to redefine ourselves. I hope we'll look around at our neighbors who don't define themselves as "green", link arms, and storm the gates together.

Congress: A Fool's Errand?

Last week I attended a screening of the 2009 documentary Earth Days at the National Archives (you too can watch the whole thing here). I was particularly eager to hear Denis Hayes introduce the film. He was coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970 and has recently established the “greenest commercial building in the world” in Seattle, the Bullitt Center.

In the film we see Hayes and others help build a movement that had republicans in Congress and the administration clamoring over each other to call themselves “environmentalists”. The 1970s saw a deluge of environmental laws signed into law. Not only the Clean Air and Water Acts, but the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Superfund program. To anyone familiar with today’s political gridlock, the speed of progress at the time is pretty astounding.

Obviously much has changed in politics and public opinion since that time. In the 2011 presidential primaries, each Republican candidate proclaimed in turn how they would strangle the EPA’s authority if elected. It’s helpful to remember that it was a Republican who established the EPA. In his 1970 State of the Union Address, President Nixon said:
We can no longer afford to consider air and water common property, free to be abused by anyone without regard to the consequences. Instead, we should begin now to treat them as scarce resources, which we are no more free to contaminate than we are free to throw garbage into our neighbor's yard. 
This requires comprehensive new regulations. It also requires that, to the extent possible, the price of goods should be made to include the costs of producing and disposing of them without damage to the environment.
In light of these changes and Hayes’ decades of involvement in the movement, I asked him what advice he’d give to today’s environmentalist. His response? Abandon the federal government (particularly Congress) and focus on local and regional action.


If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard this... David Roberts, who quickly (and brilliantly) defended the 40,000+ marchers at the Forward on Climate Rally from the “Very Serious People” (VSP) on the bloggy sidelines himself becomes a VSP when it comes to climate legislation: “The dream of comprehensive national legislation must be put aside for now,” he said in a January 2013 post.

Similar responses abound when I tell people I’m in a group that organizes citizens to lobby Congress on climate change. It’s a simple math problem: the support is just not there, corporate influence is too strong, politicians are too dirty, and anyone foolish enough to focus on Congress is wasting her time.

I imagine part of this reaction comes from the impression that regular citizens don’t have real access to their representatives. While corporations and think tanks horse-trade behind the scenes, regular folks are condemned to signing angry petitions or shaking their fists on the Capitol steps. Or at best, trying to vote the worst politicians out every two years.

My conception of political engagement changed when I joined Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) in 2011. Since then I’ve participated in numerous meetings with staffers and legislators of both political parties, flanked by scientists, business owners, religious leaders, students, writers and others who are moving and savvy advocates for smart climate legislation.

It’s surprisingly easy to set up a meeting with the staffers responsible for drafting environmental/energy legislation and often the representatives themselves. I’ve learned that constituents are taken seriously; that it’s possible to have productive and engaging discussions with the most unlikely people, even staffers from deepest coal country. In terms of face-time, our representatives are more accessible than you might imagine.

In 2012, CCL volunteers from around the country met with 303 congressional offices in one week. This summer, they’re planning to meet with all 536 of them. For an army of volunteers organized by a staff you can count on one hand operating with minimal resources, that’s pretty impressive. And this contact happens in districts around the country, year-round.

Of course, access isn't influence. To be honest, I don’t expect much. I know about voting records and campaign donations. I’ve listened to representatives extol outlandish denier arguments and actively target climate solutions.

And yet I continue trudging up to Capitol Hill and organizing volunteers. Why, for godssake? Why don’t I spend my precious Metrorail money on cupcakes instead? Why haven’t the doubters chipped away at my resolve yet?

Well, there’s the fact that impactful climate action without Congress is impossible, according to the World Resources Institute. No amount of badgering Obama to utilize existing authority is going to get us the carbon reductions we need.

Secondly, we can’t go to international climate negotiations with a patchwork of regional policies and expect other countries to meet our own demands or pass ambitious policies of their own. On the international stage, federal policy carries the most weight. It carries the most weight for our financial system and utility companies too.

But mostly, we can’t use the state of Congress as an excuse for silence. There are lots of tools in the climate action toolbox. Building a sustainable city is one. Practicing civil disobedience is one. Organizing a rally is one. And lobbying Congress is one too. Abandoning this essential piece of active citizenship is more folly than believing we might actually change things. Besides, immovable objects might not be as immovable as we think.