In climatology, the term “tipping point” typically conveys bad news. Headlines with it signal pending thresholds for global warming, polar ice melt, sea level rise and other crises. When climate leaves a stable state—when a tiny change can trigger a massive effect, on the system as a whole—that’s what scientists mean by a tipping point.
Local environmentalist Julie Heath sees a different kind of tipping point on the near horizon. She dedicates countless hours to a solution for what she considers the most consequential problem of our time. That solution finally shows signs of legislative life.
Late last month, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) introduced House Resolution 763 in Congress. The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2019 puts forth policy initiatives championed the past 12 years by Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a nationwide advocacy organization to which Heath belongs. The bill would put a fee on fossil fuels to encourage transitions to cleaner energy, with proceeds going to the people, not the government. (See “Lobbying for change,” Greenways, June 22, 2017.)
H.R. 763 had 13 co-sponsors as of the CN&R’s deadline, including one Republican—but the congressional Climate Solutions Caucus, split evenly between GOP and Democratic representatives, has 90 members. Heath said the number wasn’t even two dozen when she joined CCL’s Chico chapter two years ago.
“It feels like we may be approaching a tipping point in this whole debate,” Heath said. “I have a very conservative family from Bakersfield. We were out to eat, and I said, ‘Well, what I’ve been doing lately, I’ve been doing some volunteering around climate action.’ I thought they were going to turn me off, or they were going to make snide comments—they thanked me.”
H.R. 763 awaits hearings in three House committees: Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Foreign Affairs. CCL legislative experts told Heath and Gordon Gregory, co-leaders of the Chico chapter, that they expect a Senate bill around June. Versions debuted in the House and Senate near the end of the last congressional session—Nov. 28 and Dec. 20, respectively—but expired.
Meanwhile, Feb. 7—two weeks to the day after H.R. 763 was introduced—Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markley (D-Mass.) released a resolution calling for the federal government to create a Green New Deal designed to cut carbon emissions make for a more sustainable economy. CCL supported their resolution.
“I don’t fool myself [into thinking] that the politics of this are going to be easy, at any stage,” Gregory said. “Entrenched interests—overcoming that is going to be a heck of a challenge. I personally think the only way that’s going to happen is if enough people simply insist that we have to deal with climate change; we’re not there yet, but I think it’s growing all the time.”
CCL’s plan, as embodied in the legislation, calls for a fee on oil, coal and gas that increases over time. Each American gets an equal monthly share to defray associated price increases. The program pays its expenses; the government gets no part of the dividend. To level international trade, imports face a “border carbon adjustment” fee, while exports convey a refund.
H.R. 763 contains two carve-outs: exemptions for the military and the agricultural sector.
Heath explained those sound worse than they are. The military already has green initiatives, as it recognizes climate change as a significant threat to international security and its operations. Farmers, meanwhile, lack technological alternatives and financial resources to replace all their equipment with zero-emission machines—plus, ag exhaust contributes less than 1 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases.
“We’re a very pragmatic organization,” Heath said. “Politically, if you want it to get passed, you have to be realistic.” Legislators from the farm belt warmed to the carbon dividend with those exceptions.
“We believe the military is greening faster than any other type of organization that exists,” she added, “so it’s unlikely that they’re going to be behind the curve anyway. And there’s just too many people in the country who [work in] agriculture who’d be adversely impacted, and it is a very small percentage of what’s being produced [in emissions], so we feel this is a worthwhile carve-out to get the legislation passed.”
The Chico chapter focuses exclusively on California’s first congressional district, currently represented by Republican Doug LaMalfa. A rice farmer from Richvale, LaMalfa staunchly supports President Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accords, and refutes humans’ influence on climate.
Gregory has spoken multiple times with LaMalfa’s legislative aide on energy policy, Jack Lincoln; the chapter’s congressional liaison, Robin Anderson, met with LaMalfa at the Oroville field office.
“He was polite, asked good questions, was aware of the organization and the basic concepts of the bill,” Gregory said, noting that Anderson and CCL Chico lobbyist Ann Bykerk-Kauffman, who also attended, told him they were encouraged.
“Even though he has publicly questioned the reality of climate change, and to my knowledge taken no steps to understand it or deal with it in a positive way,” Gregory added, “this is the kind of legislation that somebody like Doug LaMalfa can potentially support.”
Paying dividends: Climate group gets carbon-fee bill to Congress, by Evan Tuchinsky, News Review, February 21, 2019.