These Citizens Won't Take 'No' For An Answer. And They're Budging Congress On Climate Change

Jun 13, 2018

Originally published 6: 30 p.m. June 13, 2018.

This week more than 1,300 citizen volunteers have been in Washington D.C. to lobby for - wait for it - a bipartisan solution to climate change. You heard that right. In the face of political divisiveness and gridlock, volunteers from all 50 states are trying to find common ground on climate change policy. What's even more surprising is they say they're making progress.

It's not just the political climate that makes these volunteers work a steep climb. It's the climate itself. Increasing temperatures. More severe storms. Sea level rise. The scientific consensus is that the planet is in peril. 

And yet, against that backdrop, Peter Monro of Portland says he has reason for hope. "Our membership has been doubling every year. There are now 85,000 volunteer members. In the state of Maine we have contact lists of upwards of seven- or eight-hundred members."

Monro is talking about membership in the Citizens' Climate Lobby. He's on the steering committee of the Portland chapter. It's a grassroots organization that trains people to advocate for what they want.

And what they want is a livable world. Twice a year, hundreds of members head to D.C. to make their case in private meetings with members of Congress. And the first step they're proposing?

"The starting point is putting a price on carbon, which is to say carbon dioxide," Monro says. "It would start at $15 per ton per year, and every year it would go up by $10 per ton."

The fee would be imposed on the oil and gas industry, importers of oil and gas, and on coal companies. It would generate billions of dollars for the federal government. 

And what the Citizens' Climate Lobby then proposes to do is distribute the money to American households in equal shares, a maximum of two per family. 

"So that a family of four, every month, would receive an energy dividend check of $288 in the first year. And that amount of money would go up each year," Monro says. "That's serious money. That's $3,500 per year."

Supporters of the carbon fee and dividend say the money could be used to offset increased costs of gasoline, heating oil and other products. Critics, like conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, lambaste it as an excessive, erroneous tax. "It is an endless way to separate people from their money, and all you have to do to incur it is live."

But Peter Monro and the members of the Citizens' Climate Lobby are not deterred. They point to a recent poll by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication that shows Republican voters' concern about global warming has increased by 5 percent since last fall. 

They also tout the growth in membership in the Climate Solutions Caucus, which they helped create. It's a bipartsisan group in the U.S. House that reviews policies to address climate change. No one can join unless he or she partners with someone else from across the aisle. Over the past two years 78 members have come on board - 39 Democrats and 39 Republicans. 

"I think it's recognition that climate change is real," says Maine U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent. "Just a few years ago they were talking about sea level rising a matter of inches. Now we're talking about feet."

King was one of the first members of Congress to speak out about climate change. But he says he hasn't signed onto recent legislation to create a carbon fee and dividend system. He has questions about how the dividends will be distributed.

He also thinks the approach may soon become unnecessary, "because I think the we're moving very rapidly toward renewables just because that's where the market is."

"I think it's a very thoughtful plan," says Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine's 1st District. "It's a very bipartisan plan in terms of its origin."

Pingree says she supports the cap and dividend idea, which has the blessing of individuals as diverse as NASA climate scientist James Hansen, former Vice President Al Gore, Harvard economist James Minkow and former Secretary of State George Schultz. 

"We can't even get a bill to the floor or a debate in a committee in this particular Cognress," Pingree says, "but I'm glad to see that there are people on the outside really moving forward on this."

Pingree is the only member of Maine's congressional delegation to fully endorse the plan. Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin, from Maine's 2nd District, opposes it because, his spokesperson says, he fears it could open the door to higher electricty and home heating costs. 

And a spokesperson for Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who has previously co-sponsored legislation to cut carbon emissions and supports efforts to address climate change, says Collins wants to see "solutions based on the best available science."

Peter Monro agrees that there will need to be other steps taken to reduce greenhouse gases and adapt to climate change. But he says Congress will have a tough time overlooking the Citizens' Climate Lobby proposal for at least one reason: "We consist of constitutents, and constituents are the most influential people with members of Congress."

And, those constituents, Monro says, have been trained not to take "no" for an answer.