There is a story we love to tell at Citizens Climate Lobby. It’s a story about Gandhi’s first meeting with General Smuts. Gandhi, all of 5 foot 4 inches, told the imposing South African general and politician that he planned to oppose the Asiatic Registration Act of 1908. General Smuts looked at him and said, “Really? Anything else?”
“Yes,” replied Gandhi. “I will prevail.”
“Oh? And how do you plan to do that?” asked the general.
“With your help,” said Gandhi.
It’s a good story to keep in mind when you’re about to ask a Republican to support a carbon tax.
And that’s just what 380 of us did from June 25-28. We were in Washington, D.C., for the fourth annual Citizens Climate Lobby Conference and Lobby Days. We met with 439 congressional offices that week to ask lawmakers to co-sponsor a revenue-neutral carbon tax bill. We also met with the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Canadian Embassy.
And who are ‘we’? We are citizens from the U.S. and Canada with backgrounds as diverse as doctors, teachers, communicators, artists and stay-at-home moms. Some are climate scientists fed up by government inaction on climate change.
Mark Reynolds, the executive director of the Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), asked Canadians to travel to the U.S. capital to remind American lawmakers that the world expects the U.S., the world’s second largest polluter, to lead on climate change. Nineteen of us from B.C., Ontario and Quebec made the trip. We knew that getting the U.S. to adopt a climate tax would be a game-changer. Our own government has made it clear that Canada will adopt U.S. policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are responsible for rising global temperatures.
But that means talking to Republicans. How easy is it to discuss a carbon tax with Republicans? Easier than you’d think.
Politics aside, economists on both sides of the political spectrum advise that a revenue-neutral carbon tax is the most effective mechanism to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, while stimulating green energy innovations. Even conservative economists like Greg Mankiw, economic adviser to Mitt Romney, support a carbon tax because it utilizes a market-based approach instead of more government regulation.
CCL proposes placing a rising fee on carbon at the point when it’s extracted or enters the market, and to legislate border tax adjustments to encourage trading partners to adopt similar measures. To take the bite out of the rising costs associated with the carbon fee, and to appeal to conservatives who do not like taxes, CCL proposes giving 100 per cent of the revenue back to households. The revenue-neutral aspect of this proposal is critical to gain Republican support, at least among rational conservatives. But these days, ‘rational’ and ‘Republican’ don’t often go together.
I certainly had misgivings walking into meetings with Republicans. My first meeting confirmed my fears.
It was with a frosty aide of a mid-western Republican Senator. She was adamant that a carbon tax would hurt her state. We used the concepts and key words that any conservative should love — market-based solution, correcting a market imbalance, polluter pays principal, border tax adjustment and so on.
The energy aide finally managed a smile when I reminded her that American ingenuity will unlock innovative solutions once carbon is priced properly. Despite our best efforts she appeared unmoved by our proposal. But it was her first meeting with CCL, the first of many to come.
At the heart of our work in the U.S. and Canada is building relationships. Not all conservatives were frosty. We heard many reports of representatives and aides expressing genuine interest in our proposal. Walking into my last meeting with a Republican aide, I didn’t expect much, but he asked many questions and indicated that from his point of view our proposal made a lot of sense.
Representatives and aides also were interested in the B.C. Carbon Tax, which was implemented in 2008. Now at $30 per carbon tonne, the Carbon Tax has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 9.9 per cent in just two years, without hurting gross domestic product or public support. In fact, according to a recent Environics poll, support for the tax in B.C. is at an all-time high of 64 per cent. It was important to have a Canadian in the room. Most representatives we spoke to did not know that such a tax existed in North America.
Democrats for the most part are biding their time. While some, like Senators Bernie Sanders and Barbara Boxer, are sponsoring a bill similar to our proposal, many advise that a carbon tax could be part of a reformed tax code — something that may appeal to Republicans.
Members of Congress and their aides also had words of encouragement. Keep doing what you’re doing, they said, and grow your numbers. Many politicians in the U.S. and Canada want to take action. All they’re looking for is our permission.
This advice is critical. It’s also easy to dismiss when respect for politicians and the political system is at an all time low. One can almost hear the arguments: Why bother? Politicians are in it for themselves. They listen only to big corporations.
There is no question that corporate interests line the pockets of many politicians, particularly in the U.S. Right-wing think tanks, fuelled by fossil fuel dollars, funnel millions into PR campaigns to confuse the public about the science of climate change. They are after the hearts and minds of voters. After all, it is up to voters to decide who gets elected.
Voters have a lot of power. And many are concerned about climate change — even in the U.S., if recent polls are correct. It’s time that they — you — tell them that you want action on climate change.
Gandhi prevailed by reaching out to the South African government. We will prevail, too, but only by generating the political will that moves our representatives to act on the most pressing issues of our time. That starts with you.
Cheryl McNamara is the Group Leader of the Toronto Chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby.