It’s not every day that a normal citizen gets to frequent the corridors of power on Capitol Hill, so when the opportunity arose to do so for a cause I’m passionate about, I leapt at it.
Climate change has been the focus of my political energy ever since I started researching it in depth for a science fiction novel I’m writing. The trouble was, everything I tried to put in this supposedly futuristic book — mass migration, regional conflict, food shortages, unbearable heat — was happening already and much faster than even the climate scientists had predicted. It became clear that I’d need to take my climate concern out of the realm of fiction and deal with it in reality, as soon as possible.
I looked for ways to become active and did my fair share of marching against coal refineries and tar sands. These efforts are essential for sparking grassroots efforts for change. I wanted to make a bigger dent in the issue, however, time is clearly running out. So when I heard about Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) through my connections on Twitter, I signed right up.
CCL takes the issue right to the principal decision makers — the United States Congress. At a conference in July, 174 CCL members from 60 chapters around the U.S. and Canada converged on Washington to make the case for fee-and-dividend legislation that would price carbon according to the damage it’s doing to our environment, our health and our climate. The fee would be attached to carbon at its source, be it coal, oil, gas — all fossil fuels — which would reflect the external costs these commodities have on the larger society. The funds collected would be returned to the American people in the form of a rebate or “dividend” check each year.
This program has the approval of top economists, both Republican and Democrat, as a way to let the marketplace decide which kind of energy is the most cost-effective. If carbon producers have to bear the costs of the damage that carbon does, renewables such as solar and wind would become increasingly attractive and investment money would flow in that direction.
My meetings on the Hill taught me a great deal. Fellow CCL volunteers and I had over 300 meetings in all, and we left information about our legislation with every senator and representative in Congress. Both the Republicans and Democrats I met with showed deep concern for doing the right thing. True, there were widely different perspectives on what the right thing is, but we found that if we listened and addressed the stated concerns without finger pointing, we could have a thoughtful conversation and, at times, a surprising meeting of minds. (Voters need to be sure, though, to keep strong proponents of climate responsibility in office, such as Congressman Henry Waxman, a long-time champion on this issue.)
I talked with one representative’s aide from Illinois, my home state, whose district holds both coal mines and corn farmers. The coal mines represent long-standing jobs and a vital (to their area) industry, while the corn is at issue due to this summer’s devastating drought — caused in part by climate change, which is accelerated by burning the coal. This conversation opened my eyes to the complexities inherent in any change we might recommend. As we embrace renewables, we have to be certain we don’t leave behind those whose livelihoods have depended on fossil fuels. Encouraging new green jobs to focus on these areas is one solution that must be pursued.
Health issues are another concern renewables can mitigate. The recent Chevron refinery fire up north in Richmond, Calif. (across the bay from San Francisco) sent thousands of people to the hospital with respiratory complaints. Direct health problems from mining and refineries are only a fraction of further effects due to environmental degradation, increased heat, and tainted food or water supplies. None of these problems are associated with solar or wind renewable energy.
A third compelling rationale for developing renewable energy technology is that other countries are doing it aggressively. One spring day this May, solar power generated 40 percent of the electricity needs of, not Tahiti or Bali, but Germany. China, which most of us think of as a coal-refinery culprit, is developing its renewables just as fast, if not faster. The cheapest solar cells at the moment are coming out of China. If the United States continues to stall on this issue, we’re not just missing an opportunity for our own advancement, but are also allowing international competitors to draw ahead of us.
But to me, the most compelling reason to make the shift to renewables is the promise of unlimited, abundant energy literally pouring out of the sky. If you’re like me, you grew up having to turn off lights whenever you left a room. But what if energy were cheap and abundant? What if you never had to worry about wasting energy since it came straight from a panel on your roof basking in the sun? Think of the innovation and wealth we could create if energy costs were no longer a concern. Think of how far we could travel, how swiftly we could communicate, how much we could learn. Paul Gilding writes in his seminal book, “The Great Disruption,” “We think we live in scarcity and as a result often act from a place of fear. The truth is very different. We live on an abundant planet and our future progress is now only constrained by our thinking.”
True, there is the need to ramp up. We have to commit, as a society, to this new vision, and make it happen with strength of will and determination. There will be costs associated with the new technology, and indeed, we’ll have to keep burning fossil fuels to make enough solar panels and windmills to replace the coal and oil. But the sooner we do it the better.
That’s the vision that got me to Washington. Not thinking we need to make do with less, but the real possibility of having much, much more. At the end of the day, climate change may turn out to be the invitation we’ve needed to reframe our society as one of abundance rather than scarcity. And who doesn’t want that?