Citizen Volunteers can Solve the Climate Crisis

On February 20, 2014, Philip Kahn, co-leader of the New York City chapter of the non-partisan, non-profit Citizens Climate Lobby, gave a presentation to Organizing for Action‘s (OFA) New York Chapter on climate science, carbon pricing and a grassroots solution to what may be the most serious and global crisis humankind has faced.

The event was held at the Tyler Rollins Gallery, where the work of world-renowned Indonesian artist Arahmaiani Feisal appeared in the exhibit “Fertility of the Mind”. The evening was organized and hosted by Roshni Karwal, international journalist and Special Assistant to the Westside New York City Chapter Lead for Organizing for Action, as part of a day of action on climate.

Roshni Karwal

Roshni Karwal, Special Assistant to the New York City Westside Chapter Lead for Organizing for Action (OFA)

Ms. Karwal cited US Secretary of State’s John Kerry’s trip to Indonesia highlighting his statement that “climate change is as big a threat to us as weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and global poverty.” 

Karwal highlighted the global impact of climate change in her native Singapore and noted that schools are often closed due to the heavy smog that hits Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, leaving people with low visibility out their windows and difficulty breathing the air on heavy smog days. One of the primary causes of the smog are the fires are caused by illegal slash-and-burn land clearance in Sumatra, Indonesia, to the west of Singapore. People have to wear masks to be able to go out their front doors. She also cited the impact of the Indian Ocean tsunami in Sri Lanka, the land of her birth, and noted the mounting cost of flooding and dislocation of weather patterns.

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Image credit: Climate Reality Project

She also told of her experience during Hurricane Sandy, which had washed away the works of art in galleries near the one where the evening’s event was being held in Chelsea, Manhattan. An “island girl” in her heart and in fact, she traced a chain of climate change challenges facing the three islands she has called home Sri Lanka, Singapore and Manhattan.

The gallery owner, Tyler Rollins, who specializes in South East Asian art, mentioned the tremendous work of the Indonesian artist on display Arahmaiani Feisal. Of the artist, he said “One of her main endeavors in recent years has been an ongoing ecology project in the Tibetan plateau region, working with monks and villagers in remote areas”.

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Philip Kahn’s role was to present the science of climate change, the economics of the energy resources that have generated that worsening pattern of global change, and the non-partisan, grassroots, volunteer-based solution that is Citizens Climate Lobby. Mr. Kahn’s presentation opened with a bit of history, looking back to Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist who in the 19th century explained radiative forcing due to carbon dioxide—meaning that more carbon dioxide brings higher temperatures. Kahn, an expert in atmospheric science, then explained the dynamics of how heat interacts with the Earth’s atmosphere.

While the historic norm for atmospheric CO2 levels, prior to the Industrial Revolution hovered reliably between 200 and 280 parts per million (ppm), Kahn showed the trajectory of atmospheric CO2 levels, leading up to April 2013, when the number for daily average CO2 concentration in Earth’s atmosphere, for the first time in recorded history, hit 400 ppm, at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawai’i, a place as far removed from most of the world’s industrial pollution as anywhere on Earth, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The scientifically-focused and data-driven presentation ran through climate history, showing the escalating rate of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the corresponding climate forcing and rising temperatures.

According to Mr. Kahn, “If we continue on the path we are on, as a planet we will experience increasing occurrence of drought, flooding, extreme temperatures, ocean acidification, and sea level rise. Mankind’s ability to feed itself will be compromised.” He noted the 5th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) laid out a global lifetime carbon budget, the total amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted before climate destabilization passes an irreversible tipping point.

It is here that Citizens Climate Lobby comes in. The co-leader of the New York City chapter of the organization told his audience his group is working to build political will for a flavor of revenue neutral carbon tax known as carbon fee and dividend. The plan would put a steadily rising fee on the introduction of any carbon-emitting fuel into the economy, and return 100% of the revenues directly to households, in the form of monthly rebate checks.

The plan is unique because in addition to being revenue-neutral (it doesn’t give additional taxpayer dollars to government and it doesn’t increase spending), it provides consumers with the leverage to lead as the market’s failure to price fossil energy is corrected. Since consumers have the revenue to cope with “pass-through costs”, investors in fossil fuels will eventually end up having to pay the true cost of doing business.

Investors and businesses can more clearly see the landscape of future costs and opportunities, and so as the profitability of costly fossil fuels declines, investment will move into much more efficient technologies, designed to harvest much more abundant clean energy. The certainty that investors can see with a clear, steadily rising price signal, means everyone can plan more intelligently, and the transition can be made without a decline in investment, jobs, or economic prosperity.

Kahn emphasized that this effort is the work of thousands of citizen volunteers. Citizens Climate Lobby is a fast-growing grassroots organization, comprised almost entirely of volunteers, which has doubled in size every year since it came into existence. At its annual conference in Washington, DC, last year, the organization brought 367 citizens to Capitol Hill to serve as policy advisors.

The crisis facing the world is daunting. The standard economic model we have followed has given great privilege to resources that require all of civilization to finance their operations, and which erode future climate stability. A straightforward policy shift, designed to require that the true costs of carbon-emitting fuels be paid for by investors, not socialized to the wider population, can bring emissions to 90% below 1990 levels by 2050.

It is the voices, the collaboration and the hard work of citizen volunteers, that can make the difference. Democracy—the principled, collaborative civics of engaged, informed citizens—just might be the cure for this most severe and pervasive of global challenges.

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