It can be tempting to just give up on Louisiana. We’re more vulnerable to rising seas and other symptoms of climate disruption than many places on earth, and yet we have a state legislature in thrall to the oil industry, and we voted overwhelmingly for a president who has dismissed climate concerns as a “hoax” invented by the Chinese.
To me, that makes it only more inspiring to see leaders with the courage to push back.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, a Democrat, was one of many mayors across the country to support a resolution to remain in the Paris Climate Accord after the Trump administration backed out. In addition, Landrieu signed an ambitious executive order to reduce emissions 50 percent by the year 2030.
I’m also thinking of Abita Springs Mayor Greg Lemons, a Republican. In January Lemons signed a proclamation, the first of its kind in Louisiana, setting as a goal for 2030 that Abita Springs become 100 percent powered by renewable energy.
U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge also seems to know the score. He ran the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority under Gov. Bobby Jindal and has no illusions about either the threat posed by climate change — or the role of partisanship in undermining an intelligent response to it.
“Most Republicans, in fact virtually all of them, have refused to acknowledge that climate disruption is happening,” Graves said in a 2015 interview published by Odyssey, an online platform. Harking back to his days running the coastal authority, Graves noted that sea-level rise is not hypothetical. “We have actually measured the sea rise in South Louisiana,” Graves said. “So, to put your head in the sand and ignore that this is happening, I think is a real mistake for any party.”
Have no illusions: These are voices crying in a political wilderness. To most Republicans on Capitol Hill — by recent count around 37 senators and 180 representatives — climate disruption, as I prefer to call it, is merely an idea that is up for debate, “to be addressed in a blue-team, red-team review,” according to Trump’s Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas.
The problem, though, is that waters in the Gulf of Mexico are not registered with the Democratic or Republican party and will not be governed solely by the party in power. This truth is the spirit behind Citizen’s Climate Lobby, a group with whom I work to strengthen political will and sustain a livable planet. The Citizen’s Climate Lobby is non-partisan; we work with anyone concerned about climate disruption and its effect on our economic, social and environmental future. With a threat this big, we need to find ways to work together. If you are concerned with preserving a better future for our region, you too might consider joining with us.
One of our strategies involves supporting a “carbon fee and dividend” (CFD) mechanism, a holistic, market-based approach to mitigating emissions of carbon dioxide, a key disruptor. The idea is to price carbon at its point of extraction and to compensate consumers for the associated cost increases over time.
The Alaska Permanent Fund embodies a similar fiscal philosophy of compensating citizens for the cost of doing business in the 49th state. Taking a similar idea to national scale, the Citizen’s Climate Lobby proposes imposing an initial fee of $15 per ton on carbon-dioxide output at the wellhead. That would increase the cost of a gallon of gas by about 15 cents in the first year. In subsequent years, the fee would rise by $10 per ton of carbon dioxide, or another 10 cents per gallon at the pump — but the fee applies to all fossil fuels, however they are burned.
The whole idea, of course, is to encourage a shift to cleaner, more efficient technologies. Current projections through 2035 suggest that this approach would sharply reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, making it possible to cap carbon pollution at 350 parts per million, a level that climate scientists consider sustainable.
CFD policies are attracting support across the political spectrum, including among conservatives such as James Baker and George Shultz, both of whom served as secretaries of State and the Treasury in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Their ally, Libertarian policy expert Ted Halstead, contends that the CFD approach they back would have twice the impact of the Obama era regulations and would be three times more effective than what can be expected as Trump continues shredding those regulations.
Halstead, Baker and Shultz have formed the Climate Leadership Council, a group of business leaders and scientists that includes Walmart heir Rob Walton, British scientist Stephen Hawking and Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City. This kind of support is important in raising the profile of a CFD approach, but at the Citizen’s Climate Lobby we believe action ultimately must come from Capitol Hill.
Jay Butera, a former businessman-turned-climate activist volunteers as our group’s senior congressional liaison and is credited with lobbying to create the Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus in the House of Representatives, the first bipartisan caucus of its kind to address climate disruption policy.
Led by Florida Congressmen Carlos Curbelo, a Republican, and Ted Deutch, a Democrat, the caucus has grown to 56 members, half of them Democrats, half of them Republicans. It seeks to craft policy and forge a bipartisan consensus on bills under consideration. In the language of a resolution sponsored by Curbelo and others, the goal is to use “our tradition of American ingenuity, innovation, and exceptionalism, to create and support economically viable and broadly supported private and public solutions to study and address the causes and effects of measured changes to our global and regional climates.”
In addition to this resolution, the Climate Solutions Caucus already seems to have encouraged a shift in Congress towards support for climate legislation. Caucus members Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-NY, both spoke against an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act proposed by Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa. The amendment would have stripped the Defense bill of funding to study the impacts of climate change on national security. In a July 14 vote, Perry’s amendment was defeated 234-185, with 22 of the 24 Republican members of the Climate Solutions Caucus voting to strike it down. That’s encouraging. It shows that even in a sharply divided political landscape national security remains a bipartisan concern.
At the Citizen’s Climate Lobby, we support those values. In June, 1,000 volunteer lobbyists from CCL chapters nationwide descended on Congress to speak with representatives of both parties about the need for climate action. As part of that small army, I joined in meetings with staffers and lawmakers for conversations on climate policy that were both enlightening and encouraging.
Louisiana’s stake in all this is obvious, so should be the nation’s. The potential devastation of our fisheries and energy infrastructure could jeopardize global food supplies and impact America’s energy independence.
Most immediately, of course, climate disruption leaves us more vulnerable than ever to floods and hurricanes. By most accounts, storm surge will double as sea levels rise and kill the wetlands that have served to buffer communities, not just on the coast but well inland, New Orleans among them. As many as 500,000 residents of the Greater New Orleans area may be forced to relocate by 2100, according to a recent study from the University of Georgia. A hotter Gulf could ravage Louisiana’s $2 billion fishing industry, the source of 23,000 jobs.
A turn of a very few degrees in the paths of Hurricanes Harvey or Irma could have thrown New Orleans all the way back to where we were after Katrina: a city in disarray, with years of rebuilding ahead just to remain functional. Quite aside from the staggering financial costs, as a region we can not afford the repeated impact on our physical and psychological health or that of the communities we share.
The Citizen’s Climate Lobby New Orleans is striving to awaken Louisiana to the hazards we face and to make mitigating climate disruption a policy priority for the state and the region.
This will not be achieved through taunts on social media or divisive arguments on the campaign trail, in city and parish councils or in the state legislature. What’s needed are respectful conversations with decision makers and among our fellow citizens. We have much to gain by uniting — and everything to lose, should we fail to do so.
Rescuing the planet from climate disruption can seem like a mission impossible, but we have no choice. I draw inspiration from the words of Will Koren, the leader of the New Orleans chapter of the Citizen’s Climate Lobby: “We’ve changed the climate once, and we can change it again!”
Andy Kowalczyk is co-Leader of Citizen’s Climate Lobby New Orleans. Prior residence in Michigan, California, Texas and Florida has exposed him to the effects of climate disruption through wildfires, droughts and so-called “sunny day floods.” He is an advocate for climate legislation and believes that some day soon we will prevail over anthropogenic climate change as a political issue and realize that it is a human issue.
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