|CCL members lobbied Washington lawmakers in June for a carbon tax. Northwest Michigan’s delegation (left to right)–Kelly Lively, Mary O’Neil, Annie Lively,Elizabeth Dell, Lisa Del Buono, and Maura Brennan–met with Sen. Debbie Stabenow (center).|
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich.—They’ve lived in the same neighborhood for years, but Maura Brennan and Elizabeth Dell didn’t meet until last February, when they were in Washington, D.C., for the country’s largest-ever rally against global warming.
Today, the two co-lead what they say is the largest Michigan chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby, a national group sharply focused on a very specific goal: Convincing Congress to enact a carbon tax on coal, oil, and natural gas and distribute the money to all American households.
The market-based logic is simple: Raising fossil fuel prices will push the country toward ever-cheaper, renewable, clean power sources such as wind, solar, and energy efficiency, cutting the greenhouse gas emissions warming our planet.
Brennan and Dell have about 100 people signed onto CCL’s Traverse City chapter email list and say they’ve already had some success lobbying Michigan’s congressional delegation. They said a revenue-neutral carbon tax that boosts renewables without growing government is gaining traction in Washington.
But the duo said their work is changing them, too. They’re thinking differently about politics and overcoming the despair they’ve often felt about the deadly serious climate crisis.
Brennan, married with three children, works as a research attorney for the Michigan Court of Appeals and for another project, Sustainable TC. Dell, married with one child, was a multimedia specialist and apparel and sporting goods sales rep before working as a bookkeeper.
The two visited the MLUI office to share their newfound enthusiasm for working on a seemingly overwhelming problem.
Michigan Land Use Institute: How did you end up in Washington at the climate change rally last February?
Maura Brennan: I came up with the idea of sending a bus to the rally after seeing how many people used buses to get to an earlier Keystone pipeline rally. I asked MLUI if they wanted to take over the bus idea. They did, and it filled up.
Elizabeth Dell: I heard about the bus through MLUI; I had not been involved in activism to this extent before, but I had written a paper in college about the greenhouse effect, which blew my mind. I’d been anxious about it ever since, but had never taken a real active role, certainly nothing like this.
MLUI: Maura, you heard NASA scientist Jim Hansen talk about CCL at a previous anti-pipeline rally in D.C.
Brennan: He said that if you really care about climate change, join CCL. So I researched it. Then [in February] we had this busload of people coming back from Washington, and we thought, ‘Let’s try to get a group started.’
CCL needs you to get five people together for a conference call, and they take you through their methodology and introduce you to the organization. The people in Traverse City now involved with it are just so impressed by the national organization.
MLUI: Why is that?
Dell: They are very supportive, very well organized. They have different actions for us to take each month. They describe them in a monthly conference call with 100 chapters. Different speakers talk about different aspects of climate change, the carbon tax, and review how the last month’s actions went. Those might be writing letters to Congress or organizing meetings with local papers’ editorial boards.
They also pass along a lot of research and produce ‘laser talks’—one or two paragraphs about specific issues to help us speak articulately. The people there are really, really positive.
Brennan: Not only positive, but inclusive. It is easy to throw rocks at people who don’t care. But we can’t solve this problem with only one political party. That’s why we most like to talk to people who don’t agree with us, and work on finding common ground.
Maybe they don’t believe in climate change, but they’re worried about Great Lakes water levels or pollution or some local issue. The CCL people teach you how to lobby, how to find common ground with your neighbors.
MLUI: Explain how the carbon tax would work.
Brennan: There wouldn’t be any tax that isn’t ultimately returned to the people. You tax the point of entry for fossil fuels: When you dig it up out of the ground, or when it enters the country. That will push up the cost of energy. But you would return the tax to every American household. Every adult in a household, 18 years or older, would get the same amount. It’s like the oil revenue checks Alaskans get. One estimate is that, the first year, each person would receive $249.
The idea is to incentivize businesses and households to decrease their fossil energy use. Sixty-seven percent of households would be better off [receiving a rebate check larger than the increase in their energy costs]. It starts at $15 per ton of CO2, and it would go up 10 bucks a year until it was at $100. That would put renewables on an equal footing, but add only pennies to a gallon of gas.
MLUI: You went back to Washington on June 23 for a national CCL conference and to lobby. How did it go?
Brennan: The seven of us from Traverse City were really moved by some of the things the speakers said. We were in tears sometimes; it was really something.
Jim Hansen, in a very Bill McKibben kind of way, went through how he got involved in climate change. When he started talking more about it, the establishment really hassled him, made some shocking changes to some of his research papers. You can watch his speech on the CCL Web site.
Most of us met with five to seven members of Congress; altogether, there were more than 425 meetings with lawmakers. No matter who we met with, they said the issue was now very prominent.
MLUI: So, you are learning lobbying and communications, hearing inspiring stories, and realizing you are not alone in your concerns. What else?
Dell: I’m learning about distractionable intelligence—when we don’t know what to do about a problem we can completely shut down. It’s a psychological issue; we’re not made to deal with something like this. It’s so big, it seems like you can’t solve it, you can’t run away.
But action is the antidote to despair. After our meetings with congressional staff, we felt some hope. Some Republicans really are listening. We heard a lot of anecdotal reports from meetings with people who are climate change deniers that they really were taking note of the things being said to them.
They are people, too; they have families; they love the outdoors; they share a lot of values with us. We have to let them know that citizens care and need them to make a change. If they get 20 different letters on a subject, it really gets their attention.
Brennan: The facts are on our side, but you start with what you can agree on, and built trust. Once we have educated them about the facts, and there’s some trust, how can you not do something?
There has been an intentional campaign to misinform them, and we need to counter that.
MLUI: Do you see much movement in Washington?
Dell: It has moved. For example, there was just an op-ed in The New York Times by four former Republican EPA administrators. They want market-based solutions and a carbon tax. That’s CCL’s thing; it appeals more broadly to conservatives. That’s why I support it.
Brennan: It’s not about making government bigger; it’s letting the market take care of it. That does appeal to the people we talk to in certain ways.
Dell: A group organized by former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis [who lost his seat by supporting climate change issues] had an essay contest about it; the second-place winner was a Republican congressional staffer who wrote anonymously that the GOP is getting this wrong and should be stepping up. He said there are a lot of Republicans who want to do something but are worried about getting re-elected.
Brennan: It gets back to money and politics. Look at John McCain. He was a leader on climate change. Then the Koch brothers poured money into making sure Republicans shut up about it. There’s a PBS documentary about that, Climate of Doubt.
MLUI: So, how is Traverse City’s CCL group doing?
Dell: We had a pretty good group for the first meeting in March, which was the first time I went. Showing McKibben’s Do the Math video at the Unitarian Universalist church, that was a pretty full house. We got a lot of names there. Both of us also were involved with TC350’s rally at the Mackinac Bridge; we met a lot of people from across the state.
Brennan: When we started, people just came out of the woodwork. Most had been concerned about climate change for a long time, but felt alone and without a place to put their energy. Since we launched our group, the TC350 group has become rejuvenated, and a few of our members attended the Climate Reality Project training in Chicago a few weeks ago.
While we need all these approaches, CCL is committed to the singular goal of passing federal carbon tax legislation. We feel this is the most immediate way to plug the hole of the carbon flooding our atmosphere. We know that once legislators understand the facts, they will agree, regardless of their party affiliation. So, we focus on creating relationships and finding common ground.
We’ve started a relationship with Congressman Benishek’ staff and are sending emails back and forth. In June in Washington we met with Reps. Huizenga, Camp, and Dingell, and Senators Stabenow and Levin. We’ve had four op-eds in the Traverse City Record-Eagle.
‘Climate change’ used to seem like a dirty word; you could feel like a whacko talking about it. But I don’t feel like that now. It’s like, all of a sudden, everyone is waking up, just in the last six months.
Dell: I think it is now discussed in the media as a given, not as a controversy. Just a year ago it was always ‘Scientists think…’ Now I’m hearing ‘This is happening because of climate change.’
MLUI: What does it feel like to be getting involved like this?
Brennan: The empowerment that this brings! So many people feel so helpless. But once you get a little taste of acting to make a difference, that in and of itself makes you feel better.
Dell: It can be exhilarating. For people who’ve never had a letter published in the paper, when you finally see your name, it can be a little scary, but it is also…wow!
Brennan: After working with CCL, I now know that when several people write letters to the editor or to members of Congress, it really gets their attention.
Dell: The friendship, the sense of community is tremendous. But if you don’t have the time to join us, you could take a minute to think of people you know who do have the time and might be interested. We need more people…not just here but in all parts of the state.
A lot of people don’t want to come to a monthly meeting. Those who show up do turn out to be more active, but everybody who gets our newsletter, with minutes and national updates, can be involved just by reading, writing a letter, and letting us know you did that. Even if you can’t come to the meeting, you can stay on our list and we will keep you up to date.
The next meeting of the Traverse City chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby is on the first Saturday of September, at 12:30 p.m., at the Michigan Land Use Institute office in downtown Traverse City. Contact [email protected] for more information.
Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy specialist. Reach him at [email protected].