Toward the end of Steffi Rausch’s time in Montana, her home state was mired in a deep drought. But while her firsthand look at the potential impacts of climate change spurred her to action, Rausch, who moved to Asheville in 2007, soon became discouraged by the approach she saw many activists taking.
“Every environmental group I’ve been a part of has been very abrasive and negative,” she says. “And I see now how wrong that is. If anything, it’s worsening the situation.”
These days, Rausch heads the Asheville chapter of a national environmental group that’s pushing a plan it believes can win bipartisan support for combating climate change. She and her colleagues at the Citizens’ Climate Lobby are convinced that their approach can make environmental action a big-tent issue. And while group members concede that it won’t be easy in the current political climate, they say they’re laying the groundwork locally for getting North Carolina on board at the national level.
Meanwhile, in Washington, the Climate Solutions Caucus might be the most unlikely news in American politics today. Comprising 36 Democrats and 36 Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, the caucus works to promote economically viable solutions for battling the risks of climate change. But while those 72 lawmakers collectively account for one-sixth of all House members, not one is from North Carolina.
The Citizens’ Climate Lobby of Asheville aims to change that. Its California-based parent organization, which has chapters in dozens of countries, conceived both the plan and the idea of the Climate Solutions Caucus as a way to advance it. The Asheville group has met twice with Rep. Patrick McHenry of the state’s 10th Congressional District (which includes a large part of Asheville) and four times with Rep. Mark Meadows of the 11th (which covers much of the rest of Western North Carolina) to try to enlist these lawmakers’ support for the plan.
And while Rausch understands that neither man seems particularly close to endorsing climate action — each currently has a 2 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters for his record on environmental issues — she believes she has a secret weapon.
For starters, Rausch maintains, a softer approach may yield greater dividends. But more importantly, the plan itself is calculated to appeal to those on both sides of the aisle. Its carbon fee-and-dividend approach, she says, is “not a silver bullet but a silver buckshot.” The fee part — a carbon tax levied on producers of carbon-based energy — would increase over time. By gradually raising the cost of coal, oil and gas, this would nudge consumers toward renewable energy sources, proponents say.
In the meantime, however, the dividend — a set amount distributed to all Americans each month, modeled on the disbursements to Alaskans from the state’s oil income — would offset those increased costs for consumers.
Because the additional revenue would go straight into the hands of citizens rather than being used to fund new government programs, proponents argue, it should be palatable to the small-government conservatives currently calling the shots at the federal level. And since it would apply to all Americans equally, it would be a de facto progressive redistribution, impacting poorer Americans more than richer ones.
Critics on all sides
Like any good compromise, says Rausch, the plan leaves both sides unhappy. “We get skepticism from the left and the right,” she reports, adding, “Maybe we’re getting something right.”
Rausch presented the plan to the local Sierra Club chapter in early March. Her talk, titled “How to Talk Climate Change With Those Who Don’t Believe,” stressed the importance of listening and offering solutions couched in conservative language. “The market,” she said by way of illustration, “is not accurately reflecting the true cost of carbon. Fossil fuels are subsidized heavily compared to renewables. We need to price carbon for what it is doing to our society. It’s what economists call a negative externality or a market failure.”
Fee-and-dividend, she maintained, is the perfect solution, citing projections that it would boost the economy and endorsements ranging from Exxon Mobil to environmental activist Bill McKibben.
Her audience seemed interested but harbored some doubts. How solid, they asked, is the data showing that this plan would invigorate the economy? How do you sell it to those folks who, due to their consumption levels and the increased cost of carbon fuels, might end up paying more despite the dividend? Others were put off by the mere fact that the plan had drawn endorsements from a slew of major oil and gas companies.
“A lot of people on the left are criticizing [conservative legislators] for joining,” notes Dan Glidden, who’s in charge of endorsement outreach for the Asheville chapter. “They think they’re just using it as green washing to help them get re-elected. But they have to come out and make a statement that climate change is real, human-caused and needs to be addressed. It means they have to start coming to the meetings of the caucus and talking about solutions. So even if they’re skeptics or not fully committed … at least they’re in the discussion, which we think is positive.”
For his part, Glidden takes a pragmatic approach. “The reality of our political lives is that it’s not going to get passed without a significant amount of conservative support,” he says. “That’s just a fact. We can all wish it wasn’t that way, but we’d be wishing until we had beachfront property in Asheville.”
Rausch, meanwhile, doubts that either Meadows or McHenry will be joining the Climate Solutions Caucus anytime soon. Both are influential Republicans, she points out — McHenry is fourth in command in the House, and Meadows leads the powerful Freedom Caucus — and they’re “not gonna stick their necks out until there’s more Republican support.”
Asheville chapter member Jim Tolbert, who serves as the director of conservative outreach for the national organization, is charged with drumming up that support. A geologist by training, he’s as comfortable discussing the hydrology of flood events as he is touting free market values.
“The neat thing about a centrist position,” notes Tolbert, is that it’s designed to reflect both sets of values. “So I can say, ‘A dividend actually lets you and me decide how we’re going to respond to climate change.’ It’s freedom, from a conservative perspective.”
Casting a wider net
For now, local chapter members are focusing on Asheville, urging City Council to approve a resolution supporting their plan. It could happen soon: The Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment has recommended a version of the resolution to the full Council for consideration, probably sometime in April. The chapter is also working to secure the support of local businesses and nonprofits. Having gotten endorsements from a number of breweries and other small businesses, Glidden says he’s now turning his attention to Mission Hospital, one of the area’s largest employers.
But the group is already looking farther afield to what Hendersonville resident Lucy Butler calls “our first red community out here.” A few days after the Sierra Club presentation, the chapter held its first meeting in Henderson County, with Tolbert, Glidden, Rausch and Butler all on hand. Establishing a presence in places such as Hendersonville, Marshall and Burnsville, the group hopes, will put additional pressure on Meadows and McHenry to get on board.
“When our representatives hear ‘I’m from Asheville,’ they’re like, ‘Oh, they didn’t vote for me.’ When they hear ‘I’m from Henderson County,’ they listen up,” says Don Kraus, the local chapter’s field development coordinator. An Asheville resident, he also serves as Tennessee’s state coordinator.
Both state Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican, and state Senate candidate Norm Bossert, a Democrat, stopped by the Hendersonville meeting; so did Pat Sheley, a Democrat who’s seeking a seat on the Henderson County Board of Commissioners. The roughly two dozen people in attendance learned how to write effective letters to the editor in support of the plan as well as how to lobby politicians face to face.
With enough of that kind of citizen action, the group believes it can achieve its ambitious aims. “This is going to be hard,” Kraus told the Hendersonville crowd. “But we’re going to pass carbon fee-and-dividend. And when we do, we’ll have addressed the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced — And we’ll have done it through the democratic process that our Founding Fathers envisioned.”