Call for Oregon Climate Leadership: A Price on Pollution

SPEECH: Oregon Climate Action Day, May 22 2013

I wrote this in collaboration with Hannah Sohl and Dan Golden. KC Golden offered key edits.

Credit: WestTurn Picture Co.

Welcome to the first Oregon Climate Action Day! Thank you for being here and to the amazing all-volunteer team that made it possible.

My name is Camila Thorndike and I am a third-generation southern Oregonian. I am here today because I am worried about climate change, and I am asking our leaders to deal with it.

I want to have kids here one day and be able to show them what I love about Oregon – the evergreen forests, lakes that haven’t dried up, I want them to pick flowers at my mom’s farm and not wake up afraid of the weather every day.

Many of the folks who helped organize this day are in their early twenties.  In many ways our generation is the ‘climate change’ generation.  We were just learning to walk when NASA first testified to Congress that climate pollution dangerously heats the earth.

A few years later as our climate generation was going on our first awkward dates, another important thing happened. The Titanic came out. If we learned nothing else from that timely documentary featuring Leonardo DiCaprio—it is that class, diversity, and age don’t matter when you’re going down. It takes a sinking ship to bring unlikely allies together.

The climate movement is just synonymous with survival. Science tells us increasing the global average temperature by more than 2 degrees Celsius would trigger catastrophic climate disruption. On our current path, we’ll be locked into that dismal future within five years, right about the time I’d be thinking about having my own kids.  But contemplating that future makes me pause when I think of having those kids at all.

So far, we have already raised the average temperature by .8 degrees Celcius. And look at the past year—Sandy, severe drought in over half US counties, historic Oregon wildfires, the shellfish collapse on our coast due ocean acidification. This is happening.  It’s not a science experiment in a lab; it’s not an academic model – it’s our home, our only Oregon.

Climate change is a real problem that deserves a real solution. Political games won’t fix it. We need to get practical and get serious, and that means addressing the source of the crisis and attacking it at the roots. Otherwise we can’t expect to win—because we are working in a very tight frame of time to turn this ship around.

Individual action alone won’t cut it. What we need now is political action. We need responsible governance.

The fish you see over there (finding its way to the river with the rain) is a great example of how communities of people who don’t necessarily agree on a lot of things can come together to protect what we love.
People were asked to decorate cardboard houses showing what they love about life in the Rogue Valley? and What worries them about climate change? Over 1,300 people put stories, worries, and passion into that Salmon. From all over the valley.  From all political and economic backgrounds. Of all ages.

We learned a few things along the way:

The first is that people really do care.  They want to leave a beautiful, stable world for their kids and grandkids. It doesn’t matter if they are a democrat, or a republican. Our imperiled generation doesn’t have party loyalty–whoever has the best plan and gets it done wins our vote. It doesn’t matter if people are a doctor or a farmer. We are worried about how our climate is changing.  And we want real solutions.

The second is if we are focused on a goal, together, we can win.

So today we are asking our leaders to move forward with a real solution to control carbon emissions and get a hold on climate change: A carbon tax.

Why? The most effective way we can decrease the amount of carbon we are pulling out of the ground is to make the price of fossil fuels reflect their true cost to society.

Fossil fuel companies are making record profit– the most any industry on earth, ever. But we’re all footing the bill for their pollution.  For example, last year the federal government spent $136 billion taxpayer dollars on climate-caused disaster relief. And it seems like there is another disaster every day. We are paying the operating costs of fossil fuel business with these bills, in public health problems, in increased water scarcity, in burning forests, in decreased agricultural productivity. They are using our public atmosphere as an open sewer. That’s not how the market’s supposed to work. It’s broken.

Fossil fuel interests can afford a fee that will fix our market. What we can’t afford is to keep using their product.

A tax on carbon has two main benefits:

First, it makes it so oil, gas, and coal companies pay their fair share.  You pay for your garbage service, so should the big fossil fuel companies.  No more free carbon dumping.

Second, if prices tell the truth about the real cost of fossil fuels, we’ll find better ways to meet our energy needs.  We’ll waste less, and use cleaner energy sources. That means there won’t be a market for coal trains, for gas pipelines, for oil rigs. The playing field will level out for renewable energy and conservation. Cleaner, more affordable energy sources will be able to compete and win, without having to swim against the tide of unfair subsidies for fossil fuels

A fee on pollution is a win-win. It’s been proven that we can lower emissions in a way that doesn’t hurt people’s pocketbooks or the economy.

We can do it if the tax is revenue-neutral.

What that means is that the revenue from the tax will come right back to citizens. That way, we can offset increasing prices at the pump and invest in renewable technologies.

A revenue-neutral tax has options for us. This policy could be a “fee and dividend”, with rebates arriving as checks in the mail every year.  Or we could enact a “tax and shift” that would take advantage of a simple principle:  When you tax something, you get less of it.  So why not tax what we want less of – climate pollution – and use the revenue to LOWER taxes on what we want MORE of, like income!

British Columbia is a great model for Oregon.

Four years ago, they instituted a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Since then, their use of petroleum has decreased at least 15% while rest of the country is using more.

Meanwhile, even through the recession, their economy grew and added jobs.

Why not take this opportunity in Oregon? States are the laboratory for democracy. We could lead the U.S.

There are lots of ways to frame this policy.  I encourage you to see Paula Sohl’s new book on the table called “Greening Power.”

But figuring out the policy details is not our most important job.  That’s what we elect our state representatives to do.

Our job is to show leaders that we demand they act. Oregon can lead the country with this comprehensive but simple climate solution. We are proud to be Oregonians. We expect great things of our leaders.  And we face an urgent threat to our future, we expect them to rise to the challenge, not play political games.

Let’s address the root of climate change with the most effective solution out there. Let’s stimulate our economy and add good green jobs that protect our families. Let’s take action now for a stable future, because there’s no time to waste.

We know what to do.

This isn’t a technology problem; we know how to produce clean energy and use it efficiently.  This isn’t a policy problem; we know that a carbon tax will work.  This is at bottom a POLITICAL problem.  It’s a question of whether our elected leaders have the courage and the will to do what’s right and necessary.

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