Citizens showing leadership in climate change issues

By Dale White,

Published Jan 19, 2018

With President Donald Trump withdrawing the United States from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, Congress still pondering legislation but not acting and Florida Gov. Rick Scott banning state environmental regulators from even using terms such as “global warming,” concerned citizens say they cannot wait for leadership on the climate change issue to come from the top.In their recent book “Climate of Hope,” former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope, former national executive director of the Sierra Club, say that leadership has to rise from the grassroots.

“The good news is that’s already starting to happen, as voters all over the country see storms growing stronger and more frequent, as they see floods where they never had them before, and as they suffer through droughts that are worse than they’ve ever experienced,” Bloomberg writes. “Americans are a lot smarter than the elected officials they send to Washington. Our country’s citizens want to avoid these disasters — and they know they can do something about it.”

Southwest Florida is a prime example of a community in which citizens are not only expressing concerns about climate change and its possible impacts, such as sea level rise, they are uniting and acting on those concerns.

Organizations such as the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations and Unitarian Universalist Church of Sarasota have conducted public forums to educate themselves about the issue.

Tim Rumage, professor of environmental studies at Ringling College of Art and Design, tells the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations about greenhouse gases and sea level rise. “Climate is an angry beast and, basically, we’re poking it with sticks,” Rumage says. (Herald-Tribune staff photo / Dale White)

Last year, more than a dozen local groups representing students, veterans, environmentalists, churchgoers and others united as the highly vocal Sarasota Climate Justice Coalition. They capitalized on what they discovered to be “an explosion in interest in climate as a topic,” coalition organizer Sean Sellers said.

Their first initiative was to join in the national Sierra Club’s “Ready for 100” campaign.

Soon, they had about 2,000 signatures on a petition to get the city of Sarasota to pledge to have half of its operations and vehicles using clean energy by 2024 and 100 percent by 2030.

By June, the Sarasota City Commission had not only made those pledges in a resolution but vowed to try to get the entire municipality, including the private sector, on 100 percent renewable energy by 2045 — making Sarasota the 29th city and the third in Florida to join the “Ready for 100” effort.

Some observers may consider the campaign’s goals for Sarasota as too ambitious, Sellers acknowledged. “But if you don’t set a target, you don’t start moving. The first step (in addressing climate change) is energy conservation. There’s deep work that needs to be done on energy efficiency.”

Coalition members believe climate scientists’ concerns that the burning of fossil fuels causes lingering atmospheric pollution that traps heat, warms oceans and causes Arctic and Antarctic ice to melt.

Not satisfied with just getting the city of Sarasota to take the pledge, the coalition intends to extend its campaign to other municipalities and “then up to the county level as well,” Sellers said.

Carbon fee and dividend

John and Susan Darovec lead the Sarasota-Manatee chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a national effort to get Congress to assess a fee on carbon fuels.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan (Herald-Tribune photo / Rod Millington)

Each chapter covers a congressional district, with the Darovecs in frequent touch with U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key.

Although they are pleased that Buchanan spoke out against Trump’s withdrawal of the nation from the Paris agreement, they have not convinced him to join the 66 House members in a bipartisan caucus that is looking at the Citizens Climate Lobby proposal and possibly other ideas for addressing climate change on the federal level. (For every Republican who joins the group, a Democrat must as well.)

Yet the Darovecs say Buchanan is receptive.

“He listens,” Susan Darovec said. “He thanks us for coming in with a solution and not just a complaint.”

Susan Darovec of the Citizens' Climate Lobby speaks during a January 2018 meeting in Sarasota of local activists and others with a delegation from the Union of Concerned Scientists about climate change issues. (Courtesy photo /Melissa Baldwin)

After reading about the climate change issue several years ago, “I got scared and interested,” her husband said. Later, at a New College of Florida forum, he heard about the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Frustrated by Congress continuing to give billions in subsidies to oil and coal companies, California shopping center developer Marshall Saunders launched the organization that now includes chapters in most congressional districts.

The chapter in Buchanan’s 16th Congressional District has 217 registered members, with another 331 having provided contact information and expressed interest in formally joining, the Darovecs said.

The premise is that Congress should enact an initial $15 per ton fee on fossil fuels based on the amount of carbon dioxide that fuel produces. The fee would be charged at the point of entry, such as a seaport, mine or oil well.

The revenue would be returned to American households as a monthly dividend or rebate. A household would get one share for each adult and a half-share for each child.

According to the lobby, for a consumer, each $1 per ton in the carbon fee would be the equivalent of an extra $0.009 charge for a gallon of gas. If the fee is initially set at $15 per ton, the consumer would pay an additional 13.5 cents on each gallon of gas — or an additional $1.62 to fill a 12-gallon tank.

The fee would increase $10 per ton each year, theoretically compelling the public to curb their fossil fuel use and consider investing in cleaner energy.

“We like that it starts low,” Susan Darovec said. Although some advocates would prefer to start with a higher per-ton charge, perhaps $40, she believes that would be “a slam to the economy.”

The gradually rising fee would give American families time to make plans, she said — such as when they should replace their fuel-burning car with an electric vehicle — as well as give them money back each month to prepare for such investments.

“It’s a stimulus because it goes back into the economy,” John Darovec said. “It is called a ‘fee’ (rather than ‘tax’) because it doesn’t go to the government.”

The monthly dividend payment method, rather than a tax deduction, would benefit even low-income households that pay little or no income tax, the organization says.

According to its website: “About two-thirds of households will break even or receive more than they would pay in higher prices. This feature will inject billions into the economy, protect family budgets, free households to make independent choices about their energy usage, spur innovation and build aggregate demand for low-carbon products at the consumer level.”

The lobby believes the carbon fee-and-dividend idea could eventually reduce the nation’s CO2 emissions 52 percent below 1990 levels and add 2.8 million jobs to the economy.

The notion of a carbon tax earned the endorsement of George Schultz and James Baker, two former secretaries of state, and a firm thumbs down from limited-government advocates such as the Center for Freedom and Prosperity and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

‘Network of practitioners’

Last spring, the nonprofit Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida — a diverse group that includes representatives from Mote Marine, Sarasota and Manatee counties, the Audubon Society, Save Our Seabirds, the city of Sarasota, the South Florida Museum, the Charlotte Harbor and Sarasota Bay Estuary Programs and others — coordinated a meeting at New College of Florida.

At that session, 39 representatives from 22 organizations decided to form the fledgling Climate Council of Sarasota-Manatee with its sole mission of addressing regional climate change issues.

Environmental consultants David and Jennifer Shafer of Sarasota are coordinating the effort.

They do not regard the council as an activist or advocacy group but as “a facilitated network of practitioners” who will bring their different areas of expertise together, Jennifer Shafer said.

Environmental consultants Jennifer and David Shafer helped organize the Climate Council of Sarasota-Manatee. With representatives from the public and private sectors, the council will promote education about climate change and sea level rise and collaboratively work on projects to address upcoming challenges caused by those changing conditions. (Herald-Tribune staff photo / Dale White)

It is intended to unite “groups that are not necessarily talking to each other right now,” David Shafer said. “We can all move faster together than all working in our own silos.”

The premise is that, while its members may have their own and varying policy positions, the nonprofit council will agree on basic facts it quotes and speak in unity. Its mission statement calls for it to “work collaboratively to advance regional understandings of climate change through science and education and to help translate those understandings into planning and projects.”

It divided its membership into working groups: outreach and education; intergovernmental, social and economic vulnerabilities; science; and funding and strategic planning.

Within a year or so, Jennifer Shafer said, she hopes to see each working group having “framed, funded and carried out” a priority project.

The Shafers want to see the council expand to include broad community participation from fields such as banking, real estate, historic preservation, agriculture, faith-based organizations, health and wellness firms, art and cultural entities and community foundations.

Stressing that sea level rise is expected to be gradual, “we have time to plan,” David Shafer said. “It’s not a crisis. But it will turn into a crisis if we don’t plan.”

Sellers, an organizer of the Climate Justice Coalition, agrees that if a community takes steps now it can at least reduce negative impacts in the future.

“You have to act,” Sellers said. “Paralysis has a guaranteed outcome.”

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