Marshall Saunders


The world’s next chance at a glob­al agree­ment on cli­mate change comes in Paris, in talks held Novem­ber 30 to Decem­ber 11, 2015. 

Unlike pre­vi­ous nego­ti­a­tions, most nations will have made com­mit­ments pri­or to meet­ing, stat­ed as Intend­ed Nation­al­ly Deter­mined Con­tri­bu­tions (INDC’s). The­se rep­re­sent the rate of decar­boniza­tion, and poli­cies to sup­port that rate, that a nation will com­mit to. The com­mit­ments so far remain above the 2°C tar­get; they would result in a world that would warm at least 3°C or more over the next cen­tu­ry, risk­ing sea lev­el rise that would ren­der coastal cities, includ­ing New York, unin­hab­it­able.

The Paris talks may not achieve the 2°C tar­get, but can be the begin­ning of a process where glob­al, nation­al, and region­al soci­eties, and indi­vid­u­als, final­ly come to terms with the neces­si­ty of rapid decar­boniza­tion. Steep­er poli­cies may thus fol­low, and cen­tral among them is some method of pric­ing car­bon.

A price on car­bon sends a sig­nal through the econ­o­my that auto­mat­i­cal­ly moves us all off fos­sil fuels, at every lev­el; indus­tri­al, indi­vid­u­al and insti­tu­tion­al. As a grad­u­al­ly esca­lat­ing car­bon price takes effect, the mar­ket responds by pro­duc­ing low car­bon or zero car­bon options to replace fos­sil fuels; elec­tric cars instead of gaso­line, and addi­tion­al options like mass tran­sit or bike lanes.

Mar­shall Saun­ders, born in Tex­as and now resid­ing in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, is the founder of Citizen’s Cli­mate Lob­by (CCL), which aims to price car­bon and to do it in a way that cross­es Amer­i­can polit­i­cal bar­ri­ers, which is essen­tial to get­ting a car­bon price enact­ed. The Citizen’s Cli­mate Lob­by advo­cates for a car­bon pol­i­cy called “fee and div­i­dend,” under which fos­sil fuels would have a charge added at the source, and rev­enues col­lect­ed would be refund­ed to every cit­i­zen equal­ly.

Unlike a tax, which goes to the gov­ern­ment, a div­i­dend is direct­ly returned to house­holds. Unlike “cap and trade” (the mech­a­nism pro­posed for CO2 in 2010 Con­gres­sion­al leg­is­la­tion), fee and div­i­dend is struc­tural­ly sim­ple.

Saun­ders’ ini­tia­tive has both a grow­ing base of vol­un­teers and high lev­el sup­port, includ­ing George Shultz (Sec­re­tary of State in the Rea­gan Admin­is­tra­tion), Bob Inglis (for­mer Repub­li­can rep­re­sen­ta­tive from South Car­oli­na), and for­mer head of NASA cli­mate sci­ence James Hansen. This sum­mer, CCL sent 800 vol­un­teers to Wash­ing­ton, DC, to speak to law­mak­ers of both par­ties. Mark Reynolds, exec­u­tive direc­tor of CCL, described an increased open­ness to cli­mate pol­i­cy in the Repub­li­can side of Con­gress when vol­un­teers from across the US approached them – and despite the impres­sion given by main­stream media. 

A 2013 episode of This Amer­i­can Life fea­tur­ing Bob Inglis includ­ed this descrip­tion from a Repub­li­can con­gres­sion­al staffer: “If Repub­li­cans could vote their con­science on cli­mate change, not have to wor­ry about pol­i­tics, you could pass cli­mate change leg­is­la­tion today.”

Francesca Luber­ti spoke to Mar­shall Saun­ders short­ly after the lob­by­ing event at the nation’s capi­tol.

Do you think that car­bon fee and div­i­dend would be enough to solve the cli­mate change cri­sis, or do you think that even­tu­al­ly the gov­ern­ment will need to pass oth­er poli­cies that also dic­tate indi­vid­u­al behav­ioral changes that are more envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly?

Well, car­bon fee and div­i­dend will encour­age and pro­mote mil­lions of indi­vid­u­al deci­sions. When I decide to buy a car, if I can see that the price of gaso­line is sched­uled to go up about 10 cents per gal­lon auto­mat­i­cal­ly over the next ten years, then I’m prob­a­bly going to buy a car that uses less gaso­line. And when I see heat­ing, my gas, and my elec­tric­i­ty bills going up and I can read the paper that says that they are going to go up every year, then I might put insu­la­tion in my attic that I have post­poned for some amount of years. And gaso­line goes up in price, I will make a deci­sion whether I need to make that trip or can I com­bine the trips? So, in oth­er words, it’s going to affect mil­lions of per­son­al deci­sions.

So you think once car­bon fee and div­i­dend pol­i­cy pass­es, peo­ple will adapt and will con­se­quen­tial­ly become more and more envi­ron­men­tal­ly con­scious?

Yes, and I mean I don’t know if it is envi­ron­men­tal­ly con­scious or eco­nom­i­cal­ly con­scious.

They will become eco­nom­i­cal­ly con­scious and so friend­lier towards the envi­ron­ment. Makes sense.

Yeah. What I want­ed to do was to put this thing in place and I think if we don’t get this then I don’t see anoth­er pol­i­cy that’s as good. Now let me tell you this, let me put this on the table: if some­body shows me, and the orga­ni­za­tion, a bet­ter solu­tion, then we are going to switch, just like we switched from car­bon cap and trade to car­bon fee and div­i­dend. But so far, we have not seen a solu­tion that is any­where near as sim­ple and effec­tive as car­bon fee and div­i­dend.

How did you come up with the idea for Citizen’s Cli­mate Lob­by?

I had lob­bied for a dozen years with an orga­ni­za­tion called RESULTS. We were cit­i­zens, vol­un­teers, and we were deeply con­cerned about hunger across the world. I was deeply con­cerned about pover­ty, deeply con­cerned about the dis­eases of the poor, AIDS, tuber­cu­lo­sis, malar­ia, and lack of basic edu­ca­tion.

And anoth­er big con­cern was the lack of access to cred­it. Our econ­o­my func­tions on cred­it, and so, a gen­tle­man by the name of Sam Daley-Har­ris, had found­ed RESULTS, and he talked about a thou­sand of us, a thou­sand vol­un­teers, to lob­by our mem­bers of Con­gress, and lob­by the media: lob­by the media to sup­port the mem­bers of Con­gress. And we got some extra­or­di­nary leg­is­la­tion to pass that no one would have thought pos­si­ble at that time. It was fund­ing for AIDS, tuber­cu­lo­sis, and malar­ia. At a time when the over­all for­eign aid bud­get was falling, we got this cat­e­go­ry, the Child Sur­vival and Dis­eases Account, but there was more to it than that as well. We got the human­i­tar­i­an part of the for­eign aid bud­get going up, in the time of the Rea­gan pres­i­den­cy and the Bush pres­i­den­cy fol­low­ing. RESULTS was work­ing with a lot of peo­ple, a lot of oth­er orga­ni­za­tions, but I think we were the most impor­tant.

Pre­ventable child deaths fell from about 43,000 a day when we start­ed, to what it is now, about 17,000 a day, need­less child deaths. So, that’s where I learned to lob­by the Con­gress and the media, and under­stood this idea about orga­niz­ing peo­ple into groups of five to 20 or 25 in dif­fer­ent Con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts and in dif­fer­ent cities.

When you launched Citizen’s Cli­mate Lob­by, was it easy to get oth­er peo­ple to fol­low you?

In the very begin­ning I called about 100 or 120 peo­ple, and invit­ed them to come to the pub­lic library to hear this plan about form­ing this cit­i­zens’ lob­by [on cli­mate]. And out of about 120 peo­ple, 29 showed up, and we talked for three hours about the cli­mate and about cit­i­zen lob­by­ing, and just about every­body in the room want­ed to par­tic­i­pate. So, that was a big sur­prise to me.

Now, we have been dou­bling in size every year since about 2007 or 2008. We have been dou­bling in size – so while we would like to have vol­un­teers in the sev­er­al mil­lions, we have around 17,000 sup­port­ers: peo­ple who say they want to sup­port us and have gone to the web­site and so forth.

But I think there are about 3,500 – that is a loose num­ber because we real­ly don’t know – 3,500 active vol­un­teers who are meet­ing with their mem­bers of Con­gress, meet­ing with edi­to­ri­al boards, and putting on out­reach events, and so forth.

What were some of the dif­fi­cul­ties in launch­ing the orga­ni­za­tion?

The dif­fi­cul­ties? Well, it was the dif­fi­cul­ty was that we did not have any his­to­ry (laughs). And peo­ple didn’t know whether to believe me or whether I was gonna be a flash in a pan, as they say, and then go away. And so, peo­ple were reluc­tant to in the very begin­ning of giv­ing their time, and cer­tain­ly their mon­ey.

Who came up with the idea for a car­bon fee and div­i­dend sys­tem – was it easy to design or if did it take a long time to think about and to draft?

When I start­ed, we had three lob­by teams in the begin­ning. I went up to Seat­tle and I talked to, again, about 30 peo­ple, and we got three lob­by teams there, and then we got one more, in Port­land. So I called the big green orga­ni­za­tions – Envi­ron­men­tal Defense Fund, NRDC, and Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists, and I said, ‘we are new on the block, and we want to lob­by for a sta­ble cli­mate, so what do we do?’

And at that time, the cap and trade bill [the Wax­man-Markey bill] was doing well and it was well under­way, so we start­ed lob­by­ing for cap and trade, and we lob­bied there­fore a year and a half, I think…maybe just a year. And then, lat­er, some­body men­tioned to me off­sets, and I thought what are off­sets? Well, when that got explained to me, I imme­di­ate­ly thought this is not going to work.

It did not take a genius to see the simplicity and effectiveness of putting a tax on carbon dioxide, and then taking all that money and sending it to households.”

I’d had trou­ble enough in poor coun­tries of the world to fore­see the cor­rup­tion and the lack of civic orga­ni­za­tion and respon­si­bil­i­ty [for off­sets]. So I thought imme­di­ate­ly that this off­set thing was not going to work. About that time, I met a guy in Mass­a­chu­setts on the phone, Tom Stokes, and he has a bud­dy in New York City, whose name is Charles Komanoff.

Char­lie has an orga­ni­za­tion called the Car­bon Tax Cen­ter.

I was talk­ing to Tom about my con­cern about cap and trade and he said, “Well you ought to know about car­bon fee and div­i­dend.” He said, “We are going to have a hear­ing on it in the Capi­tol build­ing.” Now, this is 2009 still – “We are going to have a hear­ing on it, and I’d like you to come over. It is going to be crowd­ed, but you just enter and get a seat.”

I went over to lis­ten to him and there was James Hansen, and there was Char­lie Komanoff from New York City. James Hansen spent a con­sid­er­able amount of time at Columbia Uni­ver­si­ty in New York [Hansen, retired from direct­ing NASA/GISS, which is adja­cent to the Columbia cam­pus, is now an adjunct pro­fes­sor at the uni­ver­si­ty]. And there was a guy named John Lar­son, who was a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from Con­necti­cut, and a cou­ple of econ­o­mists, Bob Shapiro and Gilbert Met­calf. All the­se guys were on a pan­el, and they explained car­bon fee and div­i­dend. And it just took me a min­ute to say, that’s the way to go.

100 years ago, I had a bachelor’s degree in eco­nom­ics, but it did not take any eco­nom­ic genius to see the sim­plic­i­ty, and the trans­paren­cy, and the poten­tial effec­tive­ness of putting a tax on car­bon diox­ide, and an extrac­tion tax when it comes out of the ground, and then tak­ing all that mon­ey and send­ing it to house­holds. And what peo­ple would do is go out and spend it and make the econ­o­my go. So, you know, it did not take me any time at all to see that yeah this would work. And the oth­er thing, that cap and trade is not going to work. And so, I told all the sev­en groups about it, and…we lost half our mem­bers right there.

But then we began to build again. I hired an exec­u­tive direc­tor, his name is Mark Reynolds, and I had known him for a long time, 20 years at that point, and I knew that he would be the guy to run the orga­ni­za­tion. And so, Mark is the exec­u­tive direc­tor, and he is just every bit as good as I thought he would be.

If fee and div­i­dend becomes law across the nation, ordi­nary peo­ple liv­ing in car-free New York City might come out ahead by receiv­ing div­i­dends, while peo­ple in oth­er regions, who do a lot of dri­ving every­day, could pay a high­er pro­por­tion in car­bon fees. Do you think the­se region­al dif­fer­ences would be a sen­si­tive issue in pass­ing the pol­i­cy? And how do you think that could be addressed?

So, rural ver­sus city right? Right. Well, we were wor­ried about that too, and so we had a study done, for which we paid a pret­ty pen­ny. The study divid­ed the coun­try into nine regions, and it was an eco­nom­ic pro­jec­tion by a com­pa­ny called REMI, Region­al Eco­nom­ic Mod­els Inc.

Fee and dividend is a solution where the market finds the answer to the problem of climate change.”

They broke the coun­try into nine regions and com­pared what would hap­pen to rural and more urban­ized sec­tions of the coun­try. And we found out that eight out of the nine regions would do bet­ter eco­nom­i­cal­ly. Eight of the nine regions would do bet­ter.

The ninth region, which was Tex­as, Okla­homa, and Louisiana, would not be doing worse, they would be flat. It would be like noth­ing had hap­pened in that region to affect the econ­o­my.

We had anoth­er study done to see if farm­ers would fare worse than city dwellers. Peo­ple thought auto­mat­i­cal­ly that farm­ers had to trav­el more, to go into the city, and get what­ev­er, and their roads are longer, and they just use more indi­vid­u­al trans­porta­tion, dri­ving their trucks and trail­ers and so forth. What we found out again was a sur­prise because most of the increase in prices was not in the trans­porta­tion fuels, but it was in the stuff that all the peo­ple buy, and all the trans­porta­tion and ingre­di­ents that go in the stuff that peo­ple buy, and the farm­ers buy less stuff than urban­ized peo­ple.

So it bal­ances out?

Yes, it pret­ty much bal­ances out. But if any­thing the farm­ers come out a lit­tle bet­ter, because they don’t buy so much stuff, stuff that they prob­a­bly don’t need, you know?

REMI is not par­ti­san, they start­ed at MIT, and they have been a for-prof­it com­pa­ny for 30 years, doing stud­ies for hos­pi­tals, uni­ver­si­ties, cities, and states even, and a big account­ing firm, too. So, they are not like the so-called think-tank that has a point to prove.

When did you first become wor­ried about cli­mate change, at a time when many of your neigh­bors might not have been?

Well, first of all, most of my neigh­bors are at the present moment not inter­est­ed or wor­ried. I live in a lit­tle town called Coro­n­ado, Cal­i­for­nia, and it’s a con­ser­v­a­tive town, peo­ple here do not want to talk about cli­mate change, do not want to acknowl­edge it. And of course there are some that do, but the vast major­i­ty do not.

I first became wor­ried because I spent almost 20 years in micro-cred­its, mak­ing the­se tiny lit­tle self-employ­ment busi­ness loans to very poor wom­en and to very poor coun­tries. I would trav­el to coun­tries like Hon­duras and Mex­i­co, Nicaragua, Peru, and Ecuador, and I’d see rivers and creek beds that were dry. I was work­ing with Rotary Clubs in those coun­tries, and those gen­tle­men would tell me that in their life­times, those creeks and rivers had dried up. In their ear­lier years those rivers and creeks flowed.

There was one par­tic­u­lar stream in Tegu­ci­gal­pa, Hon­duras that used to wind through the city, full all year-round accord­ing to my Rotary friends, and now has a lay­er at the bot­tom of trash and no water. I guess when it rains it prob­a­bly acts as a drainage ditch. 

I saw the­se phe­nom­e­na in Lat­in Amer­i­ca, in the back coun­try, and I came home to Tex­as, to the house that I had been born to, and there was a creek that ran through the back­yard of my par­ents’ home, and it was dry. It had flowed for a long long time, and you could tell because there was so much life in the creek. Min­nows, and craw­fish, snakes, tad­poles, drag­on­flies, min­nows, and per­ch, all the­se things that take a long time to devel­op. And the creek was dry and all the life in it was dead. 

My father and I had dug out a lily pond and we had grown water lilies. When I was a child, my sis­ters and I, twice a year, would go out to the lily pond in win­ter time and walk on the ice and it was very excit­ing, you know, to walk on this lily pond and not get wet or fall through the ice. I knocked on the door of the wom­an that my par­ents sold the house to. I asked the lady when it was the last time that the pool had ice over it and she said “1983.” It had not frozen over since 1983, while we would expe­ri­ence it twice a year. 

I went to see An Incon­ve­nient Truth, and, you know, it all came crash­ing down on me. That was in 2006. I saw the movie three times in two weeks. I was…I was just over­whelmed by what I saw. A friend of mine, gave me the book that the movie was based on, An Incon­ve­nient Truth, and so I stud­ied that, and then…okay, let me stop right there, that’s the begin­ning of it.

Do you think that, because it grows the econ­o­my and doesn’t involve the gov­ern­ment that much, Repub­li­cans would actu­al­ly be will­ing to pass a car­bon fee and div­i­dend pol­i­cy? Or do you see con­flicts, because many of them have spe­cial inter­ests with oil com­pa­nies? 

It is sink­ing in with every­body this this some­thing very impor­tant and it has to be done. Repub­li­cans under­stand that, Democ­rats, I don’t care who you are, peo­ple are under­stand­ing that. Now, we need some lead­er­ship by Repub­li­cans. And so, as the last op-ed by Mark Reynolds says, it was a sur­prise to find out how much the Repub­li­can side is con­cerned about this.

I read the op-ed, it was real­ly sur­pris­ing. In a good way.

Yes, and we were sur­prised too. So many mem­bers of con­gress want to do some­thing, and yet, they are afraid to lead. The only thing that I can com­pare it to was the vote on the end of the slave trade in 1807, in Eng­land. I think one year [pri­or], there was a lop­sid­ed vote that said that the slave trade would con­tin­ue. And the next year there was a lop­sid­ed vote that the slave trade should end.

There was a flip-flop of Par­lia­ment, in only one year. The pre­vi­ous year they were afraid to do it, and a year lat­er, every­body want­ed to do it. I think that’s where we are right now.

(The abo­li­tion votes in British Par­lia­ment are described here and here; the ini­tial, unsuc­cess­ful vote was in 1805. There is more detail on abo­li­tion here, explain­ing the con­text of the vote: “In 1807 it was wide­ly accept­ed that opin­ion had flowed upwards, not down­wards. In the words of the Edin­burgh Review, ‘the sense of the nation has pressed abo­li­tion upon our rulers’.” — ed.)

Propos­ing solu­tions, as you are doing, can help them come around.

Yes, and as you know, it is a solu­tion where the mar­ket finds a solu­tion, or the answer to the prob­lem.

There’s zero reg­u­la­tion in [fee and div­i­dend]. All we want to do is to make the price of car­bon an hon­est price, so that it reflects the dam­age it does to the Earth.

How some­body puts a price on a species of ani­mal or a species of veg­e­ta­tion or the acid­i­ty of the ocean, how some­body puts a price on all that is beyond me. I think it’s price­less, the Earth is price­less.

Volunteers for Citizen's Climate Lobby at capitol, June 2014. (Courtesy CCL)

Vol­un­teers for Citizen’s Cli­mate Lob­by at Capi­tol, June 2014. (Pho­to cour­tesy CCL)