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)